As the playoff race tempest rages around them, the Montreal Canadiens have been focusing intently on something more elusive and intangible than points or goals - and they may well have found it in Newark, N.J., of all places.
Over the past two or three weeks the will-they-make-it hubbub has ramped up fan angst, but within the calm confines of the Habs dressing room, the feeling is the team uncovered something valuable in Saturday's 3-1 win over the fading Devils: a blueprint for a successful playoffs.
Now comes the hard part - following it.
"The question is can we do it again and again and again?" said winger Michael Cammalleri, later adding, "[Tuesday]night is really the determining factor. You can't be one on, one off going into the playoffs. You can have a stinker maybe once in a series in the playoffs, but that's it. You have to be giving yourself a chance to win every night because the other team's going to be there every night."
On Tuesday the Habs close out their regular-season home schedule against the Chicago Blackhawks, who are locked in perhaps an even more desperate scrap to make the postseason.
The stakes are evident for both teams, but the Habs, having been in an analogous situation last year, see the encounter as more than an opportunity to make up the points that would all but clinch their postseason berth.
"We need to bear down and play with that urgency, that's what you're trying to find at this time of the year, we need to get that, to make sure we're sharp defensively," defenceman Hal Gill said. "You worry about it, but the only way you get [consistency]back is to focus on what's ahead."
Players and coaches like to talk about things like identity and defining roles - which can sound like hokum, but do matter in a circumstance where a squad is trying to develop an effective style and rhythm.
Which is where the real benefit of beating the Devils - in a rink where the Habs have enjoyed paltry success - could lie if they end up facing a familiar bugaboo in the form of Boston or Philadelphia next week.
"That's exactly the way we wanted to play, and I think it's the way we want to continue playing, with close support," said goaltender Carey Price, who will set a new franchise record with his 71st appearance of the season on Tuesday - a victory would also give him 37 wins, a first since 1977-78, when Ken Dryden turned the trick.
For the Habs to win in the playoffs they'll have to use smart defence - there's no such thing as playing ugly in the defensive zone - and sprightly transition play, as they did Saturday.
Then there's intensity and driving the net, both of which have become mantras for the Montreal coaching staff as the Habs have floundered in the past weeks.
"A lot of our chances were created by having good net presence," said head coach Jacques Martin. "What's more encouraging is I thought we played really well away from the puck, our forwards helped out our defence, we were more direct and I think that's the key to try and get your game in order."
The Habs likely only need one point from their remaining three games this week - they travel to play Ottawa on Thursday and Toronto on Saturday - to make the playoffs and banish all memories of what ended up being a harrowing month of March.
After losing five of seven games, they have now won two of three.
That the sharp end of the system in Jersey would be provided by 34-year-old forward Mathieu Darche - the latest to try and fill the hole left by the injury to winger Max Pacioretty - made it all the more satisfying.
The no-frills approach he provided alongside Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez should shine as an example to others, Martin said.
The 34-year-old Darche, who didn't earn his first one-way NHL contract until last summer - as he prepared for his 11th pro season - scored two goals Saturday to push his season total to 12, a career high.
"I savour it every day, sometimes before practice I'm skating around and I'll look at the logo on my jersey - I'm playing for the Canadiens!" said the Montreal-born Darche, a childhood Habs fan. "But if you sit down and appreciate it too much, the parade will pass by."Report Typo/Error