5 Reasons Montreal Canadiens Will Get Home Ice for 1st Round of 2014 Playoffs

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIMarch 30, 2014

5 Reasons Montreal Canadiens Will Get Home Ice for 1st Round of 2014 Playoffs

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    It becomes more and more clear with each passing day that the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning will face each other in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, but the team that will end up with home ice is still very much up in the air.

    Currently, the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins are 15 points up on the second-place Habs. Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings, the the team with the best chance at catching third-place Tampa, are missing Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. They’re also nine points back—with one fewer game to go.

    So, no, not much standings-wise can really change for the two teams, except for which squad will finish second in the division. Here are the five biggest reasons it will be the Habs.

5. Their Fate Is in Their Hands

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    Ignoring the fact that the Habs have two more points than the Lightning currently—and are thus in a better position—one can definitely make an argument that Tampa is actually the team in the driver’s seat.

    The Lightning have the advantage in that they’ve got two games in hand. Obviously, if Tampa wins both of those games, they leapfrog over Montreal for the second spot in the division.

    However, it gets a tad more complicated with Montreal holding the first tiebreaker—the number of games won in regulation and overtime (37 versus 34).

    With Montreal and Tampa playing once more on Tuesday, all the Habs needs to do is keep winning—especially that game—to guarantee themselves home ice.

    Maybe it's not so complicated after all.

4. Easier Remaining Schedule…Kind of

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    At first glance, Tampa has the easier schedule with just four of its remaining eight games against teams currently in the playoffs. The Lightning also have just two road games left.

    Delving deeper, though, the Habs, with three games each on the road and at home, might have the edge. Montreal has an aggregate 8-3-4 overall record against its upcoming opponents, which represents a .667 points percentage.

    That is pretty impressive stuff and shows the Habs definitely have a good shot at entering the playoffs on a high. But it’s only “pretty” impressive, because the Lightning, meanwhile, boast an 11-5-2 record against their remaining opponents, with exactly the same points percentage.

    Where the Habs hold their actual advantage, ironically, lies in the Lightning’s upcoming lackluster competition. Three of the four aforementioned non-playoff teams—the Dallas Stars, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals—are fighting for their playoff lives and do not necessarily constitute easy wins.

    In fact, three of their other four opponents—Detroit, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets—are similarly in playoff races of their own and might be just as desperate.

    The Habs, their other opponents, obviously have something to fight for as well when the two sides meet Tuesday. Meanwhile, in two fewer games remaining relative to Tampa, they actually play one more team (two total) without any postseason prospects at all.

    Considering Montreal’s current high level of play, it may not even matter, though. The Canadiens are stringing victories together like nobody’s business, no matter the opposition.

3. The Worst Is Behind Them

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    Montreal’s season can best be divided into two stretches—before and after the miraculous 5-4 overtime victory over the Ottawa Senators earlier this month.

    Before the Habs overcame a 4-1 deficit in that game’s dying minutes, they were on the verge of suffering their fourth straight defeat. Instead, they started a new three-game winning streak and are now 8-1 since that turning point.

    Arguably more importantly, they’re playing better as well. Based on stats compiled by Extra Skater, during that nine-game stretch they have a Fenwick close percentage of 51.9 (five on five), meaning 51.9 percent of shot attempts have been theirs.

    To a certain extent, it’s to be assumed that when you’re 8-1, you’re playing well, but that hasn't necessarily been the case for Montreal. Up until recently, the Habs had a winning record despite consistently posting poor possession stats.

    For proof, consider this: The current stretch represents only their second-best of the season. From late November until early December, the Habs had a 9-0-1 unbeaten streak going. However, it was mostly smoke and mirrors. The Habs were regularly getting outshot and outchanced and had a Fenwick close percentage of just 48.2 over those 10 games.

    Granted, the Lightning have a 51.5 percent Fenwick close number over the entire season and are the better possession team overall. However, that Montreal has turned a corner is an undeniable positive. What’s more of a positive is that possession isn’t everything.

2. Better Goaltending

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    Tampa goalie Ben Bishop should definitely receive consideration at the very least for the Vezina Trophy, but he’s faded down the stretch.

    Since the trade deadline, Bishop has played 10 games, going an impressive 7-0-3 but allowing 27 goals on 287 shots in the process. That results in a pretty mediocre .906 save percentage (compared to his .927 on the season).

    Carey Price has played just seven games since the trade deadline (6-1), similarly allowing a pedestrian 18 goals, but he’s done so on 229 shots while coming back from an injury (.921 save percentage versus .925 on the season).

    A few games admittedly don’t make a season, and, as alluded to earlier, Bishop will still receive his fair share of votes for the Vezina. But the advantage in stats he’s held over Price isn’t as clear-cut as it once was.

    While, in a roundabout way, that might mean Price has pretty good Vezina Trophy chances himself, the takeaway is this: Any given team would rather have the gold-medal winning Price in net right now than Bishop, who, despite being a year older, has much less experience (103 games played vs. 365).

1. One of the Hottest Lines in the Entire League

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    While one can argue the Habs as a whole didn’t show up against the Florida Panthers on Saturday (outshot 37 to 18), at least one line did—that of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek. The three were responsible for each of the Habs’ four goals.

    Since Montreal’s decisive 6-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche seven games ago, the trio has 27 total points. That’s well over a point per game for each of the three. Perhaps more amazingly, both Vanek and Pacioretty—two notorious goal scorers—have each gotten their fair share of markers over that stretch. Pacioretty has five goals and four assists. Vanek has six goals and four assists.

    What’s perhaps the most amazing statistic, however, is David Desharnais’ output, not just since the Colorado game (two goals, six assists), but since mid-November, when he awoke from his season-long slumber with two assists against the Minnesota Wild.

    Prior to that November 19 game, he had just one point in his first 19 games of the season. He now has 49 total points, meaning he’s scored 48 points in the 54 games since. He’s also one off his career-high 16 goals set two seasons ago when he was similarly the talk of the town.

    On paper, the Habs are much more than a one-line team and boast skill throughout the entire lineup. If they can get even just the Tomas Plekanec line going at a sustained pace as well, the Habs will be very dangerous down the stretch, hopefully with home ice in the first round to show for it.