5 Reasons the Montreal Canadiens Are Suddenly Eastern Conference Contenders
You wouldn’t know it to look at them, decisive losers of two straight since the 2014 trade deadline came and went, but the Montreal Canadiens are now legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.
Even in the wake of those two losses (5-2 against Phoenix and 4-0 against San Jose), it’s hard to dismiss the Habs’ acquisition of Thomas Vanek as anything but a major coup as they try to solidify one of the Atlantic Division’s top three playoff berths.
With the addition, Montreal may even end up with one of the top three records in the East overall, prompting the question, “Just what defines a contender?”
Here are the top five reasons the Habs are just that in the East.
This is, of course, contingent on goaltender Carey Price actually returning to action before the end of the season, because he hasn't played since winning the Olympic gold medal in Sochi.
Backup Peter Budaj has seen his stats take a nosedive in recent games after taking over for Price, with three straight losses and 17 goals against in his last five.
Of course, a big part of his save percentage falling so drastically to .909 on the season (when it had been .927 as recently as late February) is the fact that he has just 20 appearances on the season. This points to just how reliant the Habs are on Price (and why Budaj never made it as a full-time starter).
Price takes the No. 5 slot on this list, because as key as he is to a long playoff run, he has to get healthy first. He also admittedly has a lot to prove in the capability department in that regard.
As great as he’s been all season (26-17-5 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .925 save percentage), he has just one series victory in his career, and there are no guarantees in goal come the playoffs.
4. New-Found Offensive Depth
After the Habs scored just nine times in five playoff games last spring, there may arguably be even fewer guarantees when it comes to offense. However, Vanek curbs many of those fears just as he rounds out what is shaping up to be a potent offense come April.
Granted, the two goals scored in his first two games are not all that impressive, especially when one considers the Habs scored three against the Ducks just before he made it into the lineup. Nevertheless, on paper, the Habs are very deep up front.
Daniel Briere, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Brian Gionta, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and now Vanek: Those are nine different players capable of playing a top-six role. And, if you’re feeling extra charitable, you can add a needy Rene Bourque to that list, even if that need of his is to get traded for a bag of pucks as soon as possible.
Now, all of those guns may not translate into more goals down the road, but general manager Marc Bergevin has to like his chances at scoring more than the opposition—at least, Eastern opposition.
3. Lack of Competition in Eastern Conference
The general consensus is that the East is the weaker of the two conferences, and that’s reflected in Montreal’s records against each.
That right there should serve as enough indication that Montreal is one of the stronger teams in the East if not an outright contender. However, 14 of the Habs’ remaining 16 games being within their own conference certainly helps matters and places their fates squarely on their shoulders.
To be clear, all of this isn’t to suggest the Habs are head and shoulders above everyone else in the East, just that they’re much luckier to be the Montreal Canadiens instead of, say, their Western, English-Canadian counterparts, the Vancouver Canucks.
Of course, considering recent events, 28 other teams are admittedly also lucky to not be the Vancouver Canucks.
2. Trade Deadline (In)Activity of Other Eastern Teams
There’s little disputing how well Montreal’s general manager fared last Wednesday when he acquired Vanek. It’s that much more of a coup when one considers how Montreal’s competition in the East got left in the dust.
The standings have slightly changed since last Wednesday, but heading into the deadline, the Habs had the third-best record in the conference, meaning they were already in good shape. By getting Vanek, they undeniably got better. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs, their closest competition, did nothing, meaning they didn’t.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who had been directly above Montreal in the Atlantic Division for most of the season, traded away an offensive dynamo in Martin St. Louis. They got back former New York Ranger Ryan Callahan, who, while a great player, is a significant statistical downgrade.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings did upgrade their center situation significantly by getting David Legwand from the Nashville Predators. However, one can definitely make a good argument that they didn’t improve as much on paper as the Habs.
Perhaps more significantly, the Wings are also currently six points behind the Habs and out of the playoffs currently. At least at this point, Montreal doesn’t need to worry about them.
By that logic, the Habs needn’t worry about the Ottawa Senators either, despite them perhaps being the only team in the East to have improved to a greater degree than the Habs.
Ales Hemsky has not only scored six points in three games as a Senator, providing an immediate positive impact, but he’s also helped to spark Jason Spezza as well, who also has six points since the trade. However, as Ottawa is even further back than Detroit, they just don’t pose a realistic threat.
Looking higher up in the standings, both the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins did relatively little.
The Bruins did admittedly solidify their defense by acquiring Andrej Meszaros to replace Dennis Seidenberg. However, to put it in perspective, Meszaros was discarded by the Philadelphia Flyers, a team whose defense is still headlined by an injured Chris Pronger. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement in regard to Meszaros’ defensive abilities.
Finally, all the Penguins did was bolster their bottom six with the acquisitions of Marcel Goc from the Florida Panthers and Lee Stempniak from the Calgary Flames. While those moves shouldn’t be underestimated, the Pens were still big losers on the day, having reportedly been interested in Vanek themselves, according to the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman.
While it would admittedly be a major upset, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Habs make two-time losers out of the Pens should they eventually meet in the playoffs. Well, it’s at least much more of a probability now that the Habs have Vanek (and the Pens don’t).
1. Unlikelihood of Facing Pittsburgh or Boston in the First Round
Of course, ideally, the Habs would not face the top team in the East, but it stands to reason they will have to eventually if they hope to move on to the Stanley Cup Final. Thankfully, that almost certainly won’t happen until the second round at least.
Currently, the Habs are jockeying for position with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic, as it’s hard to believe anyone will catch the Bruins, who hold an 11-point lead over the Leafs for first place.
As argued in the previous slide, the Habs are now in better position than either of the former two, though. Barring a major catastrophe, it stands to reason that Montreal will eventually lock down either the second or third Atlantic seed as a result. That will leave them a Metropolitan Division opponent in the first round, in which case, the Habs will be heavily favored.
Admittedly, a Habs’ first-round victory is far from guaranteed—especially one month beforehand—as upsets do happen. However, by the same token, Pittsburgh and Boston are just as vulnerable. Should the Habs advance and either the Pens or Bruins gets shockingly eliminated, the Habs might only end up meeting a true Cup contender if they make it to the third round.
If the Habs do manage to get that far, it would be hard to argue that they are anything but Eastern contenders as one of the top two teams still alive in the conference.
Even if they face either the Bruins or Pens in the second round, it’s hard to believe the Habs don’t stand at least a chance at moving on in either case as they are 4-1 against them combined this season.
This is admittedly all still a while away, but if the Habs have been able to get this far on shaky defense and a pop-gun offense, there’s every reason to believe the acquisitions of Vanek and depth defenseman Mike Weaver bolster their chances significantly.
The acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk meanwhile further hinders the last-place Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League, but that’s neither here nor there.
It has been argued that perhaps the Habs shouldn’t have been buyers at the deadline, but it’s hard to find fault with the Vanek trade when the move almost single-handedly vaults them into contender status in the East.
They admittedly have some work to do themselves to get to that conference final. If they manage to pull it off, though, anything can happen from there, at which point they may be able to make a case that they aren’t merely Eastern Conference contenders.