Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is It Too Late?

Back on January 18th, I titled a post "One Last Chance." With games against the 7th, 8th, and 9th place teams coming up, I reasoned that the evening's matchup with the Washington Capitals was a final shot at saving the season. A win would gain back ground on a playoff position and perhaps start a much-needed hot streak.

Well it was not to be that night, with the Habs dropping a 3-0 decision to the Caps. But the team would rally to post a 2-0-1 record in their next 3 games - the last before this past weekend's All-Star break. But is it too late? Was that loss to Washington a final nail in the coffin, or are the Habs believers clinging to some legitimate hope?

With continued inconsistencies in play and effort level, the Canadiens haven't done much to close the gap between themselves and the 8th and final playoff spot. With just 33 games left on their schedule, making up 8-10 points on 4 or 5 teams will be no easy task. No easy task, and yet still certainly not impossible. In fact, the Canadiens still have many chances to help themselves out in a big way with critical "4 point games." They have 3 left against 3rd place Washington, 2 each against 7th place Florida and 8th place New Jersey, 3 against 9th place Toronto, 1 against 10th place Winnipeg, 2 each against 12th place Tampa Bay and 13th place New York Islanders, and finally, 4 - including tonight's match-up - against 14th place Buffalo.

If the team is to on some magical run to get back in the hunt, a surprising key contributor will have to be Scott Gomez. Gomez has picked up his play since returning from a groin injury that saw him sit out 30 games. Of course, he still isn't worth anywhere close to his salary, but it is unlikely the Canadiens would be able to unload it right now even if they wanted to, so might as well continue hoping for him to be productive. It seemed as though there was no spot for even a healthy Gomez in the Montreal line-up, given that he was passed in the depth chart by all of Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, and Lars Eller at center, but an unfortunate injury to Brian Gionta that is likely to keep him out the rest of the season created a hole for an offensive winger. Since Aaron Palushaj has been thoroughly unimpressive in every one of his call-ups to date, Gomez has slid into Gionta's old spot on Plekanec's wing and has shown some solid puck-moving and playmaking ability. If nothing else, his play should keep Pierre Gauthier from deciding to deal assets for short-term top 9 help.

The other big question will be if and when Andrei Markov can return to the team's blueline. If the Canadiens can stretch the current hot streak out a while, they may find themselves back in the thick of the hunt. Markov skated for 15 minutes for the first time today since his December "clean up" surgery as a supplement to his off-ice conditioning work. There is still no timetable for his return, but if he can be back for the final month of the season at anywhere close to 100%, he may give the team the powerplay productivity it needs to earn a few critical extra points down the stretch.

Don't get me wrong; as I've said for some time, my personal belief is that the playoffs are out of reach for this season. I've seen this team not show up well enough for seemingly big games this season to have little hope of them "putting it all together" and going on a Boston Bruins-like win streak. As a fan, I would love to cheer on an incredible push down to the season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but I just can't envision it being that close. I see any late charge ending up in a 10th or 11th place in the East finish. And worse of all, a squandered opportunity at a top draft pick to add an impact player who could contribute in the very near future. That's why, as a Habs fan, I'm willing to forego that instant gratification and happiness of a "meaningless" Habs win at the moment (assuming that playoffs are in fact unattainable) in the hopes that it will fast track the raising of a 25th Stanley Cup banner in Montreal.

Whatever the outcome will be, we should find out soon enough. There is less than one month to go before the trade deadline, and the team will need a huge month of February to convince their GM to "go for it," rather than simply selling off its pieces.

Here is your line-up tasked with getting the ball rolling on the final stretch tonight:

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Scott Gomez
Andrei Kostitsyn - Lars Eller - Mike Blunden
Mathieu Darche - Andreas Engqvist - Yannick Weber

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Hal Gill - Raphael Diaz
Tomas Kaberle - Alexei Emelin

Carey Price

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