Habs / Rangers Gameday. Update: Plekanec Negotiations dead

Update from Prax: Check out the comments for the Plekanec contract story.

It's an interesting week for Habs fans. For the first time in as long as most of us can remember, the Canadiens have a light schedule on the ice. After facing the Rangers tonight at Madison Square Garden, they will get 3 days off before heading to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs.

Despite this light schedule, it couldn't be a more important week for the Canadiens. Tonight's game against the Rangers might be the most important game of the season. The way things currently stand, the Rangers sit 5 points behind the Canadiens with only a single game in hand, thanks to an 2-2-2 record over their last 6 games. While the Rangers will retain that game in hand until April, the Canadiens have a chance to go up 7 points on the Rags, putting their playoff chances at Over 93% and putting the Rangers out of reach.

The last time the Canadiens had an opportunity like this was over a month ago, when they faced the Philadelphia Flyers in a home and home series right before the Olympic Break. Unfortunately, they ruined that opportunity by losing both games, the first by a score of 3-2 in Philly and the second by the embarrassing score of 6-2 in Montreal.

With tonight's game, not only can they essentially kill the Rangers chances of catching them in 7th place, but they can jump ahead of the Flyers and into 6th place. The Flyers play Nashville tonight and still have two games in hand, but are looking at five of their next seven games on the road, and they haven't exactly been the most consistent team since the Olympic Break ended.

Finally, the Canadiens can also come to within one point of the 5th place Senators, who are losers of 2 in a row and 5 in their last 6. They've been slipping fairly quickly after an incredible stretch of games before the Olmypics, and with 5 of their next on the road, where they've only won 44% of their games this season, things aren't going to get much easier for the Sens, no matter who they're facing.

After a roller-coaster season for Habs fans, destiny is finally back in the hands if this nearly healthy team. The Habs are 6-1-1 in their last eight since the end of the break, and winners of five in a row, and with Michael Cammalleri and Marc-Andre Bergeron close to returning from knee injuries, they're only going to get better. They are by no means a contender, but after an emotional first 60 games that saw injuries, centennial celebrations, bad play and good play, it's refreshing to be able to cheer for a team that finally knows how to win.

And with the chances of making the playoffs fairly high for the Canadiens, and the possibility to finish anywhere between 5th and 8th before the season is done, things will remain interesting well in April. New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington or Buffalo are any of the 4 teams the Canadiens could find themselves facing, and good chances at beating those teams in playoff series or not, Habs fans can at least take solace in their team's resurgence in recent games.

Before we can truly talk about the playoffs, however, the Canadiens have a game to focus on.

Jaroslav Halak will make his sixth start in a row, having won every one of the previous five games. Admittedly, Halak didn't look so great against the Lightning or Oilers last week, and his 3-2 win over the Bruins on Saturday wasn't exactly the toughest game of his career, but Jacques Martin will stick by his ''win and your in'' philosophy-of-the-month and play Halak until he loses. Tonight will, however, be a test for Halak, who is 1-3-0 with a 4.11 GAA at Madison Square Garden in his career. This will mark the longest stretch of games of Carey Price's young career without a start, but the Canadiens are doing what they have to do.

Habs fans collectively held their breaths yesterday when news broke that Tomas Plekanec left practice with an undisclosed injury and the Habs subsequently called up Ben Maxwel, but Plekanec was the first player on the ice for today's 11AM practice. He remains a game-time decision. Plekanec is the Canadiens leading scorer with 64 points (20 goals, 44 assists, +6), and has yet to miss a single game. While his absence may only motivate someone like Scott Gomez, who is second to Plekanec with 12 goals, 38 assists for 50 points in 66 games, losing a top two center in this stretch, even for a game, will be a big blow to the Canadiens.

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SCOREBOARD WATCHING

One thing Habs fans will be doing this week, with three days off between tonight's game and Saturday's in Toronto, will be watching the out of town scoreboard. This week will be key for the Canadiens and their playoff chances. Here are a few games that you may definitely want to keep an eye on over the next few days:

TONIGHT: Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Boston at Carolina, 7PM
Buffalo at Atlanta, 7PM
Phoenix at Tampa Bay, 7:30
Washington at Florida, 7:30
Toronto at Ottawa, 7:30
New York Islanders at Vancouver, 10PM

Thursday, March 18, 2010
St. Louis at New York, 7PM
Ottawa at Atlanta, 7PM
Pittsburgh at Boston, 7PM
Buffalo at Tampa Bay, 7:30
Phoenix at Florida, 7:30

Friday, March 19, 2010
New York Islanders at Anaheim, 10PM

Saturday, March 20, 2010
Ottawa at Dallas, 2PM
Philadelphia at Atlanta, 7PM
Buffalo at Florida, 7PM
Washington at Tampa Bay, 7:30
Phoenix at Florida, 7:30
New York Islanders at Los Angeles, 10:30

Sunday, March 21, 2010
New York Rangers at Boston, 12:30
Tampa Bay at Florida, 5PM
Atlanta at Philadelphia, 7PM

For all intents and purposes, the playoff race, save for the positioning between #5 and #8, could be done on or before Sunday. With a little luck, the Canadiens and their fans can breathe a sigh of relief, but it's going to take extending their win streak, first tonight to 6 games against the Rangers, and Saturday to 7 against the Maple Leafs.

Enjoy tonight's game, and keep an eye on that scoreboard!

Prax
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