The Montreal Canadiens have clinched a playoff spot and despite being blown out in recent games, will still likely earn home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Beyond that, little is certain.
Will goalie Carey Price bring his A-game, or will he put together an epic fail of a performance? Will the Habs be able to continue scoring seemingly at will, or will the team’s offense dry up like the last of the snow come the spring?
Finally, perhaps most significantly, at this point the Habs don’t even know whom they will play. The Toronto Maple Leafs seem like a good possibility, but that’s only if the Habs finish in fourth, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.
The Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers or Islanders, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and even New Jersey Devils are still potential first-round opponents of le bleu, blanc et rouge. While Montreal would still be favored against any one of those teams, some would pose greater challenges than others.
Here are the top five teams that Montreal shouldn’t want to face in the first round and the reasons why:
Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher tries to beat Martin Brodeur.
The 12th-place New Jersey Devils may very well miss the playoffs this season, as they have struggled recently, so much so that the team actually fell below .500 with a loss last Friday.
To put it in perspective, heading into action on Wednesday night, they had fewer points than the Buffalo Sabres, who are about as likely to make the National Hockey League playoffs without former captain Jason Pominville (and with “goalie” Ryan Miller) as the Hamilton Bulldogs (who are pretty bad this year…and play in the American Hockey League).
Nevertheless, the Devils can still theoretically make it, and if they do Martin Brodeur will likely be a huge problem for the Habs.
The Devils are 0-1-1 against Montreal so far this season (Brodeur is 0-0-1), but the playoffs are a different animal (or beast, if you prefer, considering the team in question) during which defense is key, which no team knows better than the Devils.
With Brodeur currently at 666 regular-season wins (seriously), at least one thing that remains constant throughout is his ability to stop the puck. His three Stanley Cups back that fact up as well as him backstopping Jersey to an appearance in the final as recently as last season (at the age of 40).
Of course, after winning it all in 1995, the Devils missed the postseason altogether in 1996, so, who knows?
Montreal Canadien Josh Gorges and Washington Capital Alexander Ovechkin.
Currently, the Washington Capitals are in first place in the Southeast Division, meaning Montreal won’t play them unless the Winnipeg Jets find a way to catch them.
That’s good news for the Habs because the alternative would mean a reversal of roles relative to back in 2010 when the two teams faced each other in the first round, and Montreal was the heavy underdog.
As an eighth seed, the Habs authored an upset for the ages on the strength of the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak, while Alexander Ovechkin tallied just one goal and one assist in his team’s four losses. The series in fact served as a turning point for the worse in the Capitals captain’s career.
From that point on, Ovechkin’s point totals decreased drastically from the 109 he scored that season to 85 and then to 65 last year. While Montreal could theoretically contain him again, Montreal lacks Halak as well as Kirk Muller, who was largely responsible for the defensive success against him.
Additionally, 10 current Caps played in that postseason (seven current Habs), and hockey players tend to have long memories. Just look to Ovechkin as proof, as he has suddenly remembered to play like an elite talent once again, currently on pace for over 50 goals again (over 82 games).
There’s also the fact that, following a hellish 2-8-1 start to the season, the Capitals have become a good team with just as many goals scored as the Habs, not to mention a proven playoff goalie in Braden Holtby (who himself has rebounded from a bad start to the season) and a decent defense corps.
Needless to say, while Montreal can theoretically beat Washington, another seven-game series could very well be in the cards should these two teams meet in the first round.
New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh and Montreal Canadien Jeff Halpern.
Yes, the Habs have largely dominated the New York Rangers this season with a 3-0 record and nine goals scored to just one against. However, those three wins came before the trade deadline, following which the Rangers have been a different team, literally.
The Rangers are playing like the team everyone thought they were heading into the season and will be dangerous to whomever they face in the first round (assuming they don’t magically fall out of a playoff spot).
Out went Marian Gaborik, who just wasn’t scoring. In came Ryane Clowe, who, well, also wasn’t scoring…to an even greater extent but still brings a physical presence and other intangibles that Montreal could have used come the playoffs instead. Clowe’s 45 career playoff points in 68 games also don’t hurt.
In terms of other newcomers, Derick Brassard is averaging a point per game on his new team, and John Moore rounds out a rather impressive defense corps that should get even stronger with the return of Marc Staal.
And what can be said that hasn’t been already of reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist? As far as starting goalies go, he’s extremely boring, but he doesn’t give up much. And in the playoffs, where the outcomes of low-scoring games hinge mainly on small mistakes here and there, that could be the difference.
The Habs and their fans may not fear a first-round date with the Rangers, and they shouldn’t. However, they should at least be well aware that, despite the new look to their roster relative to last season (when they finished first in the conference, by the way), they’re still the Blueshirts and not the Blue Jackets.
Ottawa Senator Chris Phillips and Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher.
There’s just something about this particular Ottawa Senators team.
Severely outgunned for most of the season by teams who can actually score, the Sens have somehow overcome injuries to Jared Cowen, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson and Milan Michalek and amazingly find themselves in a playoff spot.
While Spezza may not be returning this season (via NHL.com), the Senators acquired Cory Conacher to help out at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Michalek, Anderson and Cowen are back, with Karlsson poised to return eventually (via Rant Sports).
Montreal had a hard enough time with Ottawa this season when they were icing a glorified AHL team (2-1-1 record). There’s little telling how the Habs will match up against the Senators now that they’re getting healthy.
Of course, Montreal can roll three different lines on any given night, and the Senators, even with Michalek back, maybe have five legitimate top-six forwards.
Additionally, even prior to Karlsson’s injury, the team’s defense corps was thin.
It’s arguably less so now, but that’s not so much because their blueliners, fighting for jobs for once he returns, have grown as defensemen over the last few months. It’s mainly because they’re each beefier than Karlsson’s 175 pounds, which isn’t that much of a monumental accomplishment at the pro level.
We are nonetheless talking about a team that knows its limitations, has been forced to play playoff-style hockey for most of the season and as a result knows how to overcome them.
Montreal has the talent to destroy the Senators in the first round, but by the same token, Ottawa has the wherewithal and coaching to knuckle down and eke out a series victory.
Montreal Canadien Brandon Prust fights Toronto Maple Leaf Frazer McLaren.
Fans might be itching for the first Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs playoff series since 1979, but the Habs themselves would have good reason to hope against such an occurrence.
If 6-0 and 5-1 losses to Toronto this season weren’t enough, the fact that the rivalry is one of the oldest in NHL history should be.
The Habs have undeniably been the better overall team this year, but anything can happen when the players have even greater incentive to beat you than just getting through to the next round.
Granted, that works both ways, but add into the equation Toronto’s more consistent goaltending and just-as-balanced scoring, and it’s easy to see why facing the Leafs would be a major problem for the Habs.
That’s not even taking into account the definite size advantage the Leafs have over the Habs. Toronto currently averages nearly one-and-a-half inches more in height and six pounds more in weight.
It might not sound like much, but that advantage comes in the form of a 6’5”, 213-pound Cody Franson, a 6’4”, 220-pound Mark Fraser and a 6’5”, 234-pound Ryan O’Byrne, who, unfortunately for the Habs, was brought in to do anything but score goals.
That the 6’3”, 214-pound Dion Phaneuf is smaller than all of the above speaks volumes as to just what is potentially in store for Montreal. Over the course of a long series, even if the Habs come out victorious, that size will have taken its toll.