For more than two months, Canadiens fans have been watching what they must have felt was a season from hell. Heading into tonight's game against the Arizona Coyotes, however, the Habs' campaign looks headed for purgatory.
Despite having earned the privilege many times over during an absurdly painful last 10 weeks, the Canadiens' hot start and recent win streak mean that their chances of drafting first overall are lower than nearly any other non-playoff team. Frustratingly, their playoff chances are equally dire, with four teams to hop over if they're to claim the second wildcard position.
But tempting as it may be to tank, there is nothing for this team to gain by calling it a season. With a core of good-to-elite players, under 30, that is the envy of nearly any NHL team, the time for the Montreal Canadiens is now. Even if their efforts these last two months are not rewarded, the Habs need to nail their tactics and deployment down to get a head start next season, Even more importantly, they need to separate the wheat from the chaff, both on the bench and behind it. Any franchise would benefit from adding a first-round talent to its prospect pool, but the typical 8-14th overall selection won't likely push Montreal through its current Stanley Cup championship window.
So before sights turn to the future, there is still 2015-16. The fight for the playoffs continues in Arizona this evening.
How to Watch
Start time: 9:00 PM ET
In the Canadiens region (French): RDS
In the Canadiens region (English): Sportsnet East
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|53.0||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||46.5|
|0.97||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.9|
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The Arizona Coyotes are in something of a similar situation. With a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the haves and the have-nots of the Western Conference, the Coyotes find themselves outside the playoff picture, but with considerably less competition than what faces Montreal.
It remains to be seen if the Minnesota Wild can regain their composure under a new coach, and with key players dropping like flies in Vancouver, it looks like the Coyotes will have a clear path to hunt the Nashville Predators. If they're to make progress on that mission this evening, they'll need to make the most of their scoring opportunities.
The Coyotes are one of the league's poorer possession teams, struggling to both generate and suppress shots. But even if the Canadiens are driving play against their opponents, it won't matter if the Habs can't finish. Their offence has improved somewhat, especially with Alex Galchenyuk and Sven Andrighetto seeing more ice time of late, but that trend must continue if the Habs are to have a shot a two points.
Above all else, though, the Habs must do a better job of protecting their goaltender. The Habs were eviscerated in their own zone by the Sabres 12 days ago, and proved that they had improved little in allowing six goals to that same outfit on Friday night. Mike Condon assumed some measure of responsibility when he won this weekend's starting goaltender coin flip, but if his defenders can't keep those point blank, uncontested chances to a minimum, it won't matter who's in goal.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens' November clash with Arizona was a perfect example of what can't happen tonight: the Habs controlled the play, and the Coyotes' controlled the scoreboard.
The game was scarcely five minutes old when the puck bounced to Anthony Duclair, who in full flight, challenged Andrei Markov. Markov held his position, forcing Duclair wide, but the young forward used his speed to whip around Markov and the Canadiens' net, putting a wrap-around attempt on Condon from the far side. Condon made the initial save, but the puck popped past he and his veteran teammate, coming to rest in perfect position for a Martin Hanzal tap-in.
The second Arizona goal wasn't far behind. Coyotes' goalie Mike Smith cleared the puck from behind his own net, starting a three-on-two rush. Puck-carrier Tobias Rieder could not manage more than a wrister from the top of the circle, but Condon fought it off awkwardly, leaving a juicy rebound for Shane Doan. The franchise-leading scorer made no mistake, potting the fifth of what is now 21 goals on the campaign.
When Paul Byron failed to clear the defensive zone on the penalty kill 15 minutes later, the deficit became insurmountable. Antoine Vermette was the immediate beneficiary, but he whiffed on his chance from between the hash marks. No harm was done, however, as the puck pinballed to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose lethal shot blitzed an overmatched Condon.
Max Pacioretty scored before the second period was out, and Dale Weise got on the board as well with Condon on the Canadiens' bench, but it was too little, too late. The Coyotes took their 3-2 victory, and left Habs fans to collectively agree that everything would be fine once Carey Price came back.
The sad reality, though, with the season nearly 70% complete, is that Price might not be coming back this year. And even if he does, there are enough games to lose between now and the trade deadline that Price's presence may not matter anyway.
It falls to this group, including those on the ice and off, to resist the mentality of waiting for better times to come. There are 26 games left in this season, and for this franchise, nothing could matter more. If they allow this season to get stuck at the in-between, they may find their franchise endures the same fate.