For what feels like months, the Canadiens' standing in the Conference has seemed little more than a cosmetic matter. It's been apparent for some time the Habs would have difficulty keeping pace with the Pittsburghs and Bostons of the East. Similarly, the Habs' playoff contention was in little doubt. Now, for the first time in a while, the Canadiens' position in the standings is beginning to matter again.
In the face of extremely harsh competition, the Habs have actually played well, putting together one of their best stretches of possession play of the entire year. Undercut by the absence of Carey Price, however, poor goaltending has the Canadiens now in the midst of a three game losing streak. Coupled with the decent play of some of the competitors that the Habs have looked down on all season, Montreal is now only four points of the East's best positioned non-playoff team. Complicating the issue is Montreal's schedule, which sees them ceding a game or two in hand to most of their closest competitors.
All of this isn't necessarily cause for immediate concern, but it does mean one thing: the Canadiens need their luck, and their results, to turn around.
Their opponent this evening, the Ottawa Senators, are one of those squads desperately chasing teams like Montreal. The Sens are currently five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers, who occupy the second wildcard position. With seventeen games remaining on the slate for 2013-14, the Senators are in a position that demands they begin to pick up points. Tonight, they'll aim to do so against a group that has already given them some points this year.
The Senators have already beaten the Habs twice this year, and came close to doing so a third time when these two teams last met. The Canadiens used two powerplay goals, plus a sweet David Desharnais deke, to propel themselves to a 3-0 lead. By the end of the second period, Ottawa turned the tables, scoring four straight goals to take a lead heading into the final frame. In the nick of time, two impact defencemen came forward to save the game, as Jared Cowan (on his own net) and P.K. Subban would score third period goals to save the Habs from what would have been an unhealthy dose of embarrassment.
In a more general sense, the Senators have been no more than average on the season, sticking close to the middle of the pack by many different measures. That leaves them in a predicament similar to Montreal's, where a team that was good and verging on outstanding last year finds themselves without similar results just a season later. Whether one looks at offence, defence, possession, or special teams, the Senators are generally in the middle third of NHL rankings. Last year, the Sens were hampered by significant injuries, losing star players Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza for lengthy periods on their way to becoming the league's most injured team. While no team every goes injury-free through a season, a fact that the recent injury to Clarke MacArthur is evidence of, Ottawa has lost fewer man games to injury than any NHL team this season. So, what's the difference in Ottawa?
On one hand, there was some significant roster upheaval in the offseason, as longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson left Canada's capital to join the Detroit Red Wings. In his place, the Senators acquired star Bobby Ryan, and got themselves a free agent bargain in top-sixer MacArthur. The talent level is arguably better than it was last season, and is at least as good. Talent isn't the issue in Ottawa; a group capable of strong play last year is simply outputting less.
One aspect of their decline is in net, where the quality of play has declined from Craig Anderson's Vezina-worthy campaign in 2012-13 to an average follow-up this year. The Senators were staunch last year, allowing just over two goals per game. This year, that number has jumped up more than one full goal, making Ottawa one of the most generous teams league-wide. Goaltender regression is a significant factor here, but that doesn't solely account for a team going from best to worst in terms of goals allowed.
The other piece of the puzzle appears to be Paul Maclean's usage of his team's talent. As Silver Seven examines in detail, the sheen was worn off of Paul Maclean, and he seems unable to find a line combination that works. He's tried spreading out his talent, but has managed only to water down his line combinations to the point of ineffectiveness. He's also tried consolidating all of his talent in two strong lines, which has put the spotlight on Ottawa's weaker forwards as team's take advantage of the Sens' bottom six. Either way, an angry fanbase feels better equipped than their team's coach to choose line combinations, and the on-ice product is suffering in the interim. Sound familiar?
Ultimately, tonight's game will come down to the sum of both of those factors, as the Canadiens (with Price finally back) and the Senators will need contributions at both ends in order to succeed. Both teams have high-powered talent at the front and back, and are capable of putting together a roster than can compete with any team in the NHL. Unfortunately, whether either coach is capable of making the decision that puts them there is another wager altogether, and as the stakes get higher and higher, it looks like neither city is willing to make that bet.