Call it a statistical quirk, blame the loser point or the fates, because the “why” matters less than the “what”: NHL teams that fall off the pace after the first month of the season typically fail to make the playoffs.
So rejoice, Montreal Canadiens fans, because despite having lost as many games as it has won, your team is firmly among the top eight clubs of the Eastern Conference after 31 days of NHL hockey.
Their record is outwardly pedestrian (8-7-1), but for an injury-riddled team that has played more games against the all-conquering Western Conference than almost anyone – including 13 of the 14 squads that are actually in the West – it’s quite respectable.
Now, after the gale, comes the respite.
The Habs have only played one divisional opponent this season – the Toronto Maple Leafs, on opening night – and will only have had four such games when December rolls around (the second is Thursday night in Ottawa against the Senators).
The upshot is 14 of the 24 games Montreal will play between now and January will feature opponents from the Metropolitan Division, home to five of the more putrid teams in hockey (only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are above .500).
Just five will be played against Western opponents.
“It’ll give us an understanding of where we fit in the East for sure, how you match up against the conference,” Habs captain Brian Gionta said.
It’s no exaggeration the next few weeks will go a long way to determining whether the Canadiens make the playoffs – head coach Michel Therrien’s publicly stated opinion is his charges will be in a knife fight all the way to the last moments of the season to do so.
Fortuitously, the Habs are nearing a full-strength lineup as Daniel Brière (concussion) makes the trip to Ottawa – he’ll practice, but won’t play – and key players Brandon Prust and Alexei Emelin near a return from injury.
The old cliché dictates players focus on one game at a time, but they’re conscious that a lot of the heavy lifting can be done before Christmas – divisional play and overtime points make it an ever-widening chasm for slow starters.
The NHL started awarding a point for an overtime loss in 2000, and since shootouts were adopted five years later, only three teams have made the playoffs after trailing the pack by more than four points on Nov. 1 – the last to do it were the Boston Bruins in 2011-12, as pointed out by Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports.
“Teams like New Jersey or Philly that dig themselves into holes, it’s hard to come out of. It can happen, but it’s hard to do, you want to have a good start, a good first half, but that only sets you up for the second half,” Gionta said. “You have to keep going.”
Last winter, the NHL came up with a new, unbalanced divisional alignment and a scheduling plan ensuring the 30 teams would play every other team in the league at least twice (home and away).
It’s had some odd repercussions for the Habs.
Montreal has yet to play hated rival Boston, and won’t do so until Dec. 5, at the Bell Centre. They won’t play a second time until Jan. 30.
“Crazy, eh? That’s probably never happened before,” said winger Travis Moen, who will return to the lineup against the Senators after missing five games with a facial fracture.
Or as teammate Max Pacioretty put it: “It’s been different.
“But this layout has been pretty special for most guys, going to every city. Guys are pretty excited about it … I know I’m happy about it.”
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