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Pascal Leclaire of the Ottawa Senators defends the near post as Brian Gionta of the Montreal Canadiens cuts hard towards the net with the puck in a game at Scotiabank Place on December 28, 2009 in Ottawa, Canada. The Ottawa Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. (Phillip MacCallum/2009 Getty Images)
Pascal Leclaire of the Ottawa Senators defends the near post as Brian Gionta of the Montreal Canadiens cuts hard towards the net with the puck in a game at Scotiabank Place on December 28, 2009 in Ottawa, Canada. The Ottawa Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. (Phillip MacCallum/2009 Getty Images)

Roy MacGregor

East going south Add to ...

The story seems to have captured even the attention of The Economist.

"Bubble Warning" reads the cover of the prestigious international magazine.

Okay, so the British magazine's top story is about overvalued assets, but it could just as well be a story about the Eastern Conference race to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, and what that race could mean for a great many Canadian hockey fans.

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Following last night's games - Montreal beating Dallas 5-3 at home, the Senators shutting out the Rangers 2-0 in New York - the Canadiens and Senators, which meet here tomorrow night, were tied at 50 points each.The similarities in the numbers were simply uncanny: 50 points, with each team having played 48 games, each having 23 wins

They were the filament of the bubble - Ottawa holding down the final playoff position, eighth, with Montreal an immediate ninth. As for the overall bubble in the east, it is roughly the size of a dirigible, with a mere five points separating the fifth-place Boston Bruins from 12th-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

While that gives both Montreal and Ottawa opportunity to move up quickly, it also provides an equal opportunity to fall fast, as Montreal had lost three of its last four games and Ottawa was midway through a road trip that had already seen them crushed by weak Atlanta and Carolina.

It suggested a potential scenario that had not been seen for 40 years in the NHL: the possibility that no eastern Canadian prime-time team would make the postseason, something that last happened in 1969-70 when both Montreal and Toronto failed to reach the playoffs.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs no longer even a consideration for postseason competition, one can only imagine the prime-time nail-biting that will go on at TSN and Hockey Night In Canada until regular-season matters are decided on April 11.

Canadiens coach Jacques Martin, who last year coached the Florida Panthers and missed out on the playoffs on a technicality, knows only too well how tight that screw can turn.

"We finished with the same number of points as the Canadiens," Martin says, "but lost out because of our record against them."

Martin says this is the price paid for the "parity" the league has preached the last dozen years or more. "Every game takes on more importance," he says. "I predict the race will go down to the wire."

The Montreal players seem acutely aware of both the possibilities and the dangers of being in the position in which they find themselves this week.

"The east is so tight," defenceman Josh Gorges says. "We need to bear down over the next few weeks. Ideally, we would come back from the Olympic break in a playoff position."

"We've got to make some hay here," Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri adds. "That way, when we get to the break, we'll have time to reassess, rejuvenate, relax and get ready for the big push."

It's doubtful there will be any relaxation for any team apart from those at the very top or very bottom.

In Gorges's mind, his Habs are already into the playoffs - two weeks into January - and, in his opinion, "it's going to be like this right until the end."

The intriguing subplot of this story will be to see how the two Canadian eastern teams do. Both could make the playoffs, both could miss, but it is also possible that, given their bizarre equality at the moment, it could all come down to the final week to decide if television has a prime-time eastern horse to ride.

There are obvious similarities between the two teams - not just points, but injuries at various times to key players (Montreal's Andrei Markov, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson) and questions surrounding the return on astounding salaries paid to newcomers Scott Gomez, finally finding his skates in Montreal, and Alexei Kovalev, still in search of his attention span in Ottawa.

There are equally fascinating differences.

How, for example, could the two teams be tied for points while Montreal boasts the best power play in the league and Ottawa has the worst? And how can they be considered equal when Montreal goaltending has ranged from fair (Carey Price) to excellent (Jaroslav Halak) and Ottawa's goaltending has lately been abysmal -- at least until last night's shutout by minor-league call up Mike Brodeur?

(The day after Ottawa fired its goaltending coach, Eli Wilson, starter Pascal Leclaire was injured at practice, causing one Internet wit to suggest it was unlikely he was "hit by puck.")

They call such matters the "intangibles" in hockey, but it should be the "inscrutables," as it defies explanation apart from suggesting the Canadiens have found ways to lose games while Ottawa has found ways to win.

There has never been much of a rivalry between the two. There is no Battle of 417/40 to equal the Battle of Ontario or the Battle of Alberta.

Come tomorrow, however, the competition between the Canadiens and Senators may begin to take on new meaning.

It will never match the 1907 Stanley Cup battles between Ottawa and Montreal - which one newspaper called "the most sordid exhibition of butchery ever seen in hockey" - but it could become a race.

Perhaps the only excitement the eastern half of the country will have this year.

With a report from Sean Gordon

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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