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“We still believe that we can make the playoffs. We got two games to go, we’re going to win both of them and we’re going to make the playoffs.”
Those were the confident words from the Canadiens’ Artturi Lehkonen when he was interviewed on the ice at the Bell Centre Tuesday night by RDS’s Marc Denis after being named the first star in an impressive 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The reality is the Canadiens could win their last two games and still miss the playoffs if the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets also win their last two games. That’s why the sportsclubstats.com website had the Canadiens’ chances of making the playoffs listed at 36.6 per cent on Wednesday, while the Hurricanes were at 88.2 per cent and the Blue Jackets at 76 per cent.
The Hurricanes (44-29-7) hold the first wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Blue Jackets (45-31-4), who hold the final wild-card spot. The Canadiens (43-29-8) have the same point total as the Blue Jackets (94), but Columbus is ahead on the first tiebreaker, which is the greater number of games won, excluding victories in the shootout. The Blue Jackets have 44 wins, excluding shootouts, while the Canadiens have 41 and the Hurricanes have 42.
The Canadiens play the Capitals Thursday in Washington (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) before closing out the season Saturday night at the Bell Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes entertain the New Jersey Devils Thursday (7 p.m., TVA Sports) and finish the season Saturday night against the Flyers in Philadelphia. The Blue Jackets play their last two games on the road, visiting the New York Rangers Friday night and the Ottawa Senators Saturday night.
“I really like this,” Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said after Tuesday’s game when asked how his blood pressure was holding up. “When it comes to this time of year and the opportunity to play past this week, it’s a lot of fun. The worst scenario is we’ve got teams right now that are playing to be spoilers. We’re playing to try and get in the playoffs. This is a great time and I want the guys to enjoy the process, which I think so far they are.”
Julien added that the playoff race is a great experience for some of the young players on his team who have never played in an NHL post-season game, including Max Domi, Victor Mete, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brett Kulak.
“There’s nothing like experience, right?” Julien said. “And these guys here are gaining experience. Through these kind of games and also seeing what kind of a fan base you have here — this was like a playoff game tonight — and we’re hoping we see these guys (the Lightning) again. Because more than likely that’s what would happen (in the first round of the playoffs). So maybe tonight was the beginning of a series of eight games. We’ll see by the end of the week.”
If the Canadiens do make the playoffs and face the Lightning in the first round, it’s hard to imagine them beating the Presidents’ Trophy winners in a seven-game series. The Canadiens had to play an almost perfect game Tuesday, with all four lines flying, to beat the Lightning, who didn’t start No. 1 goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and were without top defenceman Victor Hedman (upper-body injury). But there’s a reason why they play the games and stranger things have happened.
The Canadiens advanced to the Eastern final in 2010 after finishing eighth in the conference with a 39-33-10 record, thanks to some outstanding goaltending from Jaroslav Halak. In the last eight games this season, Carey Price has a 6-1-1 record while allowing 16 goals and posting a .933 save percentage to help keep the Canadiens in the playoff race.
“I think we’re just showing our fans character,” Tomas Tatar said after Tuesday’s win. “We want to get in (the playoffs) too … it’s in our hands. We just have to play hard every night. It’s going to come down to the last two games. They’re going to be extremely hard again, but we just have to go day-by-day and tomorrow starts a new one.”
Wednesday was a travel day for the Canadiens, who didn’t practise before heading to Washington. The Capitals (47-25-8) can clinch first place in the Metropolitan Division with a win Thursday, so they have something to play for, unlike the Lightning on Tuesday. The Canadiens and Capitals have met twice this season at the Bell Centre with the Canadiens winning 6-4 on Nov. 1 and losing 5-4 in overtime on Nov. 19.
Tatar was asked after Tuesday’s game if the Canadiens are looking at their current situation as nothing to lose or everything to gain.
“They both mean the same to me,” he said. “We’re trying to have a good effort, whatever we have in us, and it’s going to come down to the last two games.”
The stage is set for a fantastic finish.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019