The Montreal Canadiens have been struggling recently, losing their last three games and coming out on top in just eight of their last 20. A small slump will happen to the best of teams in the National Hockey League, but the Habs haven’t been great for a quarter of the regular schedule now.
Their once firm grip on an Atlantic Division playoff berth has fallen to the wayside, and the Canadiens are now just three points up on non-playoff teams. The Habs were once one of the best defensive teams in the league, but have allowed 35 goals in just 10 games in the month of January.
The Canadiens are currently just six points behind the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning for first in their division, but would need a drastic turnaround in their play to reel in their rivals. In reality, this Habs team is now in a dog fight to hang on to a playoff berth at all.
The good news is, the Habs have a great opportunity to pull away from the non playoff teams in the near future.
Between now and the Olympic break the Canadiens have eight games. Of those eight games, six of them are in Montreal, where the Habs have a record of 14-8-3. They do play the Lightning and Bruins in this six game span, but the only other team they play that is in a playoff spot is the struggling Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver has won just three of their last 10, will be without their Head Coach, John Tortorella who is suspended, and they could be missing Henrik Sedin as well who is injured.
The Habs schedule between now and the Olympic break is: Washington, Carolina, At Boston, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, At Carolina.
The way I see it, if the Habs play .500 hockey over the next eight games, they run the risk of being caught by a streaking team and falling in the standings. If the Habs play less than .500 and only win two or three, they will be outside the playoff picture for sure when the Olympic break begins. We don’t want that, so the Canadiens are going to have to win at least five of the next eight if they don’t want this season to go totally off the rails.
It is possible, but will be tough if they can’t win one of the games against either Tampa or Boston. If they lose to both of their division rivals, they will have to go 5 for 6 in the rest of their schedule. That may seem like a reach, but those six games are against teams with a combined record of 133-129-47 this year. This would leave the Habs in a tough spot to catch Boston or Tampa, but would give them some breathing room when the Olympic break lifts in late February.
Ideally, the Habs will be able to beat either the Bruins or Lightning and then take four out of six against the non playoff teams. This would give them 69 points in 59 pre-Olympic games, and a very strong chance of making the playoffs at season’s end.
On the other hand, if the Habs continue to play the way they have been, and only get six points out of the next eight games, they would head into the break with 65 points. This could force the team to become sellers when the trade deadline rolls around shortly after the schedule restarts.
The Canadiens schedule between the Olympics and the trade deadline is extremely difficult. They face the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins on back to back nights when they return, and then take on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings before the March 5 trade deadline.
If the Montreal Canadiens are going to turn this ship around, and hold their position in the playoffs, they will have to improve over the next eight games, and that begins tonight against the struggling Washington Capitals.
If they don’t take advantage of their light schedule in the next two weeks, veterans such as Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta could be playing their final games in Habs sweaters before being moved for future assets.