MONTREAL – Not dead yet. There are still some vital signs here.
In sweeping a pair of Super Bowl weekend matinees the Montreal Canadiens signalled their intent to make things interesting down the stretch. There was no one celebrating on Ste-Catherine following victories over Edmonton and Carolina, but consider how bleak the outlook would have been if they came away with nothing.
Now they sit just three points behind Pittsburgh for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and finally have something to feel good about.
"It’s definitely something that we needed to kind of just jumpstart us and kind of get our confidence going," said captain Max Pacioretty. "I think at times (lately) we just felt deflated."
It had been more than two months since the Habs won consecutive games – a perplexing stretch where they went from playing like the NHL’s top team to its worst.
That precipitous fall has kicked up a storm of unrest, naturally, and one fan even came to Saturday’s game with a sign that read: "We want (Auston) Matthews."
Yes, there are some pockets of the passionate fanbase hoping the team goes in the tank.
The players have other ideas. They were dominant in beating the Oilers 5-1 on Saturday and followed that up by squeaking out a 2-1 shootout victory over the Hurricanes the following afternoon.
Ben Scrivens backstopped them in both games and had to be particularly sharp against Carolina, denying dangerous chances from Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner in the third period and shutting the door entirely during the five-round shootout.
Afterwards, he sensed a changed mood in the dressing room.
"It’s good for our mentality I think more than anything," said Scrivens. "We’ve had a lot of games recently where we’re getting 40 shots on net and coming up kind of empty-handed and losing close 2-1 games."
In the process Montreal seems to have burned through the hope that was once in large supply here with the team playing five playoff series the last two seasons. Given the losing stretch and Carey Price’s extended injury layoff, it’s to be expected.
The only person they really need to make a believer is Marc Bergevin, who may be inclined to add a piece or two before the Feb. 29 trade deadline if the team shows some life beforehand. The general manager has basically stood pat throughout the slide, calling a recent press conference to say that coach Michel Therrien wasn’t getting fired and that nobody was getting traded.
The best path forward isn’t as clear for the Habs as it is for other teams on the playoff bubble.
On one hand, it would be great to have a high pick at the draft in June and welcome more talent into the organization. But they are also in the window to win now with a core built around Price and P.K. Subban and Pacioretty.
Even losing one springtime opportunity would be extremely tough at this stage of their careers.
Throughout the slide the Montreal players have spoken at length about togetherness, and being mindful of not letting the mounting pressure drive them apart. They certainly seem to believe that there is something worth saving here in the coming weeks.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs," said Subban.
If they could somehow scrape their way in and if Price returned to the crease – a big if, at this point – they might be capable of salvaging this season. The Habs have been one of the NHL’s top possession teams all year long and the underlying numbers suggest that they’re playing in a way that should produce positive results over time.
As we saw this weekend, the team looks pretty good when it is getting some big saves.
"It’s a step in the right direction," said Subban. "Obviously we want to build on it. … Everyone should feel good about their game, feel good about themselves, and it’s important that we do. That spirits are up."
It is certainly too early to write them off entirely. For as bleak as things have been since the start of December, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Canadiens start reeling off some wins.
They are not as bad as their putrid record these last couple months appears to suggest.
One of their biggest opponents of late has been the psychological toll inflicted by all of those losses. They had dropped 21 of 26 coming into the weekend.
Now they have something positive to build on at an ideal time – with red-hot Tampa Bay coming to town on Tuesday night. That’s a big test.
Asked if the confidence should be a little higher, Therrien was careful not to make any declarations: "We certainly hope so."
"I believe so," he said. "That was an important weekend, but there’s still a lot of hockey to be played."
There may not be many believers out there, but the task isn’t insurmountable. And should the Habs get things back on track they’ll likely point to this weekend as the time where they turned the corner.