Two games to play for Carolina, Columbus and Montreal. Just one point separating the three teams. Two teams will make the playoffs. One team will not. You don’t get more exciting than that in this bonus season of unexpected drama from the Canadiens. The Hurricanes and Blue Jackets have poor opponents to finish the schedule. The Habs have two tough opponents. The Maple Leafs will be at home on Saturday in a game that the Habs are hoping will matter, and the Capitals are in Washington on Thursday night needing the win to take the Metropolitan Division. So not only do the Habs face a talented team, they face a talented team that has a high ‘care’ factor for the game.
- Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar: one of the most underrated lines in the entire NHL. They’re not in the category of the Bruins great line, or Colorado’s either, but they sure are underrated in NHL circles. You won’t hear anyone around the league extolling the virtues of this line. You should. They all have strong Corsi numbers, and their centre has been asked to face the best players in hockey and he has succeeded. There isn’t much talk about Danault as he is not flashy and he does not put big numbers on the board, but you could not have asked any other player on the team to do what Danault has done: faced the other team’s best, started many shifts in his defensive zone, and had little power play time to pad the stats. Despite all of that, he has set personal highs across the board.
- A stretch drive is much like the playoffs, and they serve the same purpose for a GM in his evaluation. A stretch drive shows you who can bring it when so much is on the line, and who cannot. Who is the type of player who can get you far in the playoffs, and who simply does not have the will or know the way. Max Domi is clearly a battler who will go to the end of the earth for the cause. When things got more important, Domi got better. Andrew Shaw has already shown the hockey world with his two Stanley Cups that he can elevate and battle. Shaw did that with Chicago, and he hasn’t lost that touch with Montreal. We all know that Gallagher will battle until he’s that character in the Monty Python skit proclaiming that it’s just a flesh wound while his limbs are strewn all over the countryside. Tatar is a battler who was outstanding in this playoff push. Danault battles. Shea Weber, with 30-minute games down the stretch while playing in pain, scored his 14th of the season in this one. He will fight until the end for the crest and his teammates. He’s the perfect captain. Joel Armia is made for the post-season. He’s impossible to take off the puck. Artturi Lehkonen played his best hockey of the season in this stretch drive. He’s a remarkably intelligent player and every coach needs all that he brings to the game to help hold a lead, even when he is struggling to score. One player who has upped his game and should be among the defenders to get a spot next year is Brett Kulak. The Habs hope that Juulsen is healthy and Josh Brook’s got game, but even then, Kulak deserves a spot on the third pair. Also, Jeff Petry skated miles and did not back down one bit down the stretch. Victor Mete got better as the season progressed. Size did not matter for Mete as the game got more physical and the space more confined. There are so many players who showed they are playoff players. However, some weren’t ready for prime time yet. For example, Jonathan Drouin‘s numbers fell off the map in the final quarter of the season. He was second on the team in scoring this season after February finished but gave next to nothing in the final stretch with only two points in his last 17 games. That catastrophic collapse from Drouin cost the team a tremendous amount. Drouin was on pace to blow past his career high in points, but in the end, he won’t even set a new mark. It might be early to make a final declaration, but it appears that Bergevin has lost this trade with Tampa Bay. Drouin let his teammates down. Jesperi Kotkaniemi ran out of energy completely and added nothing to the team in the final dozen games. Overall, though, there is so much to love for Habs fans in the future. This team has battlers. This team has fighters. This team also about six high-level prospects that are waiting to show that they can battle too. It’s been 20 years since the Habs had a future as bright as this. Why? The club has not been this good down the middle in two decades. The club has not had prospects this good in two decades. Oh, and Trevor Timmins has 10 picks in the entry draft this June as well to add to the bright outlook.
WATCH: Final stretch predictions
- A word has to be said about the Habs’ goaltending. Carey Price played 66 games. Considering that he has had injury issues over his career, he should not have been asked to be in the net this much. Antti Niemi could not get it done and lost his confidence and ability to stop the puck. That forced Price to be in night after night after night in high-pressure situations. Price answered the call. He was outstanding. Price can’t be asked to do that next year though. This season, GM Marc Bergevin has been praised almost exclusively for his deals to acquire Domi, Tatar, Nick Suzuki, Jordan Weal and Nate Thompson, but as much as the GM did right, he missed extremely badly on the backup goalie, and not having a good one cost the Habs dearly in the end. If Price could play all 82, there is absolutely no question, the Habs make the playoffs. Or even if the backup goalie could do slightly better than an abysmal .887 save percentage, the Habs would be in the playoffs. Price, by comparison, is .918. That’s at least a goal per game better. That’s not a 4-3 loss, then. It’s overtime, and maybe not just one point, but two. Such is the nature of sports when your best player can’t be in for all 82.
- Some rather dubious work from Christian Folin on the Capitals’ first goal. The playoffs or not the playoffs is the product of a collection of moments where the players either have the talent to make the play or they do not. Folin simply didn’t have the talent to make the play. It’s unusual on a hockey goal for only one man to be almost entirely responsible. However, on the first goal, Folin got to the puck first and gave it away, then after giving it away, he went to the net, where he didn’t have his man. That’s how it works. Folin has done well overall, but he won’t be on the roster when Noah Juulsen, Brook, and Alexander Romanov are ready. The better player to come will perhaps make that play. The difference between overall success and failure can be that small. One should also note on the play that centre Nate Thompson could have handled the front of the net as well, but the blame was mostly Folin’s on the opener.
- The second Capitals goal also had a clean and clear goat. Price handled the simple dump in, and he passed it perfectly to Paul Byron. Byron had time and space, but somehow, he messed up completely. He only had three feet to go to clear the puck where he stood at the blue line area when he received the pass, but he didn’t clear the zone. He turned it over 100 per cent. Suddenly, there were Capitals everywhere, and just as suddenly it was in the net. It was the Caps’ game-winner in the 2-1 contest.
- This Habs team is better than many before it that did make the playoffs. In fact, the irony here is that this Habs team is far better than the team in 2010 that made it all the way to the conference finals, but such is the nature of sports. This year’s Habs would be comfortably in the playoffs in the west, but the east was stronger this year, and the Habs didn’t do enough, it appears. The scenario is extremely dire now. The Hurricanes, having won on Thursday night, are in the playoffs as the Canadiens cannot catch them. The Habs need to beat Toronto Saturday while the Blue Jackets have to lose both of their contests as they face the Rangers in New York and the Senators in Ottawa. It was expected all season that they would need 97 points and that was the total that was needed. The best that the Habs can do is 96.
WATCH: Do or die for the Habs
- Only one high-level prospect is playing exciting hockey right now. It’s Nick Suzuki, who was outstanding in the first round when the Guelph Storm swept the Kitchener Rangers. Now, it’s the second round, and it promises to be much more difficult. The Storm and London Knights are evenly matched. Both teams have high expectations these playoffs. Game 1 is tomorrow night in London. The Knights won the Western Conference with 99 points. Guelph was fourth with 90 points. However, it was the Storm who dominated the season series, losing only one time in regulation in their six meetings. Suzuki will get a good challenge to see if he can create in this series against some high-level players. No doubt, Suzuki will be forced to face Evan Bouchard and Adam Boqvist, the top two blueliners on London, and two of the best blueliners in the entire league.