Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher looking to beat Pittsburgh Penguin Tomas Vokoun.
The Montreal Canadiens are currently in a three-way race for first place in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. Yes, it looks just as odd in writing as it sounds when one says it aloud these days.
There’s just no getting around the fact that the Habs have been good this year. The mere fact that one can make that simple statement past the halfway mark of the season points to an overwhelmingly successful one, regardless of how the final 19 games of the year go.
The court of public opinion might say something different should the Habs lose each and every one of those and then miss the playoffs by the skin of their collective teeth, but happy thoughts, people. Happy thoughts, like: What if Montreal was to actually win the conference this year?
For you skeptics out there, here are the advantages Montreal has over each top contender that could theoretically make it happen:
It’s kind of funny to find a team that’s worse off on the injury front than the Habs, who are missing a top-six forward in Rene Bourque, a top-four defenseman in Raphael Diaz and a heart-and-soul type in Brandon Prust, but I’m sure Ottawa Senators' owner Eugene Melnyk and company aren’t laughing that hard these days.
They might be wearing cautious smiles, though, as the Senators, on the strength of Paul MacLean’s coaching, (what else could it be? Kyle Turris’ team-leading eight goals?) find themselves in a relatively comfortable position in the middle of the pack, jockeying for playoff position.
This despite the losses of their number-one center (Jason Spezza), their number-one defenseman (Erik Karlsson) and their number-one goalie (Craig Anderson).
It’s gotten so bad that Colin Greening is the team’s top-scoring left-winger and, no, not because he’s having a career season. Most everyone else is just—incredibly—worse at putting up points than he is.
Indeed, Ottawa is generally finding it hard to put the puck in the net and are winning on the strength of their defense, if a defensive corps made up of the likes of Andre Benoit, Dave Dziurzynski, Mark Borowiecki and Mike Lundin can be considered strong (oh, and Lundin is injured too, fyi).
No offense to Greening (and those other guys), but he’s just no Guillaume Latendresse (who, himself, just got back from an injury). And Guillaume Latendresse? He’s no Milan Michalek (who recently re-aggravated a knee injury). And Milan Michalek? He’s no Dany Heatley in his prime.
What? Too soon?
The point is, despite the great young prospects in their system, on a good day, Ottawa would have a hard time rolling as many lines as the Habs are currently. And these days are far from good, health-wise, in the Senators’ locker room.
Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel is quietly leading his team to a winning season.
The Winnipeg Jets are currently in a two-way race for first place in the Southeast Division, which is even weirder than the Habs being in a race for first place overall. What’s weirdest? That’s not even because the Jets used to be the Atlanta Thrashers.
The realignment plan for next year aside, Winnipeg has indeed picked up the point-getting pace recently and against all odds, currently finds itself in a playoff position.
Not only are the Jets a western team playing in the Eastern Conference, they’re forced to travel out of the Great White North to below the Sunbelt just to play games within their division.
What’s worse? Know how each team gets to play two different divisional opponents five times (and the other two four times) this season? And, of those two five-game season series, one comprises three home games and the other just two? Well, Winnipeg somehow got scheduled to play the southernmost Florida Panthers three times on the road this year.
Granted, playing Florida makes up for the fact that the Jets have to travel to, well, Florida, but you see my point.
Needless to say, the Jets will be in tough the rest of way compared to the Habs, with the farthest Montreal has to travel in the last month and a half of the season being to, well, Winnipeg actually.
Oh, yeah, and, due to injuries, Winnipeg has little more than a subpar defensive corps made up of no-name players (and Dustin Byfuglien, whose name is just hard to sound out).
In Carolina, Eric Staal is leading the way for the relatively successful Hurricanes. It might be a bit of an enigma, seeing as he’s just 28, but Staal is playing like the Eric Staal of old, when he put up 100 points in his sophomore season.
Paired with Alexander Semin, who’s playing like, well, any other one-time 40-goal scorer not named Alexander Semin (not to mention like a playmaker as well), Staal is indeed averaging more than a point per game for just the second time in his career.
Meanwhile, Jiri Tlusty is finally living up to the kind of potential that made the Toronto Maple Leafs want to get rid of him in the first place. Don’t know why, but they just tend to do stuff like that over there. Is now a bad time to bring up that the pick used to draft Roberto Luongo was originally Toronto’s?
Back in Carolina, add in Jordan Staal, Jeffrey Skinner and a lot of additionally secondary scoring and the Hurricanes are nearly matching the Montreal Canadiens’ output of three goals per game blow for blow.
They’ve also just given up several more goals on the season thanks to an overall young and up-and-coming defense corps. It’s, however, the type of goals that they’re giving up that is the problem. See the above video for further elaboration.
Number-one goalie Cam Ward will likely be out the rest of the season, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering he’s essentially made his career living off the success of a single playoff run from nearly a decade ago.
However, when you’ve made it clear you’ll be riding Dan Ellis and Justin Peters in his absence, it kind of makes one wonder how long it will be until the wheels to the bandwagon fall off.
Ellis has proven himself to be a decent spot starter in his career, but nothing more. Meanwhile, up until a decent 2-1-2 stretch in relief last season, all Peters was known for was being the better Justin in net in the Hurricanes organization relative to Justin Pogge (a distinction requiring only that your name be Justin).
This may be an opportunity for both goalies to step up, but more likely it will be the reason the Hurricanes come crashing down.
Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby (left) tries to outplay Montreal Canadien Carey Price.
On paper, the Montreal Canadiens actually match up pretty well with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For example, Pittsburgh has Kris Letang (when healthy) and Brooks Orpik on defense. Montreal has slight downgrades in P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin.
Pittsburgh has Dan Bylsma behind the bench. Montreal has the guy Pittsburgh fired to hire Dan Bylsma.
Pittsburgh has Chris Kunitz who’s scored 18 goals playing with Sidney Crosby right now. Montreal has Colby Armstrong who used to play with Sidney Crosby five years ago and now has two goals in his last two games. Clearly, one of these guys doesn't need a certain someone to put points on the board.
And Pittsburgh, of course, has Crosby himself. Montreal has, well, been holding out hope that Crosby will jump at the chance to play for his boyhood-favorite Montreal Canadiens once his contract finally runs out at the end of this season (shhh…).
The truth is Montreal, in theory, has a deeper lineup than Pittsburgh and can roll three different lines on any given night.
In reality, though, Pittsburgh’s depth up the middle, even with the loss of Jordan Staal, is a bit too overwhelming to seriously consider that a legitimate advantage, especially when all Bylsma needs to do is send Crosby out on the ice with whomever, resulting in yet another makeshift number-one line.
As such, the Habs, despite being able to skate with the Pens on any given night, really only have one advantage (aside from the obvious two games in hand): Pittsburgh has Marc-Andre Fleury in net and Montreal has Carey Price.
Sure, Fleury has one Stanley Cup to his credit, but he also has Crosby. Just watch Price win five in the same amount of time once Crosby signs with the Habs…be quiet you.
Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher gets checked by Boston Bruin Andrew Ference.
Comparing the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens reveals a very disturbing trend. The Bruins have got size to their advantage, better coaching, better goaltending, better defense and for all intents and purposes, the same amount of scoring depth as Montreal.
The only advantage Montreal has is on the power play (20 percent vs. 15.8 percent), and while that’s a significant difference, all comparing each side’s special teams does is open the Habs up to more unjustified criticism—yes, they do draw a lot more penalties (and of course, the fact that Boston has the way better penalty kill at 92.2 percent).
Really, all things remaining equal, there is no reason why the Bruins can’t win the Northeast Division this season over the Habs. I mean, they even have one game in hand and yet, still have fewer sets of back-to-backs the rest of the season for crying out loud.
As such, what possible advantage could the Habs possibly have over their longtime rivals? Well, for lack of a concrete argument, how about a few intangibles? Namely the fact that, despite Boston’s best efforts, the Bruins have been unable to shake the Habs so far this season and in fact, trail them in the standings.
This with, really, just over a handful of games left in the season and two specific dates to keep in mind: Wednesday, March 27 and Saturday, April 6.
Those two head-to-head matchups could conceivably go either way, but the simple truth is all Montreal needs to do from here on out is keep on winning, and they’ll secure themselves of the Northeast division for the first time since 2008—everyone remembers how that season ended for the Bruins: not well.
Admittedly, no, it didn’t end so hot for the Habs either (unless you count the burning cars resulting from the riot after that first round), but in the Habs’ defense: The Philadelphia Flyers probably won’t make the playoffs this year.
Maybe not the best defense out there as to why a team led by Alex Kovalev didn’t win it all, but the Flyer’s inability to string two wins (or saves) together does make it more possible—however slightly—that Montreal does just that this year, and then, yes…celebrates with another riot.