Habs set to battle Jets in quest for wild-card spot
With four games remaining in the regular season, the Montreal Canadiens are in the thick of what's become a three-team wild card battle for the two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
Heading into Saturday's road game at the Winnipeg Jets, the Canadiens (41-29-8, 90 points) are one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the first wild card spot and tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, the Habs are definitely on the outside track. Not only are they behind in the first tiebreaker (regulation/overtime wins) compared to both those teams, but also they have a tough schedule down the stretch. After facing the Central Division-leading Jets, Montreal will meet the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, Metropolitan-leading Washington Capitals and close out against the playoff-bound Toronto Maple Leafs.
Plus, the Canadiens must bounce back from a dispiriting 6-2 loss to the Blue Jackets on Thursday.
"It's pretty simple. No matter how bad this loss hurts, we've got character players in that dressing room," said head coach Claude Julien. "Character players that care, that want to do well and, as a coach, you love seeing that. I've got a lot of young guys, but I've also got some good veterans and a good mix. So, I'm confident we're going to go to Winnipeg and we're going to be ready to play."
Montreal led the Blue Jackets 2-1 at the midway point before falling apart and surrendering five unanswered. It's amazing how suffering their first regulation-time loss in seven games can leave a team needing help to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"We need to win all of the games," forward Brendan Gallagher told the Montreal Gazette. "We're a pretty good team ourselves. Playing the way we need to play, that's all we need to focus on. We need to focus on ourselves. We can't be worrying about what's going on around the league. We just need to win our games."
The Jets (45-28-4, 94 points) were left just as disappointed and reeling after their last outing. Winnipeg surrendered two goals 33 seconds apart in the final two minutes to fall 5-4 to the New York Islanders on Thursday.
Winnipeg, which holds a two-point edge on Nashville for top spot in the Central, has dropped two straight and surrendered 10 goals in those defeats.
"A little bit of respect for the other team, or just the game of hockey, but if you turn that many pucks over, that's what's going to happen," fumed head coach Paul Maurice after the game. "We've taken a game that we had complete control of and invited them back in."
In short, the clash will feature two angry teams who know they must turn their fortunes.
"We have a great leadership in here and they'll get us ready for the next one," Jets forward Brandon Tanev told the Winnipeg Free Press. "You look at what we could have done better, but at the same time you go to practice with your head held high and move on to the next one."
Winnipeg may receive a boost for the final home game of the regular season, as defenseman Dustin Byfuglien appears poised to return to action after missing 19 games due to a lower body injury.
--Field Level Media
Updated March 29, 2019