'Locked in' Canadiens in thick of crowded fight for Eastern wild-card spots
The Montreal Canadiens are back above .500 and right in the thick of the race for an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.
The Canadiens improved to 14-13-4 with Monday's 3-2 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets, allowing their wins to rise above their regulation losses for the first time since Nov. 12.
"I feel like we’re locked in right now,” head coach Martin St. Louis said. “I really do feel that way. It’s the most organized that we’ve been since I’ve taken this job, and it takes time to build that, different parts of the game, and we’re able to expand on some of the details inside the different concepts, different parts of the game that we want to address.
"So, I think we’re just evolving as a team, but as a group I feel we’re really locked in.”
Montreal has a 3-1-1 record over their past five games, closing to within two points of the Washington Capitals, who have two games in hand, for the final wild-card spot and three points of the Carolina Hurricanes, who are equal in games played at 31, for the top wild-card spot.
Sitting between the Canadiens and the playoff picture are three teams: the Detroit Red Wings with 34 points through 31 games, the New Jersey Devils with 33 points in 29 games and Tampa Bay Lightning with 33 points in 32 games. The Pittsburgh Penguins are right behind the Canadiens with 31 points in 30 games and the Ottawa Senators could mathematically rise into the crowded picture thanks to owning five games in hand on Montreal, who they trail by 10 points.
St. Louis is in his third season as head coach of the Canadiens, having taken over from Dominique Ducharme during the 2021-22 season. The Canadiens finished with a 31-45-6 record in the first full year under St. Louis last season.
Offence has been hard to come for the Canadiens this season, with the team ranking second last in the Eastern Conference with 2.71 goals per game. Their goal differential also ranks second last in the conference, ahead of only the 10-17-5 Columbus Blue Jackets.
During their current five-game stretch, the Canadiens have outscored opponents 17-11, including a 5-3 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday.
“It wasn’t pretty tonight,” goaltender Jake Allen said after Monday's win. “You know what, it’s not going to be perfect all the time. We’ve got to find different ways to win games. Especially if pucks bounce a little bit, it’s not on your tape all the time, it’s not perfect. Not like last game [against the Islanders] where we were snapping the puck around. We found a way to win, and a great shot by [Justin Barron].”
Allen picked up his first win since Oct. 28 on Monday, improving to 4-6-2 on the season with a .904 save percentage and a 3.43 goals-against average.
Goaltending has generally been a strength of the Canadiens this season, with the team holding a .907 save percentage on the year – good for eighth in the conference and 13th in the NHL.
Sam Montembeault has a 7-4-2 record for the Canadiens with a .911 save percentage and a 2.79 GAA, while Cayden Primeau has a 3-3-0 record with a .902 save percentage and a 3.40 GAA as the team continues to carry three goaltenders on their roster.
The Canadiens will close out their week with games against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday and Chicago Blackhawks on Friday to conclude a three-game road trip. Montreal will resume play after the holiday break on Dec. 28 with key conference games against the Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Lightning to close out their 2023 calendar.