Who Are the Ideal Round One Opponents for the Montreal Canadiens?
Well, that was a little more pleasant than the week before. After getting embarrassed with three straight shutouts two weeks ago, the Montreal Canadiens finally managed to get a few into the opposition's net, winning 3-1 against the Thrashers on Tuesday, before falling to the Canes in another embarrassing loss, 6-2 in Carolina the next night. They would close out the week with a good 3-1 victory in New Jersey to end the amazing playoff hunt for Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils.
Despite going 2-1 over the course of the week, in none of the three games played were the Canadiens overly impressive. Tuesday's win versus Atlanta could have been very ugly if it wasn't for - who would have thunk it - stellar goaltending from Carey Price and truly opportune - dare I say lucky - goalscoring from Roman Hamrlik and Mathieu Darche eleven seconds apart in the first. In fact, if it wasn't for a couple of gaffs from a struggling Ondrej Pavelec, that game WOULD have probably been very ugly for the Habs. Thankfully, they managed to scrounge two points they desperately needed.
Remember all that stuff about Tuesday's game possibly turning out to be very ugly if it wasn't for lady luck being on the side of the Habs? Ya, well all that ugly stuff happened next night in Carolina. After finally scoring the goals that had eluded them for an entire week, the Canadiens went right back to just simply not showing up. Mike Cammalleri and PK Subban, the two goalscorers, along with Carey Price, of course, who was unfortunately pulled from a game yet again, and Tomas Plekanec and James Wisniewski, with two assists each, were among the few to actually realize there was a game going on. The end result, an embarrassing 6-2 loss to a team they desperately needed to keep two points from, a team that's chasing them down in the standings. Jamie McBain and Jeff Skinner, two Calder Trophy candidates, along with Subban, each scored two goals in the game.
The Canadiens would inexplicably have a day off on Thursday, before flying to New Jersey on Friday, but whatever Jacques Martin didn't do seemed to work, as the end result would be a solid 3-1 victory for the Canadiens on Saturday night, against a team whose backs were up against a wall and who have had the Canadiens' number for the better part of a decade now. PK Subban would another, his 13th, and Mathieu Darche, with the help of Brian Gionta, would literally score the same goal twice to lock up a Canadiens victory, but Ilya Kovalchuk would ruin another shutout bid for Price with only six minutes to go in the game.
Again, it wasn't a perfect performance, but the one thing the Canadiens seemed to do this week was improve. Tuesday's and Wednesday's performances may have had polar opposite results, but in my opinion they were very similar, but at leas they scored a few goals. Saturday's game may not have been entirely convincing for a team heading into the playoffs in no less than a week, but again, it was one that likely built a lot of confidence. Not only did they finally manage to defeat the pesky Devils, but they also had the luxury of eliminating them from the playoffs, something that I'm sure everyone on the team enjoyed, especially former Devils like Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, who each player a part in the victory.
But there is still a lot of work left to be done for the Habs, as they head into the home stretch of three games and look around the corner to the playoffs.
For starters, they still have a playoff spot left to clinch. The Toronto Maple Leafs, while still in contention by a point, are no longer a threat to the Canadiens, making Saturday's season closer less meaningful, whether they win their next two games or not. The real threat is the Carolina Hurricanes. If they win out, they'll have 93 points, enough to pass the Canadiens if they decide to go on another losing streak. They have a tough schedule, however, with Detroit on Tuesday, followed by a Southeast division back-to-back on the weekend, with Atlanta on Friday and Tampa Bay on Saturday. Needless to say, it's unlikely that the Canadiens are in trouble, but it would be reassuring to the fans, and to the organization, if they could finally find it in them to string together two good performances with a win tomorrow night.
Easier said than done of course, as waiting for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre tomorrow night will be the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, a tough team to play any night. It will be the last game at the Bell Centre until game three of whatever playoff series the Canadiens draw. The Canadiens then face a spoiler team in Ottawa on Thursday, before closing out the season against the aforementioned Leafs on Saturday.
Three games are all that's left for the Canadiens to get their act together. They haven't looked overly impressive in a while now, and it's really frightening to see a team flirt with such epic failure this far into the season. The coach shouldn't have to bag skate his team at the 76 game mark. He shouldn't have to overplay his only consistent player - Carey Price - at a time where he should be resting for the playoffs. The Habs should be honing their skills, putting together plays and strategies for their various opponents. Instead, their treading water, fighting for every last breath, every point in the standings.
Three games before the Canadiens find out whether they'll play any of five different opponents in round one. And frankly, I don't think Habs fans are looking forward to playing any single one of them. While we should probably be taking this one game at a time, it would be interesting to look at each of the five teams the Canadiens could find themselves facing in the first round:
The most likely opponent are the Boston Bruins, as the two rivals have been staring each other down in the standings for the better part of the season now. The Bruins will most likely finish 3rd, while the Canadiens haven't budged from 6th spot in a while now. With everything that's happened between these two teams this season, from blowouts to beatdowns and the infamous Pacioretty hit, it seems very likely that these teams are destined for another playoff match. And while the odds and history will be on the Canadiens side, I'm uncertain whether history will repeat itself again. The Bruins are seemingly unstoppable now, and while they have traded embarrassing losses and victories with the Habs all year, home ice will clearly be an advantage for the Bruins, as well physicality and even skill. Nothing beats a Habs-Bruins playoff match, and it will be extra special this year, with all the animosity between the two teams, but I doubt a single fan, or even the players, can honestly say they'd be confident heading into a series with Boston.
Aside from the Bruins, the Habs are also looking at potential rematches against the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins, and neither are very appealing. The Capitals have really altered their style of play since they were embarrassed by the Canadiens in the first round last year, playing better defensively and better as a group, versus a group of individuals. If the Habs have to face the Caps again this year, they WILL NOT beat them. Bruce Boudreau will make certain of that.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have managed another 100 point season. No big deal, right? They're the Pens, after all! Well, keep in mind that they've done it without Evgeni Malkin. And, oh ya, Sidney Crosby. I've kept away from speculating about Crosby's season following a bad concussion in January, but you'd have to think that if any series was a good chance to test Crosby post-concussion, it would be against the non-physical Habs. And once again, the Pens are another team that likely WON'T let themselves be embarrassed by the Habs two years in a row.
Looking a little further down the line, we find the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's unlikely that the Bolts will be able to make up the four points separating them and the Caps for the southeast title, but if everything fell into place and the Habs were to face the Bolts in the first round, it actually wouldn't be so bad for Montreal. The Habs have managed to stay competitive against Tampa this season, and while there are plenty of reason to pick the team to the south in this one, including the league's best goalscorer, a young coach who used to be part of the organization, and a plethora of talent from Quebec and Montreal, you'd have to think that the Habs would be motivated for the exact same reasons.
The Canadiens could also face the Philadelphia Flyers. Once a scary thought for any Habs fan - as recently as last year's playoffs, frankly - a Habs-Flyers series may actually be favorable for the Canadiens this year. The Flyers are currently 12 points ahead of the Habs in the standing, but frankly, it should have been a lot more based on how the Flyers had been playing for most of the season. But since the loss of Chris Pronger to a hand injury, the Flyers have struggled mightily with inconsistency. They've only won three of their last ten, and they were an unspectacular 6-5-4 in March. Ian Laperriere is done for the season with post-concussion syndrome. Oskars Bartulis is likely done as well with shoulder surgery, Jody Shelley is out for 4-to-6 weeks with orbital bone surgery, and there doesn't seem to be a timetable for Pronger's return. Blair Betts and Danny Briere are likely to miss time this week. The Flyers are in bad shape, and no one seems to be realize this. They could be lining themselves up for a major disappointment in round one. Then again, they could also be lining themselves up for a major rebound.
I hate to sound like a Debbie Downer, as a fellow TCL contributor called me on twitter this morning, but you can't blame a guy for not exactly feeling confident about the Montreal Canadiens right now. We've been through the size issues, we've been through the depth issues, the motivation issues, the coaching issues, the goalscoring issues, the defensive issues. We all know what's wrong with this team, but unfortunately, there's little they can do to change anything drastically for the better at this point. The coach isn't going anywhere. The trade deadline has come and gone, and the prospect pool from Hamilton has been bled dry. Whatever improvements the Canadiens are going to make, they're going to have to make them internally. And by internally, I mean between their heads.
Is there a possibility that the Habs will put it together and surprise a team or two for a second year running in the playoffs? Possibly. But most of the time, lightning doesn't strike twice. And whether the teams ahead of them are struggling or playing out of their minds, any first round victory for the Canadiens is once again a long shot - which is, and has been, of course, the inherent problem with this team all season. It shouldn't have to be this way.
Nevertheless, of the five teams mentioned above that the Habs could be facing in a weeks time... three have been beaten recently, the fourth is a relative dark horse despite a good season, and the fifth, well, they may be due for a loss at the hands of the Canadiens. And if I had to choose one, I'd likely go with the one the Canadiens haven't faced in a while, but also the team they're least likely to face - the Tampa Bay Lightning. Otherwise, I actually wouldn't mind seeing them try their hand at the Flyers.
So, you never know. And that is why we must keep hope. But first, the Canadiens have three games that are likely going to be tougher than expected to play, and it all starts tomorrow against the Hawks.
Who do you want the Canadiens to face next week in the first round of the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below!