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Former Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier. (Christinne Muschi/REUTERS)
Former Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier. (Christinne Muschi/REUTERS)

SEAN GORDON

Habs caught in limbo between buy, sell Add to ...

Perhaps the situation is best described in economics-ese, by borrowing a term like “seller’s dilemma.”

Whatever frame you choose, the Montreal Canadiens are in the full throes of whatever “it” is.

In the countdown to the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline, the Habs are six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and with three games over the next six days – two of them against conference opponents, including one with the faltering Washington Capitals – hope to narrow the gap.

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“We’re just so close,” forward Ryan White said, “and we know we can get there.”

But whatever illusion of proximity remains concerning postseason hockey in Montreal must be tempered by unforgiving statistical reality – the mathematical models say the Habs have a one in 13 chance of racking up enough points to get there.

They blew a chance last Sunday to draw within four points of eighth, and no team since the 2004-05 lockout has made up a gap of six or more at this stage in the season (although the St. Louis Blues did after being five out on Feb. 20, 2009).

Hence the dilemma: Take your best shot now, or trade away some of the players who would otherwise lead the charge in prime selling conditions.

That question is confronting at least a half-dozen or so NHL teams this week.

And a half-dozen more, most of them tantalized by the availability of Columbus Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash, are wrestling with a corollary: What price is too high for a piece that could nudge you over the finish line?

To mount an unlikely rally, the Habs probably need to win four out of every five games the rest of the way (their current 5-2-1 string is a start). That means their power play, which has roared to life and is 6-for-17 since Feb. 9, needs to keep cranking out goals.

But the odds remain vanishingly slim, and if they don’t cash in on pending free agents who could have artificially-inflated value at the deadline – defenceman Chris Campoli, forwards Andrei Kostitsyn, Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche – they risk seeing them walk for nothing.

The cold-eyed business answer: Sell high, don’t look back.

The princely return general manager Pierre Gauthier got for veteran defenceman Hal Gill – a second-round pick and two prospects from the Nashville Predators – last week suggests the Habs are very much in “sell” mode.

But hockey’s an emotional sport, and the players, to a man, remain convinced they can get to the playoffs. It’s not in the athlete DNA to quit or fret unduly about matters you don’t control.

“If you’re focused on the trade deadline, you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Campoli said.

What matters, the players say, is today, an attitude also expressed by head coach Randy Cunneyworth. When asked if he’s started to think of the development of his younger players in doling out ice time, he said: “I’m more like a dog, I think in the present and what’s important right now.”

There was a bit of hopeful news at the team’s practice facility on Monday, with word injured defenceman Andrei Markov, who hasn’t played in 15 months, will accompany the team on a three-game road trip this week. (Moen, who is day-to-day with an “upper-body” injury, won’t.)

But Markov is, at bare minimum, a couple of weeks away from playing; these next three games will have a much greater impact on this year than the stylish Russian.

The precepts of salary cap-ology dictate the also-rans will want to shed their free-agent-to-be ballast by next Monday.

Montreal will almost certainly do that, but what if they were to sweep the road trip?

Their generous cap situation means the Habs could take on a sizable salary or two if they suddenly were to become buyers.

It seems unfathomable, then again, markets are notoriously unpredictable.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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