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The Montreal Canadiens have a tough road ahead to secure an Atlantic seed

At the beginning of the year, not many expected the Montreal Canadiens to be in the playoff conversation as the end of the season approached. Yet new acquisitions have worked out well, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has brought stability to the centre position after a rapid progression since being drafted, and Carey Price is helping the team pile up victories like one of the top clubs in the league.

Since December 1, only six NHL teams have added more points than the Canadiens’ 34, and that’s largely because only four teams have allowed fewer goals in that span. Ranking near the bottom in goals against as Price struggled to find his top form earlier in the year, Montreal is approaching the top 10 in that stat as the league prepares for its final stretch.

The mid-season push has propelled the team into not only a post-season position, but one of the three slots reserved for clubs in the Atlantic Division. While they have played more games than most to get there, they’ve been sitting idly for a week waiting for the others to catch up, and have been able to retain their footing.

With the Tampa Bay Lightning running away in the Presidents’ Trophy race, they’ve all but locked up a spot in the Atlantic section of the draw. That means at this time (a late-season collapse is never out of the question) there are two spots up for grabs in the group, and those are being contested by four teams: the Canadiens are joined by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Buffalo Sabres.

Current standings

Toronto Maple Leafs 49 30 17 2 62 0.633 3.55 2.86
Boston Bruins 50 27 17 6 60 0.600 2.90 2.62
Montreal Canadiens 51 28 18 5 61 0.598 2.98 2.92
Buffalo Sabres 50 25 19 6 56 0.560 2.84 2.96

The four teams all rank among the top 14 clubs in the league by points percentage, yet it’s likely than one, and possible that two, won’t be in the picture when the post-season begins. That will all be determined over the next nine weeks and 30-plus games for the teams involved.

Schedules aren’t equal for all the teams involved. Not only do they have different numbers of games remaining before the season reaches its conclusion on April 6, but there are other elements to factor in when judging the likelihood of a particular team earning a post-season berth.

Remaining games breakdown

Team GR B2B OPP > .500 OPP < .500 AVG PTS%
Buffalo Sabres 32 7 19 11 0.543
Toronto Maple Leafs 33 6 18 9 0.548
Boston Bruins 32 5 17 8 0.557
Montreal Canadiens 31 6 17 9 0.562

The benefit of Montreal playing more games before the All-Star break is that they have fewer on the schedule afterward. The Bruins (once) and Sabres (twice) have already played this week and still have more before the end of the year than the team above them enjoying a 10-day break in the middle of the season.

However, the compression of the final portion of the schedule means the Canadiens still get a substantial helping of back-to-back games, starting two games in 24 hours six times. The Sabres drew the short straw in this particular metric, with seven such sets left on their calendar, and that after just participating in one on Tuesday and Wednesday, missing out on a crucial two points in the latter contest (reminding everyone that games in hand aren’t wins in hand in the process).

The Sabres also face a tough challenge in the number of good teams they’ll face over the remainder of the campaign. Nineteen of their 32 opponents have claimed over half of the points available to them to this point of the season.

On the flipside, they also have the most matchups with the weakest teams in the NHL, playing 11 games versus clubs under a .500 points percentage on the year. That more than offsets the games versus good opponents to give them the lowest average opponent points percentage of the four teams in the hunt.

The Maple Leafs also get a relatively favourable slate to end the season, with competition just slightly tougher than Buffalo’s. The Leafs came into the season as Stanley Cup contenders, and their recent acquisition of Jake Muzzin reinforces that stance, and should also help them pull ahead in the race. But most pundits also had them pegged to be well ahead by this point of the season, and yet with a little more than a third of the season remaining they’re still battling for their place. It’s why everyone plays the 82 games to get their chance.

The Bruins and Canadiens are fairly even in this breakdown. With the season series already finished between the two teams (oddly enough, the Bruins have no games remaining versus the Maple Leafs or Sabres, either), there are no chances to directly leapfrog each other in four-point battles. Instead the jockeying will be contested two points at a time with plenty of scoreboard watching for both sides.

Montreal will have to keep their gaze downward the majority of the time if they want to be in one of the Atlantic spots come mid-April, however, because there is one area where they’re at a significant disadvantage.

Elite opponents

Team GR OPP > .600
Montreal Canadiens 31 13
Boston Bruins 32 11
Buffalo Sabres 32 9
Toronto Maple Leafs 33 6

There are currently eight teams in the NHL with a points percentage above .600, and the Canadiens play a large portion of their remaining games against them. The docket includes two on-ice meetings with the league-leading Lightning, two more with a Winnipeg Jets team that tops the Central Division, a home and away game versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, one versus the impossible San Jose Sharks, a trip to Nashville to take on the Predators, two against the surging New York Islanders, and three against Muzzin and the Maple Leafs.

Status as one of these elite teams can change on a game-to-game basis (and the Blue Jackets are doing their best to remove that designation), but it’s shaping up to be a tough end to the season regardless.

Since the Leafs currently qualify as one of these elite teams, and they don’t have to play themselves, they have the lightest schedule versus top-quality opponents. All signs point to Toronto claiming the second seed behind the Lightning, meaning it should essentially be a three-way brawl for that third position between Montreal, Boston, and Buffalo.

Of the Canadiens’ 13 games versus top competition, four will come in consecutive order from February 7 to 16, with one of their six back-to-backs completed on the 17th to cap it all off. When that sequence reaches its conclusion, we will know if Montreal has what it takes to challenge for one of the top playoff seeds.