With less than 10 games to go in the NHL’s regular season, the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are neck-and-neck for the Atlantic Division title. That makes their final meeting Saturday night in Montreal the most important game of the year thus far for each side because the season series is tied. The winner would own a potentially crucial tiebreaker. The Habs are favoured on Sports Interaction’s hockey odds.
Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens
Moneylines:Canadiens -157, Senators +142
Date: Saturday, March 25, 7 p.m. ET
Location: Bell Centre, Montreal
No one seems particularly happy with the NHL’s current playoff format that sends the top three teams in each division and the two wild-card teams with the most points into the postseason. For example, the Metropolitan Division already has three teams with at least 100 points in the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets (all have clinched spots already), but at least one will be assured a first-round loss even though each likely will finish with more points than the Atlantic Division champion.
The Metropolitan champion will face the second wild-card team in the Stanley Cup playoffs, leaving the top wild card for the Atlantic winner. That No. 1 wild card is currently a very capable New York Rangers team. Meanwhile, the second-place finisher in the Atlantic would get the third-place division team – likely either Toronto or Boston. Those clubs are worse than the Rangers. Might it be better to finish second in the Atlantic? For the first round of the playoffs only, perhaps it would be.
Ottawa (41-24-8) is one point behind Montreal with a game in hand. The Senators enter on a two-game winning run, which has followed a four-game skid. On Thursday, the Sens beat visiting Pittsburgh 2-1 in a shootout. Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan scored in the shootout. Mike Hoffman had his 22nd goal of the year in regulation and has a five-game points streak. Mike Condon was the game’s No. 1 star with 34 saves – Craig Anderson had started the previous three in net.
The Senators remain without one of their top wingers in Mark Stone (22 goals, 28 assists). He hasn’t played since March 9 due to a lower-body injury but could return Saturday as Stone has been skating. That would be a huge addition, but the Senators are going to be without top-four defenceman Marc Methot for a while. His finger was shattered and mangled on a slash from the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby on Thursday and Methot will be out “weeks.” Methot has 12 assists and is plus-13 on the season, averaging nearly 20 minutes per night.
Crosby wasn’t penalized in the game and apparently won’t face discipline from the league. Can you say star treatment? Senators owner Eugene Melnyk blasted the NHL on Ottawa radio Friday, saying: “We all know who (Crosby) is. You do this kind of stuff, I don’t care who you are in the league, I don’t care if you’re the No. 1 player in the league, you need to sit out a long time for this kind of crap.”
The remaining schedule isn’t kind to Ottawa as starting Saturday it plays seven of its final nine away from home. Then again, the Senators are one of the league’s best road teams at 21-13-0.
Montreal (41-24-9) is looking for its first division title since 2014-15 when the Canadiens beat the Senators in six games in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals before falling in six in the conference semi-finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Montreal, like every other Canadian team, missed last year’s playoffs.
The Canadiens have lost back-to-back games for the first time since mid-February. There’s really no excuse for those losses, either. It was 2-1 at home in OT on Tuesday to a bad Red Wings team and then 4-1 at home on Thursday to a below-average Carolina side. Backup Al Montoya was in net vs. Detroit, but Carey Price was in there against the Hurricanes – he had been terrific in March. Carolina had not beaten the Canadiens in Montreal since Feb. 13, 2012, and had scored just four goals over that stretch.
The lone bright spot for Montreal on Thursday was Alex Galchenyuk snapping his nine-game goalless drought. Coach Claude Julien moved Galchenyuk from center to left wing in the game. Leading scorer Max Pacioretty’s struggles continued as he was held without a point for a fifth straight game. He has only four points this month.
This will be the Habs’ final game against a Canadian club in 2016-17 barring a playoff series. They close with an easy schedule as Ottawa is the last team currently in the playoffs the Canadiens will see. Four of Montreal’s final five are away from home, however.
Senators at Canadiens Predictions
Ottawa won the first two meetings of the season, 4-3 at home in a shootout on October 15 and 4-3 in Montreal on November 22. The Canadiens took a home-and-home series last weekend, 4-3 in a shootout on March 18 in Ottawa and 4-1 at Bell Centre the next night.
Price has played three of the games and is 2-1 with a 2.61 GAA against the Senators. Shea Weber and Andrei Markov lead the Canadiens with five points vs. Ottawa. Anderson is 2-1-1 vs. the Habs with a 3.13 GAA. Derick Brassard, Hoffman and Erik Karlsson lead Ottawa with five points each in the season series.
It should be Anderson vs. Price in this one again. Montreal has won seven straight games following a home loss of at least three goals, so it is the choice. Go over the total as it’s 3-0-1 in the past four in this series.