With the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators essentially assured of returning to the playoffs next month, we handicap the Atlantic Division title race after the Habs’ weekend sweep of their division rival.
Sorry, Sens fans. We know you only trail the Canadiens by four points, but gauging by strength of opponent, home and road schedules, and back-to-backs, we’re comfortable with hanging a divisional banner in la belle province with 10 games to go. (Also, we love the idea of Montreal proudly hanging division title banners.)
Sorry, Habs fans. That might not be a good thing for your squad.
Here’s a breakdown of the Atlantic title race down the stretch:
Games in hand
Ottawa has one more game to play than Montreal, so there's that.
Home and road
Beginning with a five-game home stand Tuesday, Montreal hosts six of its final 10 games at the Bell Centre. Ottawa has just three scattered home dates and eight roadies—including a tough five-game trip that bounces back and forth between the Eastern and Central time zones.
Montreal finishes its season with a pair of consecutive games in which it faces Tampa Bay at home (April 7) and flies to Detroit for its final game at The Joe (April 8). The Sens have two back-to-backs: a home-and-home against the Red Wings April 3-4 and an all–New York double-header to wrap the season (April 8 versus the Rangers and April 9 at the Islanders).
Advantage: Canadiens, who don't appear to suffer from back-to-backs anyway
Strength of opponent
Here's the real spoiler for the Senators' Atlantic crown bid. Six of their remaining contests are against playoff teams, and another one comes against a team desperately in the hunt. Minnesota and Pittsburgh are among the powerhouses left on the docket.
Montreal plays just one game against an all-but-certain playoff team, and that's the Sens. The Habs should benefit from a soft sprint to the finish line, as they draw a lineup of lottery-bound teams: Detroit (twice), Florida (twice), Carolina, Dallas and Buffalo. They also play Tampa twice, and the injury-stricken Lightning currently sit two points out of a wild-card spot.
Big advantage: Canadiens
The Habs have three more regulation and overtime wins (ROW) than their Ontario counterparts. Each club has defeated the other twice head-to-head, with a fifth and final regular-season tilt set for March 25.
Montreal might as well send all its pro scouts to see the New York Rangers, who look like a lock for the first wild card spot. According to odds-crunching site SportsClubStats.com, Montreal has an 89 per cent chance of claiming the Atlantic. We like those odds. This should set up a beautiful Original Six first-round matchup, a chance for Henrik Lundqvist to snatch some revenge from Carey Price (see: Olympic gold medal game, 2014) and Alain Vigneault from Claude Julien (see: Stanley Cup Final, 2011).
For what it's worth, Montreal swept its season series versus the Blueshirts 3-0. Two of those games were decided by a single goal, and one went to a shootout.
We feel confident saying the Senators should now be more concerned with securing the Atlantic's second seed and home ice in Round 1. The Boston Bruins — winners of four of their past five — are just four points behind them.
Ironically, due to the lopsided nature of the NHL's playoff format this year, the Senators are on target to draw the easier opponent on paper. That's likely hated Boston, but perhaps also hated Toronto or maybe Tampa.