MONTREAL – After soaring into the all-star break on a pair of impressive wins, the Montreal Canadiens are looking higher in the final stretch of the NHL season.
A 9-2-2 run combined with a sag by the first-place Ottawa Senators going into the break leaves the Canadiens only six points from top spot in the Eastern Conference.
That is with a game in hand and with five head-to-head matchups with the Senators still to play.
It had Canadiens captain Saku Koivu cautiously optimistic after practice on Monday.
“Obviously, making the playoffs is the goal from Day One for every team,” said Koivu, whose team fell just short of the playoffs last season.
“But when you start accomplishing more things and with the way we’ve played and the position we’re in now, instead of looking at the teams behind us, we’d rather look at those in front of us and what we can do to catch Ottawa and try to grab the first spot. It’s a big challenge, but we’d rather look at it that way.”
The Canadiens have favourable scheduling on their side: of their 33 remaining games, 19 are at home compared to just 14 on the road.
But the Canadiens have the NHL’s worst home record at 9-8-5, although they look to be turning that around. They are 3-1-1 in their last five home games, including an 8-2 trouncing of Boston in their last game at the Bell Centre on Jan. 22.
That was followed by a comeback 4-3 win over the Devils – their first win in New Jersey in nearly six years – before the four-day all-star break. On the road, the Canadiens are second only to the Detroit Red Wings at 17-7-3.
The Canadiens play host to Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals on Tuesday and meet them again in Washington on Thursday before a pair of afternoon home games on Super Bowl weekend against the New York Islanders and Rangers.
To have any hope of chasing the Senators, the Canadiens will have to start sending their league-high crowds of 21,273 per game home happy.
“If we could put that together, then the sky’s the limit for this team considering how we’re playing on the road,” said Koivu’s linemate Chris Higgins.
A year ago, when they were battling just to make it to the post-season, the Canadiens went 11-5-0 at home after the all-star break, winning their final nine games at the Bell Centre.
Much of the credit went to late-season call-up Jaroslav Halak, who was 7-0-0 in goal at home down the stretch.
Halak is once again backing up starter Cristobal Huet, but isn’t likely to see much playing time unless the French veteran falters or is injured. Coach Guy Carbonneau said Huet, who is 6-2-0 in eight straight starts, would be in goal for the two games against Washington.
The Canadiens score more goals and have tightened their defence from a year ago.
Mike Komisarek is having a break-out season as a physical presence and free agent Roman Hamrlik has added size and stability to the defence, while Alex Kovalev has revived his enthusiasm to have one of his best seasons on attack in years.
Their power play – best in the league last year – is still second-best to Philadelphia, but their penalty killing is a mediocre 21st.
Where there’s room for improvement is on Koivu’s line with Higgins and either Michael Ryder or rookie Sergei Kostitsyn.
Koivu, who has nine goals and 27 assists, used a big second half to reach career highs of 22 goals and 75 points last season.
Higgins ended a scoring slump in New Jersey and remains on pace for a career-best season, but Ryder, with only eight goals, will hard-pressed to match the 30 he scored in each of the last two seasons.
Ryder has been the topic of trade rumours all season, but if the Canadiens deal, general manager Bob Gainey has said it would likely be for a defensive centre with a record of winning important faceoffs.
It has also worked to Montreal’s favour thus far that none of their top forwards or defencemen has missed any significant time with injuries.
Another danger is complacency, because the Canadiens can still look like a non-playoff team when they don’t skate.
Or, as Koivu warned, “We realize how quickly things can turn around.
“We can’t feel too good about ourselves and take this for granted. There are teams behind us that know they have to start winning games to make the playoffs and they know we’re playing well. Teams that come into our building are going to be ready for us. It’ll be a different challenge from what we’ve faced (so far) this season.”