The NHL all-star break is a not-so-welcome sight for the Montreal Canadiens. A week ago, yes, just about every player would have welcomed the chance to get out of town.
After all, talk about your season from hell. It wouldn’t have been much longer before the media would have been calling for the firing of the janitors.
Now, though, there is a spark of hope. Just a spark, mind you, considering the hole the Canadiens dug for themselves. But getting three out of four points in back-to-back games on the weekend, topped by a brilliant stretch of goaltending by Carey Price in a 3-1 win over the listless Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, sparked some dreaming.
The trouble is, the Canadiens don’t play until Wednesday, against the Detroit Red Wings, and then they’re off for five days until they play the Buffalo Sabres.
Making the NHL playoffs, thanks to the three-point games, is all about getting on a roll and riding it as hard as you can.
“Things look a little brighter,” forward Lars Eller said. “We’ve still got more than 30 games to go [in the season] We’re keeping the faith in this locker room.”
It would be quite a leap of faith to see the Canadiens ascend to even the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After 48 games, they have 45 points, which is barely within hailing distance of the playoffs.
To guarantee making the postseason, an Eastern Conference team will need at least 93 points and more likely 95. To get 95, the Canadiens need a mere 50 points in their last 34 games, which requires a nifty 25-9 record or 23-7-4 or an equally unlikely combination.
“We can’t let anything bother us,” Price said when the size of the Canadiens’ task was mentioned.
Well, considering the way Price is playing these days, capped by his 32-save performance against the Leafs, you might think the Canadiens have a shot. Unfortunately, there is a goal-scoring component to this.
As a group, the Canadiens have scored 123 goals in 48 games so far, an average of 2.56 a game. The only East teams to score fewer are the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. Only the Panthers are in a playoff position.
There is little chance of a sudden scoring explosion in sight, given that the Canadiens’ leading point producer, winger Erik Cole, has 36 points, followed by Max Pacioretty with 33. Even the Islanders have three players with 40 points or more.
The Canadiens will find out quickly after the all-star break if they have any chance of making a move. They play the Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and the Jets. All of those teams except the Sabres are in front of them so even one loss will be deadly.
So all those Canadiens fans on the Internet forums with an eye to the NHL’s entry draft calling for them to finish last overall still have lots of hope left.
THE MAPLE LEAFS, ON THE OTHER HAND
Unlike the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs could use the NHL all-star break. Not that it allows head coach Ron Wilson much time to fix a team that looks like it could fritter away its season.
The streaky Leafs showed all of their warts in losing 3-1 to the Canadiens on Saturday, the second time in three games last week they lost a game they should have won. The warts are all too familiar to their fans – an indifferent defensive game and an indifferent work ethic that made it look like the Leafs were a team that had already checked out for the break even though back-to-back games with the New York Islanders are ahead on Monday and Tuesday.
Actually, Wilson said, he and his assistant coaches will be working at both ends of the ice this week in what little practice time they have before the break begins Thursday. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price played well but the Leafs forwards made it too easy for him, the coach said, and the Leafs made too many mistakes in front of their own goaltender.
“We didn’t get to the front of the net and screen him. That’s something we have to work on,” Wilson said. “You have to pay a price in an ugly game. We didn’t create enough traffic.”