With less than a week remaining on the NHL schedule, the first priority for the Montreal Canadiens remains punching a playoff ticket. The added layer of interest for onlookers is trying to predict which of the four top-seeded clubs in the Eastern Conference the Canadiens would match up best with.
This year’s post-season is shaping up to be highly intriguing because nobody, from the stacked Western Conference to the softer East, is bulletproof.
Goaltending woes plague a number of otherwise top-flight teams, including one potential first round rival for Montreal, the Washington Capitals.
Much has been made of the fact Jose Theodore, a league MVP with the Canadiens in 2002, is not in the same category of other Eastern goalies like Ryan Miller and Marc-Andre Fleury. Then again, does he need to be? Theodore, who’s been much better down the stretch than many give him credit for, plays behind the league’s best offense and only has to minimize his mistakes to be effective.
The three other teams Montreal could see – Buffalo, Pittsburgh and New Jersey – all have more established men between the pipes, but still come with question marks of their own.
Martin Brodeur may be the most accomplished goalie in NHL history when he finally hangs up his pads, but Brodeur hasn’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2003 and he’s a month away from his 38th birthday.
Buffalo is rock-solid with Miller in net, but the supporting cast is not on par with the lineups iced by other Eastern contenders. The Habs’ 3-0 win over the Sabres last Saturday notwithstanding, Miller, like Brodeur, always seems to give Montreal fits.
That leaves the defending Stanley Cup-champion Penguins. The Pens haven’t dominated this season, but they’re still a star-studded outfit that could become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Detroit in 1998. About the only reason to want to see them in Round 1 is the fact they’ve played so much hockey the past two-plus seasons, having gone to consecutive finals.
Picking which opponent you’d want to face comes with its own set of perils, but if players on the Canadiens were to answer honestly, my guess is their preference would be to start the playoffs in Buffalo.
This article also appeared in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.