Considered rationally, it’s not clear why anyone would compete so hard for the alleged prize that is first place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division.
The winner’s reward is a first-round playoff matchup against a team it will have to look upward in the standings to see, and yet here they were, the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens, grappling for the upper hand in back-to-back contests this weekend.
There were heavy collisions and outbreaks of low-level mayhem after whistles; the goalies were knocked over and sat upon.
Each also provided ample evidence of why the opposition feels the need to resort to such skulduggery.
Two postseason encounters in the past four years mean these teams have built up a reasonable level of mutual disdain, which might have as much to do with the tone of a weekend home-and-home set as the prospect of home-ice advantage for the first round.
The Senators had some rather deep dents knocked into their designs on top spot by losing the first game 4-3 in a shootout – three-point games are of no particular help with only three weeks remaining in the regular season – and 4-1 in the second.
Montreal opened the scoring just 28 seconds into the game, thanks to some nice interplay between Paul Byron and Andrei Markov and a screen by Brendan Gallagher that allowed Tomas Plekanec to poke home a rebound.
Ottawa wasted little time in responding. Former Hab Tom Pyatt’s shot caromed into the top corner off Montreal defender Jordie Benn’s stick.
It was an eventful evening for Benn, who took a penalty for wrestling Ottawa’s Chris Kelly to the ice after he dared get too close to goaltender Carey Price, and later scored the go-ahead goal (it took a healthy deflection off the Sens’ Viktor Stalberg’s stick).
Paul Byron added an insurance goal in the third. It was the 20th goal of the season for the Ottawa native, who was acquired through waivers last year. Montreal’s Nathan Beaulieu, a healthy scratch two games ago, made it 4-1 on a late power-play goal.
The teams will play a third time next Saturday, but barring a collapse Montreal will be champions of hockey’s weakest division.
From that standpoint, the weekend series was an opportunity to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Both came in as top-10 defensive teams, Montreal having the edge in overall possession metrics and defensive depth, the Senators a little more adept at putting goals on the board.
Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson, who was a doubt to play because of lingering injuries, is typically fantastic against Montreal. In these games, he was again.
Counterpart Price has also been rejuvenated since Claude Julien took over behind the bench, and in starting games on back-to-back nights for just the second time since the 2015 playoffs, was in imperious form.
Beyond the performances of the goaltenders and stars such as the Senators’ Erik Karlsson, the NHL’s finest defenceman, what should perhaps be most reassuring to fans on both sides is the play of the lesser lights who will be depended upon to deliver in the playoffs.
Top lines tend to cancel each other out in April and beyond, the balance of power is usually held by third-liners and character players such as Montreal’s Gallagher, Andrew Shaw and Byron, Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mike Hoffman and Pyatt, second and third pair defencemen such as Benn and Ottawa’s Cody Ceci.
Though each team has conspicuous flaws on the blueline, there is enough solidity. Both Julien and Ottawa’s Guy Boucher are known for their special teams, and while the penalty killing will have satisfied both coaches, more work will need to be done on the power play.
It might be a particular need for Ottawa, who absent one power-play goal in four opportunities on Saturday, didn’t present much of a threat.
Ottawa’s inability to overtake Montreal in the standings this past weekend doesn’t much affect their playoff chances (each has a better than 98-per-cent chance of making it, according to sportsclubstats.com’s simulations).
Both these teams will be in the postseason, and every right-thinking Canadian hockey fan should hope they renew acquaintances there in the second round.Report Typo/Error