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San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi stops a shot from Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban during the shootout of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi stops a shot from Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban during the shootout of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Fun with early NHL playoff math Add to ...

Ok, so Habs fans are breaking out the hemlock after yet another dropped point Thursday night, this time in San Jose.

Think of this blog post as a public service, then, in aid of chasing away a few black clouds.

It’s bad - Sportsclubstats.com gives the Canadiens a 34.9 per cent chance of making the playoffs - but not so bad there isn’t a glass half-full argument.

Consider the insanely tight eastern conference standings through Dec. 2.

The Leafs, who sit fifth with 30 points, are one point out of second in the conference and five points up on Montreal (actually a pretty beefy margin).

But they still basically have a one in three chance of missing the playoffs according to Sportsclubstats.

All of which to say it’s still comparatively early.

Despite their first-quarter mediocrity, the Habs remain one lonely point out of eighth place, had they held a 3-2 third period lead in the Shark tank, they’d have woken up tied with Ottawa on points for the final playoff spot (the Sens have a game in hand).

True, the Habs have played more games than anyone in the conference other than Pittsburgh, yes, the teams they are jostling with could open up some daylight as they play their games in hand.

But maybe not.

Contrary to last year, when just one team (the Atlanta Thrashers) dropped out of the playoff race after U.S. Thanksgiving (they would be overtaken by Buffalo), it’s plausible that there could be a whole lot of moving going on: six teams are within three points of seventh-place Buffalo.

Projections are a dodgy business, but it’s possible that 87 or 88 points could still get you a playoff spot this year - since the lock-out the average cutoff has typically been 92 points.

Quite simply, this season is way closer than last year and every year since the lockout but one.

Statistically, it bears closer resemblance to 2009-10 - with the main difference that no team is as dominant in the East this season as Pittsburgh and Washington were that year.

Both Philly and Montreal - who were two points out of eighth on Dec. 2, 2009 - came back from iffy starts to make the playoffs. Although they finished seventh and eight respectively and endured white-knuckle finishes to make it - the Flyers needing a shootout in Madison Square Garden and the Habs an overtime point against the Leafs.

But, crucially, both teams did it with 88 points - the Habs’ record was a very middling 39-33-10.

Injuries were also a problem for Montreal in that conference final season, which Brave Jaro fans will recall fondly and which Cowboy Carey has tried hard to forget.

Anyway, that was two years ago, and people tend to only remember as far as last year.

In 2010-11, just two points separated eighth place from fourth on Dec. 2, 2010, but the gap between the final playoff position (then held by Atlanta) and ninth was six points - a yawning chasm.

That the Sabres were able to make up eight points over the final 60-ish games is an astounding feat, never mind the Devils’ monster comeback that fell short.

But it doesn’t appear the Habs would have to put together a completely mental 23-3-2 string (like Jersey) or bookended 15-5-3 and 9-1-2 streaks (like Buffalo, who went 33-9-6 after Christmas) to get back into postseason contention To get to the 2009-10 point total this year would require a less-than-Herculean 29-22-5 the rest of the way.

In real life, they’ll need to improve on that to ensure a playoff berth, and that would require at least a couple of five and six game undefeated strings to make up the points lost to games in hand. And they would have to go on one soon, as in immediately.

That seems unimaginable given Wednesday’s abysmal performance against Anaheim and Thursday’s close-but-no-cigar showing in Silicon Valley, but they already have a 6-2-1 sequence this year.

And by this space’s count Thursday’s was at least the seventh coulda-shoulda-woulda loss of the season for Montreal, where they either led late, dominated the opposition, or were thwarted by otherworldly goaltending. Conversely, this is not a team that has been able to consistently win games they should probably have lost (only one example springs to mind, the recent overtime win in Carolina).

At some point these things tend to even out - they collected a couple of overtime points, but had they converted just two of those (say the 1-0 loss to Boston where they out-shot the Bruins 33-18, and the 2-1 loss to a Florida team they badly out-played or the 3-1 loss to Buffalo, where the Sabres scored an empty-netter) they’d be in sixth. Win three and you’d be in with a shout for the division lead.

Such are the margins this year.

The Habs are stronger defensively than they were in 2009-10, their five-on-five scoring is better, their penalty-killing is as good or better, all that’s missing is a decent power play. Not a small point, but not completely un-fixable either, whether Andrei Markov is part of the solution or not.

After Thursday’s loss, the Habs also lead the NHL in overtime/shootout defeats, with five (against only one SO win, which is handy tiebreaker-wise).

So don’t discount the loser point gained in San Jose, when you look back in five months it may have saved the season.

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Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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