It may be mid-January and there may still be 34 games remaining on the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens regular season schedule, but we are officially entering crunch time for the beloved bleu, blanc, et rouge. After last night's 5-3 victory over Dallas, the Habs are sitting in 8th place in the Eastern Conference--actually, tied for 7th with the Senators, but Ottawa gets the nod for that spot--which would mean a playoff series against the New Jersey Devils if the season ended today. Thankfully it does not. Here's a look at the rest of the season and what will have to happen if the Canadiens want to move up in the standings and separate themselves from the cluster of teams fighting for a playoff spot.
First and foremost, it's probably a safe bet to rule out a division title this season. The once-again-mighty Buffalo Sabres have been riding the hot hand of Ryan Miller all season long and are presently thirteen points up on the Canadiens with two games in hand. Given how well the Sabres are playing--and a big shout out to Rockets alumni and possible Calder winner, Tyler Myers!--and how up-and-down the Canadiens have been to this point, it's difficult to envision Montreal winning 7-9 more games than Buffalo does the rest of the way. That said, Ottawa held a pretty comfortable division lead fairly late into the 2007-08 season, so truly anything is possible, but I would not count on a Sabres collapse barring a major injury to Miller.
Second, I like to think of myself as an optimistic regarding my team's fortunes. Roughly two years ago at this time I noticed a distinguishing feature in my thinking relative to what many of my good friends and colleagues were saying about the Canadiens: I was looking at the teams ahead of us in the standings rather than worrying about the teams that were narrowly behind us. The more common custom is borne out of the way things have gone for Montreal since the lockout - it's always been a struggle to make the playoffs and they've always been bunched up with a handful of other teams all fighting for the 7th and 8th seeds. When the Habs got hot two years ago I stopped worrying about the Bruins, Hurricanes, and Sabres, instead thinking, "Can they catch up with Ottawa and start pushing the likes of New Jersey, Washington and Pittsburgh?" I'm still waiting for that hot streak to materialize but as I look at the standings and the schedule, I still hold out hope that the Canadiens can push their way up to 5th place, maybe even 4th by the end of the regular season.
My optimistic thinking is based on their remaining games and their opponents. Only 5 of them are against teams from the Western Conference, leaving 29 games against division and conference rivals. There are no "gimmies" for this team, not this year, but they have games with Anaheim, Edmonton, two with the Leafs, and two with Carolina that on paper should translate into points. Where things get really interesting, of course, is the fact that 18 of the remaining games are against teams that are in the cluster of 5th-13th place, including 4 against Boston and 3 each against the Rangers, Flyers, and Senators. These are the so-called "4 point games" that are tremendously important to win in order to jump ahead of those teams and let them be the ones looking over their shoulders at the teams in 9th place and lower. A strong record, say 9-10 (or more, please) wins out of those 13 most important games, would certainly assure the Habs a playoff spot.
I mentioned the weaker opponents earlier for a good reason: if you want to consider your team to be a good or very good one, you have to beat the weak teams. I did a little post-mortem on the ill-fated 2008-09 centennial season, and it turns out that Montreal left in the vicinity of 30 points on the table against teams that failed to make the playoffs last year. Losses to teams like Toronto, Florida, Carolina, and the Islanders had a severely negative impact on Montreal's place in the standings, relegating them to 8th position and leaving them easy prey for a hotly-determined Bruins team eager to humiliate the Canadiens. Over the course of an 82-game season it's easy to mentally detach from a late January game against a pathetic team, but you do so at your peril because those two points could come in really handy when April rolls around and you're jockeying for position. Games against the cellar-dwellers are almost as "must win" as games against Boston. You need only look at the Vancouver Canucks right now and how frustrated they are with the Alex Burrows-Stephane Auger situation, because they're fully acknowledging how important losing those two points could be come playoff time.
Now, I realize that I said earlier that the Habs shouldn't get their hopes too high and shouldn't focus on winning the division so much as they should on establishing themselves as a playoff team. However, I would be a terrible fan if I did not at least entertain the possibility. The Habs still have two games left against their division rivals, and while they have gone 1-3 against Buffalo, with the exception of a 6-2 drubbing in early December every game has been decided by a single goal. One lucky bounce here or there is all it takes to turn the tide of a game, and Buffalo has benefited from a number of those this season. If Montreal were to take the final two games against Buffalo, that’d mean only a 9-point space to make up over the other 32 games. If Buffalo goes on a three-game losing streak at the same time Montreal goes on a three-game winning streak, that’s six more points made up along the way. These are two big if’s and I fully acknowledge that, but these things can and do happen during the course of a long season, and if they do things get very, very interesting for our Montreal Canadiens.
There is still an awful lot of hockey to play in the 2009-10 regular season but it is never too early to look at the future and try to scheme things out for your favourite team. I still have a lot of confidence in the Habs and while I think another slog of a battle is in the offing, I am hoping for a season finale more reminiscent of 2007-08 than 2006-07 and 2008-09. I am tired of getting dragged into the latest Price v. Halak debate and I want to think about the entire team and its prospects for the remainder of the season. When I do, good things come to mind. Go Habs Go!