Montreal Canadiens' Keys to Getting Home Ice in the Playoffs

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIApril 8, 2013

Montreal Canadiens' Keys to Getting Home Ice in the Playoffs

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    If you’ve followed the Montreal Canadiens pretty much ever since the team’s last Stanley Cup, you’ll be immediately familiar with one key tradition that comes around like clockwork just about every spring, and no, it’s not the playoffs. It’s waiting until the last weekend of the season to see if the team will even make them.

    Clearly, this season is different, and instead of waiting to see if the Habs will make the playoffs, fans will be waiting to see if Montreal has secured home ice for the first round if not beyond.

    Montreal has had good seasons before (obviously, with 24 championship banners hanging in the rafters). The 2007-08 edition, a group that ended up placing first in the Eastern Conference and had seven different 50-point scorers, comes to mind, for example.

    However, even if the Habs don’t win the conference this season, it’s clear there’s something much more special about this year.

    For starters, whereas before Montreal had the Kostitsyn brothers, now the Habs have the two Gallys (Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher). And, while in 2008, the Habs had Mark Streit leading all blueliners in scoring, in 2013 there’s P.K. Subban, whom the Habs can actually play on defense. And, finally, while five years ago the Habs had Carey Price in net, right now they’ve got Carey Price not from five years ago. There’s just something special in the air is all I’m saying.

    Once again, it’s possible that it comes down to them and the Pittsburgh Penguins for first, but this year one just gets the sense that, even if they don’t get first, the Habs are good enough to eke this thing out without the Pens throwing the last game of the season to face the Ottawa Senators in the first round.

    Should that unfortunately not happen, here are five ways the Habs still at least earn home ice for the playoffs:

Keep Doing What They’re Doing

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    What’s most impressive about the Habs this year is that they have control of their own destiny, and it’s not just in regard to making the playoffs. They’ve pretty much already guaranteed themselves of that much with, incredibly, not one weekend, but three weeks left in the regular season.

    The ninth-place New Jersey Devils currently have 39 points in 39 games (Montreal has 55 in 38). If Jersey wins all nine of its remaining games, that will give the Devils 58 points. As such, Montreal needs just three more points to clinch a playoff berth (the Habs have way more regulation and overtime wins, the first tiebreaker).

    As a result, essentially, by this time next week, whether it be because Montreal has won a few games or the Devils have lost a couple, the Habs will have officially made the playoffs.

    Looking at the race for first place in the Northeast Division, again Montreal holds all the cards. Following Montreal’s victory over Boston on Saturday, the Bruins have one game in hand but are three points back, meaning as long as the Habs keep winning they’ll win the division.

    Similarly, while the Habs are three points back of the first-place Penguins, similarly with one game in hand, Montreal does play Pittsburgh one more time (April 17), meaning, again, all the Habs need to do is continue winning to win the conference.

    Even the Presidents’ Trophy is within reach, theoretically, with the Chicago Blackhawks having just five points more than Montreal. However, considering the last trophy-winning team to win the Stanley Cup was the 2008 Detroit Red Wings five years ago and only seven of 26 teams in the award’s history have done the same, it’s maybe not something of which the Habs want any part.

Consistency in Net

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    One thing this Habs team has in common with its 2008 counterparts is that it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on its goaltender to win.

    Of course, it would be nice for Carey Price to play like he has been recently instead of how he played in those 2008 playoffs.

    He admittedly did earn his one and only career series victory over the Bruins in a decisive and impressive Game 7 shutout. However, in that series, one can argue he’s the main reason it went seven games in the first place. And let’s not even discuss the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers.

    In any case, the point is the Habs have scored the third-most goals in the league up to this point and are averaging over three per game.

    The Habs don’t need Price to win the Vezina and Hart Trophies or anything like that. All the same, they don’t need him to suddenly lose his game, illogically assume his hair is next and focus on becoming an unofficial spokesperson for Propecia.

    If he can find a happy medium, the Habs will be good to go. Seeing as he currently holds a respectable .916 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average to go along with 19 wins, chances are good that he does.

Staying Healthy and Getting Healthier

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    Alexei Emelin hitting Bruin Milan Lucic on Saturday was painful on so many different levels.

    There was the sheer embarrassment of Emelin looking to upend the Bruin but instead bouncing off him. There was also the fact that either the knee-on-knee or the awkward fall resulted in a season-ending torn ligament.

    Finally, painful memories of Lucic bringing a premature end to the career of a certain other Canadiens defensive defenseman suddenly sprung to mind. Sure, Mike Komisarek is still “playing” in the conventional sense, but he hasn’t played well in years, ever since…well, you know.

    That first fight between the two of them occurred the same season (2008-09) Komisarek actually made the All-Star game. Ever since: nada.

    Coincidence? Probably, considering he was never an all-star-calibre defenseman to begin with and only made it because Montreal fans voted him in to the starting lineup. But, yeah, Lucic still pretty much ruined him for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    In fact, so much did the numerous blows to the head in this one fight irreparably damage Komisarek’s ability to process information and think in general, that he actually decided to fight Lucic two more times.

    In any case, losing Emelin hurts most because he leads the Habs in hits with 110 and is Montreal’s most physical player. The Hab with the next-highest number of hits is Brandon Prust with 68 (Francis Bouillon is right behind him with 67).

    Needless to say, Montreal can ill-afford another injury. Assuming Rene Bourque gets back soon, his size should thankfully offset the loss of Emelin’s in the lineup, while a healthy Raphael Diaz can take his spot on the blue line, adding some offensive punch as well.

The Four Ps: Continued Production from P.K., Pacioretty and Plekanec

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    P.K. Subban continues to prove his critics wrong, leading all defensemen in the league and the team as a whole in scoring with 10 goals and 22 assists. Meanwhile, Max Pacioretty’s impressive production has meanwhile held steady from last season when he scored 65 points in 79 games.

    And the Habs clearly dodged a bullet when Tomas Plekanec quickly recovered from a lower-body injury sustained against the Winnipeg Jets last week. His 28 points and ability to pivot the Habs' second line help cement Montreal’s balanced scoring attack, and his defensive contributions are all-important to the team’s continued success.

    Of course, it’s not just these guys that need to keep going, as everyone needs to do their part, but they are arguably the most important pieces on Montreal’s team this season and moving forward. If the wheels fall off each of their games, Montreal will undeniably have a hard time earning a top-four seed this year.

    Of note, Michael Ryder and his 18 points (10 goals) in 18 games as a Hab this season received a lot of consideration to be included on this slide, but truth be told it’s become kind of a given that he’s going to put points on the board no matter what, as that’s pretty much all he’s done since returning to Montreal.

    As such: clearly hardly worth mentioning. And there’s no “P” in his name, so…you know, kind of out of my hands.

Luck

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    A little luck never hurt anyone, and it would be incredibly naïve to assume Montreal got this far this season without at least some.

    No one’s saying another horrendous injury to a Pittsburgh Penguin or Boston Bruin similar in severity to the broken jaw that shelved Sidney Crosby is required, only that a bounce here and there goes the Habs’ way.

    I would even go as far as to think most every hockey fan outside Pittsburgh is hoping Crosby returns earlier than expected before the playoffs as he’s just plain good for the game.

    Hell, if he could get healthy even just in time for the Pens’ April 17 game against the Habs, I’m sure Montreal fans would be overjoyed, assuming of course he oversleeps, has trouble finding a taxi, gets caught in traffic, makes it to the airport late, is mistakenly seen as a security threat, gets pulled aside for an especially embarrassing strip search and misses his flight. Improbable, yes, but impossible?

    Montreal is undeniably good enough to earn home-ice advantage this season on the team’s own merits, but it’s never a foregone conclusion until it’s mathematically guaranteed.

    That being said, this season is clearly unlike most others. Home ice for the first round and even beyond of the playoffs is just within reach. That Habs fans can say that just 40 games into a shortened season, in which good teams have had less time to separate themselves from the pack points to this particular one being great.