Stanley Cup Playoff Push: Biggest game of Montreal’s season

Elliotte Friedman joins Tim and Sid to talk about the current NHL playoff format and if it could change.

There are eight games on the schedule Thursday night and five will have some influence on the NHL standings.

Out West, the San Jose Sharks need to find a way to end their six-game losing streak as the Vegas Golden Knights are all of a sudden knocking on the door for home-ice advantage in Round 1. Washington plays Carolina and the New York Islanders visit Winnipeg as Barry Trotz’s team tries to get back on track and not cede the first and second spots in the Metro to more established contenders.

The biggest game of the night, though, has to be in Columbus where the Blue Jackets host Montreal in what is the Canadiens’ biggest game of the season. We highlight that, and more, in today’s playoff push.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

If the regular season ended today…

(A1) Tampa Bay vs. (WC2) Montreal
(A2) Boston vs. (A3) Toronto

(M1) Washington vs. (WC1) Carolina
(M2) Pittsburgh vs. (M3) NY Islanders

Here’s what the Eastern Conference standings look like today:

Team in focus: Montreal Canadiens
They may not be able to clinch a playoff spot, but Montreal’s Thursday night showdown against the Blue Jackets is their biggest game of the season. It’s as close to must-win as you can get in a game that isn’t really do or die.

Here’s the situation: The Habs hold the second wild-card spot and sit two points up on the Blue Jackets, who have played one fewer game than Montreal. A regulation win would open up a four-point gap, which the Canadiens would obviously prefer in any scenario, but this is especially true when you look at the remaining schedules of the two teams.

TEAM March 30 March 31 April 2 April 4 April 5 April 6
Montreal @ WPG No game vs. TBL @ WSH No game vs. TOR
Columbus @ NSH @ BUF vs. BOS No game @ NYR @ OTT

As you see, the Blue Jackets have a couple tough matchups ahead, but three of their final five games — and both of their last two — come against non-playoff teams. And these aren’t three teams that just missed out. Since Jan. 1 Buffalo, Ottawa and the Rangers are 31st, 30th and 27th in points percentage, respectively. Montreal, meanwhile, will face three potential division winners in their final four games — the only benefit being that none of them are back-to-back situations, so they can ride a relatively rested Carey Price to the end.

In the head-to-head series between these two, Montreal holds a 2-0 advantage with 3-2 and 4-1 wins, both in the 2019 portion of the schedule. Whether the Canadiens get in or miss out on these playoffs, Thursday’s game against Columbus will likely be looked back upon as a defining moment.

Fun fact: Patrick Marleau continued his rise up the all-time games played list Wednesday, skating in the 1,652nd game of his career. That moved him past Chris Chelios and into a tie with Mark Recchi for fifth. He can’t catch anyone else this season, but 2019-20 is a big one for him. Heading into the last year of his contract with the Leafs, Marleau would need to play 75 games to pass Ron Francis for fourth and 77 to pass Jaromir Jagr for third on the games played list.

Considering he currently also has the sixth-longest ironman streak in NHL history with 783 consecutive games played, that’s within reach. If he does suit up for all 82 next season, he would head into free agency at age 41 needing just 29 more games to pass Gordie Howe’s record.

But, even if he plays all 82 games for another two seasons, he’d still fall short of Doug Jarvis’s all-time iron man record by just 12 games.

Today’s clinching scenarios:
The defending champion Washington Capitals can officially punch their ticket to the post-season with a win, in any fashion, against Carolina or if they get one point against the Hurricanes and the Montreal-Columbus game is decided in regulation (regardless of winner).

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

If the regular season ended today…

(P1) Calgary vs. (WC2) Colorado
(P2) San Jose vs. (P3) Vegas

(C1) Winnipeg vs. (WC1) Dallas
(C2) Nashville vs. (C3) St. Louis

Here’s what the Western Conference standings look like today:

Team in focus: San Jose Sharks
Looking like they’re locked into a first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks have to make sure they at least head into it with home-ice advantage. Currently sitting five points up on Vegas with a game in hand, San Jose certainly has the inside track in this regard but the two teams will come together for a playoff preview game Saturday night that could also have huge sway on home ice if the Sharks lose in regulation Thursday night.

It’s time to start worrying about these Sharks. They’ve dropped six games in a row and haven’t allowed less than three goals in a game since shutting out the Minnesota Wild on March 11. The offence has slowed down, with 14 goals over those six games — a stretch when defensive defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been their highest scorer with five points (all assists). Joe Thornton, Kevin Labanc and Brent Burns are next at four points, and that leaves you wondering where the stars have gone.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Joe Pavelski has missed four of those games. The current top line of Timo Meier, Logan Couture and trade-deadline pickup Gustav Nyquist have a combined five points in the past six games along with a minus-19 rating. But here’s the thing: Over this stretch every Sharks skater except Thornton and Evander Kane has gotten more high danger chances than they’ve given up. Nyquist (76.67), Couture (65.52) and Meier (62.16) all have terrific 5-on-5 high danger chance percentages, per Natural Stat Trick. A little bad luck and a lot of mediocre netminding has been the cause.

That goaltending has been San Jose’s Achilles’ heel all season and it’s catching up to them. The combination of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has the league’s second-worst all situations save percentage at .890, just ahead of Florida and right behind New Jersey and Edmonton. The next-lowest save percentage by a team currently in a playoff spot are the Calgary Flames at .903.

Not since the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins has a team headed into the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a bottom-three save percentage. Those Pens got to the second round, where they were knocked off by great goaltending from No. 8 seed Montreal.

San Jose does have a top-four offence on the season, but since the trade deadline Vegas has been better than the Sharks in that department too. As we know, Vegas seems to have a distinct advantage when playing at T-Mobile Arena and are 7-2-2 there in their past 11 games. The Golden Knights also beat San Jose 7-3 on the road just last week with Malcolm Subban in net. No matter how you look at it, a first-round matchup against Vegas is concerning for the Sharks — the least they could do to try and get some sort of advantage is walk into it with home-ice advantage.

Fun fact: The Dallas Stars hold on to the first wild-card spot right now, which would line them up against Winnipeg in the first round — but it might be in their best interest to fall back a spot before the regular season concludes. With a 2-1 win over Calgary Wednesday night, the Stars extended their winning streak against the Flames to six games, dating back to Oct. 27, 2017. With the win, Dallas can become the first intraconference team since the 2012-13 Anaheim Ducks to sweep the West’s first-place team (minimum two games) in a season series.

Wednesday’s win wasn’t all rosy for the Stars, though. Starter Ben Bishop left the game with an injury.

Today’s Clinching Scenarios
No Western teams can clinch a spot Thursday.

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