BROSSARD, Que. — Welcome back from bye-week, Montreal Canadiens. Here’s your schedule: Back-to-back matinee games this coming weekend against a New Jersey Devils team that’s won four of six games and an Edmonton Oilers team that’s three points out of a playoff spot and desperate to string wins together.
Next up is a heavy-hitting Anaheim Ducks team that’s currently one point out of a wild-card position in the Western Conference, and that will be followed by games against four of the best teams in the NHL — the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning.
By the way, your best player is being forced to miss your first game back because he skipped All-Star Weekend. You know, Carey Price, the goaltender who’s gone 13-7 since Dec. 1 with a .933 save percentage and a 2.04 goals-against average. The one who’s won his last four starts, allowing only four goals against in the process.
Anyways, this should all be a piece of cake. Right?
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher after participating on Thursday in his team’s first practice in eight days.
It’s hard to argue with the notion. The Canadiens, who were expected to be draft-lottery contenders this season, have put themselves in Position A ahead of Game 52 of this 82-game marathon.
They’ve proven themselves to be a speedy, plucky bunch that can compete on any given night and against any given team. And now, with the going getting especially tough, it’s time to see if they’re tough enough to keep it going.
“When you look at our record, so far we haven’t had real highs but we haven’t had real lows. We’ve been pretty consistent” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “If anything, I’ve seen growth in our game.”
Enough to take advantage of these first two teams visiting the Bell Centre this weekend?
“From here to the end, it doesn’t matter who you play,” said Julien. “Every year we see the same thing. We talk about teams that are non-playoff teams; well, they come in, they play with no pressure, they play the best hockey of the year and they find ways to win, and all of a sudden you say, ‘Geez, you can’t beat those teams that aren’t in the playoffs.’
“You’ve got to go back to, again, respecting the parity in this league. And no matter what, (against) every team, you have to do the right things to win. You can’t just expect (to look) at the standings and say, ‘We should win this game.’ You’ve got to go out there with the same approach, knowing that you have to do the right things to succeed.”
For the Canadiens, that’s meant playing with relentless pressure all over the ice. That is what has led them to a 28-18-5 record so far and allowed them to not only remain in the playoff picture, but to be in the hunt for one of the top three positions in the uber-competitive Atlantic Division.
Currently, the Canadiens have a one-point advantage over the Boston Bruins and are one point back of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in second place in the Atlantic. At worst, after games-in-hand are made up by their closest competitors between now and when Montreal plays on Saturday, the team will be at least three points clear of the playoff bubble.
No matter where they stand when play resumes against New Jersey, the Canadiens know this is no time for them to ease off.
“Everybody at this time of the season, and in and around our standings area, is playing desperate hockey,” said Price. “It’s going to be playoff-style hockey from here to the end.”
Starting off on the right foot — even against a Devils team that’s 16 points behind the Canadiens in the standings — is going to present its own challenge.
Price and team captain Shea Weber both said they felt “awful” after the team’s one-hour workout on Thursday. Not that they appeared awful as they went through the paces of the practice. Their teammates looked no worse for wear, either.
But getting back to what earned the Canadiens wins in five of six games heading into the bye-week isn’t solely a physical challenge; it will also be mentally taxing to not allow the interruption — Montreal has played just one game in the last 13 days — to ruin their flow.
And perhaps the biggest hurdle is being able to immediately put together a coordinated effort after so much time spent apart.
“I think it’s just all about timing and getting back into the swing of things,” said Price. “Obviously, when you take time away from the game and then come back, everything’s happening pretty quickly out there. I think you’re out of sync with the way your body feels and how sharp your mind is, so we’ve got a couple of practices here to kind of get our feet under us and get working again and feeling good about ourselves.”
“These first two games are huge,” Price added.
The five that follow will tell us much — and not only about whether or not the Canadiens can make the playoffs, but also about whether or not they can compete with the best teams if they do.
“I think we know how good we can be when we’re playing our game,” said Weber. “It’s speed and puck possession, driving the play forward, swarming defensively, trying to shut teams down and limit their time and space.”
That will be a herculean task from here to the end of the season, but particularly so over the next two weeks.