Montreal has earned the luxury of knowing they’ll be going to the playoffs for some time now. The main question—aside from the health of Max Pacioretty—is whom they’ll face in the first round. That likely won’t be known until April 11, the conclusion of the regular season.
Montreal is on pace to win the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They can’t finish worse than second in the Atlantic and, depending on what a few other teams do, can even finish first in the Eastern Conference, and possibly win the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Habs are likely to face one of Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Boston; less likely could it be Ottawa, the New York Islanders, or Washington.
The good thing is, it won’t be the Tampa Bay Lightning. Montreal went 0–4–1 against the Bolts in the regular season.
The likely first-round matchups look promising for Montreal, for what that’s worth. The first round of the playoffs can seem like a crapshoot when all’s send and done.
Montreal had Detroit’s number this year, winning all three meeting thus far. All those meetings took place prior to Detroit’s late-season slide though.
Detroit has gone 6–10–2 since March and, despite plenty of playoff experience, has to be thought of as a good matchup for Montreal. Montreal faces the Red Wings in its 81st game of the season on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh is an enigma with injuries to key players like Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Pascal Dupuis, and questionable playoff goaltending from Marc-André Fleury; but Sidney Crosby is quietly leading the league in scoring and Evgeni Malkin can turn it up several notches in the postseason.
Montreal went 1–1–1 against Pittsburgh, but should feel better with the matchup given the Pens’ recent slump (7–9–2 since March and three-game losing streak to start April).
Of course, Montreal–Boston is one of the NHL’s best rivalries and Montreal has dominated it this year. Boston has been fighting for its playoff life, fending off Ottawa, and has had a roller-coaster of a season. Montreal won all four meetings against the B’s and also beat them in last year’s second round in seven games.
The tricky part facing Boston is that the Bruins have been playing playoff hockey for over a month and are currently on a five-game win streak. A confident team with momentum entering the playoffs is a less desirable opponent than one coming in with little or no momentum like Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Time Is Now
The Habs are having their best regular season since 1988-89. That year they reached the Stanley Cup final (losing to Calgary). Montreal is the last Canadian team to win a Stanley Cup (1993).
Last year, in Michel Therrien’s second year of his second stint as Habs bench boss, Montreal reached the conference final round and was favoured to reach the Stanley Cup final in their matchup with the New York Rangers. But then Carey Price was injured when Chris Kreider crashed into him and the series was basically over.
The great regular season won’t mean much if Montreal doesn’t, at least, reach the Stanley Cup final. This is a team in its prime and has good years ahead of it with key pieces of the puzzle under contract.
General manager Marc Bergevin has done his part, now its time for the players and Therrien to deliver.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports