With a playoff berth officially clinched following a dominating win over the Buffalo Sabres, the sprint for playoff positioning now begins for the Montreal Canadiens. With eight games remaining for both Montreal and division rival Boston Bruins and only one point separating them, the division champ will be crowned based on who finishes the season the hottest.
The sprint begins tonight against Montreal’s oldest rival the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not since the Leafs ended the Habs playoff hopes back in 2007 in the final regular season game has a contest between these two rivals meant so much for both teams this late in the season. The Leafs are yet to officially clinch a playoff seed, however they are all but assured a return to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Led offensively by Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri who are both averaging a point per game this season and being backstopped by James Reimer, Toronto find themselves in fifth place in the East and are looking to solidify that position with two more points tonight.
Montreal is currently one point up on the Bruins for the Northeast Division lead but with the Bruins facing the struggling Carolina Hurricanes tonight, the Habs will likely need two points to keep pace. The Bruins competition appears to be much weaker than Montreal’s not just tonight but throughout the remainder of the schedule as Boston’s opponents combined record is 152-144-27 while the Canadiens future competition hold a more respectable 167-128-29 record.
Montreal looks to continue the trend of road teams being victors in the season series. The Leafs won the first two meetings this season, topping Montreal 2-1 on opening night before obliterating the Habs 6-0 on February 9th both at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens responded with a 5-2 victory on Air Canada Center ice on February 27th.
Overall the road has been very kind to the Habs this season. Their 13-4-2 record outside of Montreal is one of the best road records in the league. Meanwhile, the Leafs have been successful as host with an 11-7-2 record in Toronto.
Many members of the media are speculating this game could be a preview of a 4th vs 5th seed first round playoff series. It is up to the Habs to prove that they are very much alive in the division race with the Bruins and a win on enemy soil tonight would go a long way in proving they could very well finish 2nd in the East.
With two of the fastest and highest scoring teams in the league facing each other and so much on the line for both, tonight’s game promises to be one of the most exciting between the NHL’s oldest rivals in many years.