BROSSARD, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens (23-19-4), who at one point this season held an 11-point lead over the next-best team in the Atlantic Division, are clinging to a playoff spot by the skin of their teeth.
The Canadiens are currently in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card position by virtue of a tie-breaker, having won one more game in regulation than the Ottawa Senators (22-18-6) have.
To say every game Montreal plays from this point forward is, “a big one,” would be underselling it.
“It’s going to be tight to the end of the year,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien Tuesday. “This is the beauty of it. There’s a lot of teams involved to make the playoffs.”
It’s hardly an ideal scenario for the Canadiens, who shouldn’t be in this position after getting off to a franchise-best 9-0-0 start to the season.
But 16 losses in Montreal’s past 20 games has allowed teams to narrow the gap. Remarkably, the Canadiens haven't fallen out of a playoff spot at any time this season.
“I don’t think we should be worrying about the standings or where we are right now,” said Canadiens assistant captain P.K. Subban. “I think we should be focused on how we’re playing.
“Right now we’re playing well, but we need to be jumping from good to great to give ourselves a chance to win. There’s too big of a gap between when we’re really good and those moments in which it costs us.”
A 4-3 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues last Saturday fits perfectly into Subban’s narrative. The Canadiens had 75 shot attempts in the game and 49 shots on goal. They received goals from Subban, captain Max Pacioretty and assistant captain Tomas Plekanec, but four key mistakes resulted in goals against.
A night later in Chicago, the Canadiens were tied with the Blackhawks in the third period before a critical error from defenceman Nathan Beaulieu left the NHL’s leading scorer, Patrick Kane, all alone in front of goaltender Ben Scrivens. The result was a goal the Canadiens didn’t recover from.
The Canadiens are setting their minds on what they need to do against the Boston Bruins Tuesday night at the Bell Centre. The Bruins are one point up on them in the standings with two games in hand.
“There’s no better time to start picking it up than against a divisional rival, tonight,” said Pacioretty. “We have to make sure we come out with those emotions from the start.”
The Canadiens are 0-5 in 2016 when allowing the game’s first goal and 2-0 when scoring it. They’ve scored the game’s first goal in three of four contests versus the Bruins this season.
This is the final meeting between the Bruins and Canadiens this season and it will be played without one of Boston’s leading scorers, David Krejci.
This will be Krejci’s 10th straight game on the sidelines after suffering an upper-body injury on Dec. 27. Meanwhile Forward David Pastrnak is doubtful after missing three straight games with an upper-body injury.
But forward Brad Marchand, who was serving a suspension while his Bruins lost 5-1 to the Canadiens at the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, will be in the lineup Tuesday.
As for Montreal, the Canadiens are scratching forward Jacob De La Rose from the lineup Tuesday after recalling him Friday from the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL.
Therrien is putting forward Devante Smith-Pelly back in after scratching him from Montreal’s last three games, and he’s giving goaltender Mike Condon the start. No other changes are expected.
“It’s not the stress; it’s more the excitement of playing against the Boston Bruins," Therrien said Tuesday when asked if the tight playoff picture is stressful. "That’s the way I see it. It’s going to be a fun game.”
When asked in French about rumours his job might be in jeopardy, he laughed.
“I really appreciate your concern, honestly,” he said. “But I’m only thinking about the game.”
But the big picture sure is hard to ignore.
It took 98 points last season to make the playoffs and the Canadiens have accumulated just 50 points in 46 games so far this season.
There’s very little margin for error, starting with Tuesday’s game.