I am still remembering back to those late September days of 2010, when all I could ask was one simple question: “Is it October yet?”.
I remember writing this article on opening day back in October, while feeling the excitement and joy for the return of hockey and my beloved Montreal Canadiens.
I also remember being glad that I no longer had to tinker with my Illico account so I would be able to catch all the pre-season games. As of that day on – they would all be televised. Something that we take for granted here in Montreal, but that many other hockey cities don’t have the advantage of.
But here I sit today after 5 1/2 months of hockey. 73 games complete and a mere 9 remaining. And in that realization comes the knowledge that today is the day that the Habs seriously begin their push for their 25th Stanley Cup.
All year long, I’ve had this sense of pride in everything the Canadiens organization accomplished last year, and I can honestly say that my expectations and hopes for a strong season this year have seldom faltered.
Sure, I had a few fleeting doubts in December, when the team struggled through a dismal road trip. But then along came Beliveau and the turnaround began. I remember arguing staunchly that la Flanelle were contenders, not just for the playoffs – but for the Cup. I took a lot of heat for that, but I stand behind those thoughts with pride, knowing that I was fair in my assessment of the team.
And that brings us to today.
There are no more “gimme’s” left this season. Every game will be a tough contest for brutally important points. There is no concern about making the playoffs, as there was right down to the 82nd game last year. But Les Boys find themselves in a position that they haven’t been in for a few years. A team in charge of their own destiny.
Of the nine remaining games in the regular season, it will be test after test – night after night. The good news is this. The remaining games are mostly against teams that are in the hunt – so to speak. And that’s always the teams that we play strongly against.
So over the next three weeks, let’s look at who we face, and what we face as we complete the season, and drive for positioning in the playoffs for 2010/2011. Starting with this weeks lineup.
- The Buffalo Sabres begin the festivities tonight. This is a team desperately looking to hold on to the last playoff position in the Eastern Conference. With Carolina breathing down their necks, they will be fighting tooth and nail to take as many points as they can from every opponent. The Habs have gone 3-0-2 against Lindy Ruff’s team this year, and are 7-3-0 in their last 10, compared to the Sabres 5-3-2. With little time remaining in the season though, you can fully expect a hard played game, and if Tyler Ennis continues his hot streak – the game could very well be a grind.
- The Boston Bruins are in a state these days. Ever since the controversy over Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, they seem to have been a bit stale. They are 4-3-3 in their last ten, so there is no doubt that they will be mustering everything in their power to get back on track to close out the season, attempting to finish 1st overall in the Northeast Division. But there is little doubt that the rivalry that has brewed over the decades between these two franchises, will once again take center stage. The Habs are only 1 point behind the Bruins (who have 2 games in hand), and clearly have their sites set on dethroning Boston before the season closes. This is the long awaited contest after the Pacioretty hit, and the eyes of the entire hockey world will be on that game. Expect a lights out performance from Price, and a statement game from the Canadiens that I predict will land them 2 solid points in regulation.
- The Washington Capitals find themselves in a breakout run as the season winds down. In a hunt to catch the Flyers for first overall in the Eastern Conference, this is a team that will give Montreal all kinds of trouble on Saturday night at the Bell Center. Unless the Habs come out early, score fast, play the quick north-south hockey game that they excel at, and close up the neutral zone, Saturday could very well be a long, long night. The only saving grace facing a team that is 9-1-0 in their last 10 games, will be the absence of Alexander Ovechkin as he sits the next ten days due to injury. That and the fact that a team on a streak like theirs is due for some losses (I say with hope). This is the game that should strike the most fear into Habs nation this week.
So where does that leave us? It should leave us with 4 out of a possible 6 points, a closing death grip on the Boston Bruins for first in the Northeast, and maybe even pushing Tampa back into 6th place in the conference.
With the news that Darche, Plekanec, Halpern, and Sopel all skated this morning in Brossard – it seems that the team is getting healthier. And that was just the type of news that was needed during this final stretch. A stretch that will be a true litmus test to what we have to look forward to in the playoffs.