The playoffs are still three weeks away, but we got a preview this weekend courtesy of the Canadiens, the Senators and the NHL’s schedule-maker.
The latter served up an old-fashioned home-and-home series between the Atlantic’s two top teams, one that didn’t even drop in the now-traditional extra day off. The result was back-to-back games that had a distinctly post-season feel. We had sellout crowds in both cities. We had a scrap or two. We got two goalies being allowed to play on consecutive nights, in defiance of regular-season wisdom. And we even got some mind games during the warm-up.
What we didn't get were a pair of decisive results; Montreal's win in the opener came in a shootout, which kind of mutes the whole playoff-feel thing. But last night's rematch delivered a more conclusive outcome — another Canadiens win, this time in regulation by a 4–1 final.
It all added up to a demoralizing weekend for the Senators, who went in with a chance to take control of the Atlantic and left facing a four-point gap. That's not insurmountable – Ottawa still holds a game in hand – but it's certainly not where they wanted to be. And while both games were close for the most part, the Canadiens looked like the better team as last night's third period wore on, scoring two unanswered and having a third waved off after an offside review.
The win was the Habs' ninth in their last 11 games, and the two losses came against a pair of the league's hottest teams in Calgary and Chicago. They're finally starting to get scoring from both the top and bottom of the lineup, and with Carey Price up to his old tricks, they're firmly back in the Atlantic driver's seat.
The two teams face each other yet again on Saturday in Montreal. The Canadiens will have the easier week leading up to that clash, facing two Eastern Conference also-rans in Detroit and Carolina. The Senators get much tougher matchups with the Bruins and Penguins, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the race could be all but over by this time next week. Then again, given all the ebbs and flows the division has seen this year, we're probably in for at least a few more twists before the season ends.
(And yes, we're choosing to temporarily ignore the fact that winning this division may not actually be much of a victory, leading to a much tougher first-round matchup with the crossover Rangers. Let's not let the reality of the NHL's weird playoff format get in the way of what should be a good division race.)
So, were two tough wins in a playoff atmosphere enough to get the Canadiens back into our weekly top five? Well, no. But they're inching their way back into consideration, and with a few top-five teams looking vulnerable, we might see Montreal back on the list at some point before the season ends. Just not this week.
Road to the CupThe five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. San Jose Sharks (42-22-7, +30 true goals differential*): They had a chance to all but put away the Pacific on Saturday against the Ducks, but lost 2–1. The Sharks are still the favourites, but the door is open.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6, +63): Well, look who's back. With four straight wins, the Blue Jackets knock the slumping Wild out of the top five for the first time since Christmas, and leave us facing that problem of having too many Metro teams once again.