5 Likeliest First-Round Playoff Matchups for the Montreal Canadiens in 2014

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIMarch 22, 2014

5 Likeliest First-Round Playoff Matchups for the Montreal Canadiens in 2014

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    The Montreal Canadiens celebrate a victory over the Colorado Avalanche.
    The Montreal Canadiens celebrate a victory over the Colorado Avalanche.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    The Montreal Canadiens are currently third in the Atlantic Division ahead of the 2014 playoffs. With the Habs owning a 38-26-7 record and 11 games remaining in their regular season, a lot can still happen.

    The Habs are 18 points behind the Boston Bruins for first place overall, so “anything” happening is pretty much out the window. However, they are two points behind the second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, three points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who currently hold the top wild-card spot, and six points up on the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings, who have two games in hand.

    Put simply, nothing is guaranteed, including a playoff spot. Here are the Canadiens’ five likeliest first-round 2014 playoff scenarios:

5. Miss the Playoffs Altogether

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    Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien.
    Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Admittedly, it's unlikely, but, according to sportsclubstats.com, there’s currently a 5.81 percent chance the Canadiens miss the playoffs altogether.

    As mentioned earlier, the Habs are six points up on the Wings as well as the Washington Capitals, with the former enjoying two games in hand. As such, the Habs missing the playoffs needs to be acknowledged as at least a slight possibility.

    However, with their next eight games being within the Atlantic Division (including ones against the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers), the Habs are very much in control of their own destiny.

    Seeing as all signs point to them having turned things around following a three-game losing streak, it’s hard to believe the Habs will fall in the standings enough—or fall at all—to the point of missing the playoffs.

    Likeliest outcome in this scenario: Montreal’s season is considered a huge failure, especially with the trade-deadline acquisition of Thomas Vanek. Head coach Michel Therrien’s future with the team comes into question.

4. Boston Bruins

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    Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust and Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
    Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust and Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    The Bruins have emerged as the class of the Eastern Conference, having won 11 straight games and counting. If the Habs do end up facing Boston in the playoffs, it’s very much likely it will be as the second wild card (eighth seed).

    While the Bruins would be the undeniable favorites, it’s hard to believe the Habs wouldn’t, at the very least, give them a run for their money. The Habs also have history on their side, having defeated the top-seeded Bruins in the first round back in 2002.

    As recently as 2011, under very much similar circumstances as this season—namely, Carey Price being at the top of his game—Montreal even took the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Bruins to overtime in Game 7.

    With Montreal currently having the edge in regular-season play (2-1, with one last game between the two teams on Monday), it’s clear that a major upset would at least be possible if not realistic.

    Call it whatever you like: parity within the league, the Habs being much better than their record currently indicates or them just being able to more easily get up for games against the rival Bruins. Whatever you land on, know that the Habs stand a good chance at advancing in this scenario.

    Likeliest outcome: Bruins win in six games.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin.
    Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    With a 14-point lead over their closest rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins will most certainly win the Metropolitan Division this season, leaving them the first wild card as an opening-round opponent.

    With Montreal currently in the third spot in the Atlantic and three points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s not the slightest bit inconceivable that ends up being Montreal. What’s less clear is whether the Habs would welcome the matchup.

    While the Pittsburgh Penguins have the two-headed monster that is Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury can be just as scary sometimes, especially under pressure. There’s just little telling what would happen if Fleury were to face his home-province team.

    Oh, wait, there is.

    In addition, while the Penguins do boast a decent defensive corps featuring Norris Memorial Trophy runner-up Kris Letang (Montreal boasts Norris Memorial Trophy winner P.K. Subban), he’s in the midst of coming back from a stroke. While rookie Olli Maatta has been great, a defensive corps headlined by a 19-year-old will likely only end up overexposed.

    Add in the fact that Montreal won the season series 2-1, and there’s a good chance the Habs end up on top should they draw the Penguins.

    Likeliest outcome: Habs win in seven games.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak.
    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    The Leafs would probably be the opponents fans would most want to see, but, relatively speaking, it’s just not that realistic of a scenario.

    There are two ways Montreal could potentially face Toronto in the first round, and both involve the teams ending up as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the Atlantic Division:

    1. Toronto would have to jump over two teams—the Habs and Tampa Bay Lightning—to finish as the second seed. Tampa, meanwhile, would have to drop two spots, at least.

      As they give up way more scoring chances than they get and have lost three straight games—all against teams they’re fighting for a playoff spot—it’s hard to believe the Leafs will be able to hold onto the spot they’ve got, much less move up two.

    2. Montreal and Toronto would each move up one spot, with Tampa dropping to a wild-card spot. This is the much more realistic option of the two, but the two teams square off Saturday in a must-win, four-point game.

      Montreal would, in theory, need to win the game just to keep pace with the Lightning as well as keep their home-ice advantage hopes alive. A Toronto loss would meanwhile almost dash the Leafs’ playoff hopes completely.

    In some ways, it’s more realistic that the Habs get the ninth-place Red Wings than the Leafs, who may very well be in full free-fall mode right now. However, seeing as Detroit would have to pass three teams to make that scenario a reality, let’s assume the Leafs righting the ship is more likely.

    That would also be the better outcome between the two for the Habs, as they’re 0-1-1 against the Wings this season and 2-2 against the Leafs, a record they’ll be looking to improve Saturday night.

    Likeliest outcome: Habs win in seven games.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio.
    Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    In theory, it may not be the most exciting first-round matchup, but the Habs facing the Lighting does represent the status quo. Were the playoffs to start today, the Lightning would hold home-ice advantage against the Habs, in a repeat of the two teams’ 2003-04 Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.

    Not only was that the last time the two teams faced in the playoffs, it’s the only time. While the Lightning swept that series, it was 10 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

    For starters, whereas the Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup during that playoff run, they entered this season without having made postseason for the past two years.

    The Habs may not be legitimate Cup contenders, but Tampa is, similarly, a young team just learning how to win. Also, especially now that Tampa has traded away Martin St. Louis, the two sides are also relatively evenly matched. Each of the teams’ three games this season has gone to overtime. Two have gone to a shootout.

    So, no, there may not be a lot of history or bad blood between these teams, even if they are now in the same division. However, that’s liable to change, because not only is it the most likely first-round matchup for the Canadiens, it’s also the most likely to be the closest, game to game.

    Likeliest outcome: Habs win in six games as the second seed or lose in seven as the third seed.