The Montreal Canadiens are already dominating the Atlantic Division. Over the next five weeks, they have a chance to run away from their division foe.
The Montreal Canadiens have a firm grasp on first place in the Atlantic Division. They currently have an eight point cushion on the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins who are tied for second place in the division.
The Habs have a lot of work to do if they want to claim they are the best team in the Eastern Conference. While the Atlantic is seen as the weakest link, the Metropolitan Division is clearly the toughest grouping in the National Hockey League.
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The Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins all sit ahead of the Canadiens in the overall standings and the New York Rangers are just one point back.
The Canadiens have done well to battle through injuries and remain where they are in the standings. After the collapse of last season, we know nothing is assured until the entire season plays out, so the Habs can’t take their foot of the gas just because their division isn’t going to be all that difficult to win.
Looking at the Canadiens schedule, not only must they avoid slacking off, but they have to put the pedal down and seize a huge opportunity that’s in front of them.
Over the next five weeks, the Canadiens have about as light of a schedule as you can possibly ask for in the NHL. Starting tonight, the Habs face the New Jersey Devils. The Devils sit three points up on last place in the Metroplitan Division. Sure it’s a great division, but being last in any division is not good.
Most upcoming games will be against non-playoff teams
Montreal hits the ice again tomorrow night but will do so against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo is comfortably (maybe not so for Sabres fans) in last in the Atlantic. The Habs next take the ice at home against the Calgary Flames. The Flames will be playing their second game in as many nights and are hanging on to a wildcard playoff berth thanks to playing several more games than the teams below them.
The Canadiens finish off January by heading to Brooklyn to play the last place Islanders, take four days off for the All-Star break and then host the Sabres.
February starts off with three playoff teams, but it will be the toughest stretch for the Canadiens in the next five weeks. They start by heading to Philadelphia to take on the struggling Flyers. Philly had a ten game winning streak early in the season, but are barely clinging to a playoff spot after sputtering for nearly a month.
On Super Bowl Weekend, the Habs play host to the Washington Capitals and Edmonton Oilers. These will undoubtedly be difficult games, but they are at home. The early start times (1:00 P.M. Eastern) may throw off the visiting teams a bit more than the hosts, especially when the Habs face the Oilers who are coming from the Mountain time zone.
The Habs are rewarded for playing two actual good teams by having two “gimme’s” to follow them up. It’s technically a road trip, but facing the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche is more like a vacation this season. The Habs wrap up the three game swing facing the St. Louis Blues who are having a hard time sorting out their goaltending situation.
Habs record against weak teams a reason for optimism in this stretch
Montreal then takes on the Boston Bruins who are technically a playoff team, but only because they have played five more games that the Toronto Maple Leafs who are one point back. That is followed up by games with the WInnipeg Jets (not a playoff team) the Rangers (wildcard team), Islanders (last in division), Maple Leafs (not in, but very close) and Devils (not good.)
Overall it’s a 17 game stretch where the Canadiens only play four teams that have any kind of a grasp on a postseason spot. No games are easy in the NHL, but no run of games will be any easier than this for the Canadiens.
The Canadiens record this season against teams outside the playoffs bodes well for a good run of success coming up. They are currently 19-3-3 against teams that are not in a playoff spot and 8-10-3 against playoff teams.
With the majority of their next 17 games coming against weaker competition, the time is ripe for the Canadiens to go on an extended winning streak. If they take advantage, not only will they have the Atlantic Division pretty much wrapped up by the trade deadline, they will also be in the conversation with the best teams in the league as Stanley Cup contenders.