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Wild-Card Roundup: Canadiens in tough after awful week, Coyotes continue remarkable run

Montreal had an opportunity to take some all-important points from some struggling competition this past week, but the Canadiens instead suffered two tough defeats that has put their playoff lives in peril.

Talk about an opportunity squandered. As the Montreal Canadiens entered last week, they did so with a post-season position fingertips away, tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final spot in the Eastern Conference and only sitting outside the playoff picture by way of the tiebreaker.

The look ahead was favorable for Montreal, too, and there was reason to believe that when our weekly wild-card roundup came this week, we’d be swapping out the Blue Jackets for the Canadiens. On the slate were the down-in-the-dumps Detroit Red Wings, a New York Islanders group that has shown signs of slowing and the hot-and-cold Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been one of the worst defensive groups in the NHL. It had all the makings of a potential six-point week, which would have gone a long way in ensuring the Canadiens surprising season ended with an unexpected playoff berth.

But that’s not quite what happened. Early last week, the Canadiens managed to take two points from Detroit, but in the contests that followed, Montreal skated away empty-handed. The Islanders managed to eke out a 2-1 victory, and the Canadiens’ failed to click Saturday against the Blackhawks, sending 48 pucks at Corey Crawford only for Chicago’s keeper to turn everything aside and help send Montreal to a 2-0 defeat. Those two defeats could come back to haunt the Canadiens, too.

You see, as Montreal enters this week, they do so with two playoff teams and a hungry Philadelphia Flyers squad on the horizon. And after a one-game break against non-playoff competition early next week, the Canadiens will embark on arguably the toughest run towards the end of the campaign of any team in the NHL. From March 28 through to season’s end on April 6, the Canadiens draw the Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s three divisional leaders, one top-five team and a Columbus club that is all-in on punching their ticket to the dance. Good luck with that.

If one was to look on the bright side, however, maybe it’s not all bad for Montreal. An honest assessment of the Canadiens chances is somewhat bleak, particularly if they were to rise no higher than the second wild-card spot and draw the Lightning in Round One. In all likelihood, it would be a one-and-done scenario for Montreal, and the reality is that the Canadiens stand to benefit more from a higher draft pick – and an outside shot at a draft lottery win – than they do a brief foray into the post-season.

In saying that, though, there’s no denying that the sting of disappointment that results from missing the playoffs will hurt. And when Montreal asks what went wrong, they may very well point to the past week as the moment the hammer began its descent towards the head of that final nail in their post-season coffin.

Here’s a look at the rest of the wild-card picture, with strength of remaining schedule determined by winning percentage of opposing teams:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

Pittsburgh Penguins
39-24-10 — 88 pts.

Barring an unbelievable collapse, a strong start to the past week – as well as some favorable results elsewhere – has likely pushed the Penguins into safety. Defeating the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres earned Pittsburgh four important points in the wild-card race as they now sit seven points clear of the outside-looking-in Canadiens. One concern for the Penguins, however, has arisen, as Evgeni Malkin is sidelined week-to-week with an upper-body injury. If all goes well, Pittsburgh can allow Malkin to rest up for the post-season.

Remaining Schedule: 9 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .526

Carolina Hurricanes
39-25-7 — 85 pts.

Two wins and one loss over the past week has kept Carolina in top spot in the wild-card race, but there was a concerning moment when the Hurricanes dropped the most important contest of the bunch, blanked by the Blue Jackets on Friday thanks in large part to the play of netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. Carolina got right back on track, though, by doubling up the Sabres on Saturday. The Hurricanes are inching ever closer to locking down a playoff spot after so many years spent on the outside looking in. There are no gimmes on the road in, however, as Carolina has the second-toughest remaining schedule of any team in this roundup.

Remaining Schedule: 11 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .593

Columbus Blue Jackets
40-28-4 — 84 pts.

Two crucial wins and five of a possible eight points over the past week have put Columbus in good standing with a potentially frantic finish to the campaign on the horizon. Downing the Bruins was big, and taking three of four points from a tough Boston team was proof positive that the Blue Jackets are a tough team, and shutting out the Hurricanes helped Columbus gain ground and put separation between them and Montreal. The Blue Jackets may be able to benefit from an easier homestretch than either the Canadiens or Hurricanes will be afforded.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .545

OUT:

Montreal Canadiens
37-28-7 — 81 pts.

See above. Disastrous. The Canadiens had every opportunity to keep pace in the wild-card race, but the only points Montreal picked up were from the basement-dwelling Red Wings. The Canadiens could have feasted on a struggling Islanders team or dominated an up-and-down Blackhawks club, but instead, Montreal’s week ended with two consecutive losses. As noted, the past week represents a missed opportunity that could come back to bite the Canadiens.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .607

Philadelphia Flyers
33-27-8 — 74 pts.

The outlook was never all that great for the Flyers. They were too far out with too few games remaining. Realistically, Philadelphia could be shuffled into the “playoff goner” category, but the Flyers stopped their post-season life from flatlining when they clawed back to defeat the Penguins in overtime Sunday. A run against the Canadiens, Blackhawks and Islanders this week could see Philadelphia claw right back into the race, so there’s no writing them off just yet. It’s close, though.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .579

WESTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

St. Louis Blues
37-27-8 — 82 pts.

Losers of four of their past five and seven of their past 11 contests, the Blues temporarily slid out of a divisional spot and back into a wild-card position. And just when it appeared St. Louis was about to get this thing back on track with a 5-1 defeat of Pittsburgh, the Blues dropped a shootout to the struggling Sabres. With earning home-ice advantage not entirely out of the question, St. Louis needs to pick it up. They can catch the Nashville Predators with a run of play that looks similar to February’s 11-win performance.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .526

Dallas Stars
37-29-6 — 80 pts.

Finally, we gave Ben Bishop some love…and then he pulled himself from his next start as a preventative measure. That’s long been the biggest issue plaguing Bishop, his inability to stay healthy, and the dreaded lower-body injury has reared its ugly head again. The good news is that Anton Khudobin has been good this season, as well, which doesn’t leave the Stars hamstrung in goal. This week, which sees the conclusion of a five-game homestand, will be big in terms of accumulating points. After this, Dallas hits the road for four in a row.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .549

Arizona Coyotes
36-30-6 — 78 pts.

Just when it looked like the bubble was about to burst following a 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks, the Coyotes went ahead and took five of six points from the Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers. There’s nothing easy about the upcoming four-game road swing this week, though, beginning with a Monday date with the Lightning. Arizona is going to have to continue to fend off the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, though, and the one bonus is a slightly weaker schedule than either team. Darcy Kuemper’s past month has been exceptional, too, posting a .942 save percentage in his past 14 games.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .556

OUT:

Minnesota Wild
34-30-9 — 77 pts.

After puzzling back-to-back results against the Lightning and Panthers – beating Tampa Bay, falling well short against Florida – the Wild had a difficult week that saw them fall one point behind the Coyotes and give up a game in hand. The remaining schedule isn’t about to do Minnesota any favors. No team in the Western Conference wild-card race has a harder run down the stretch. Not a single game is against a top-lottery odds team. In fact, every remaining Wild contest sees them square off against either a team featured in this roundup or a squad already looking ahead to the post-season.

Remaining Schedule: 9 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .591

Colorado Avalanche
31-29-12 — 74 pts.

Far too often in the back half of the season the Avalanche have dropped points that they should have picked up. Case in point, this past week’s loss to the foundering Anaheim Ducks, which saw Colorado allow two goals in the final minute to lose the game in regulation. Four points back with 10 games remaining, the margin for error is razor thin for the Avalanche. Colorado needs to take much-needed points from the home-and-home set with Blackhawks this week, and wins over wild-card clubs Minnesota and Dallas would go a long way. This is quite possibly the biggest week of the season for the Avalanche, and any mistakes could cost them a return trip to the post-season.

Remaining Schedule: 10 games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .558

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