BROSSARD, Que. â€” On paper, the Montreal Canadiens should be able to coast into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Beginning with a home game Tuesday night against Detroit, nine of Montreal’s last 10 games of the regular season are against teams not currently in a playoff position. And they don’t play again on back to back nights until the final two games at home against Tampa Bay on April 7 and at Detroit on April 8.
However, forward Andrew Shaw cautions that nothing comes easy in the NHL.
“If you’re out of the playoffs you have no pressure and sometimes you can play your best hockey like that,” said Shaw. “Teams are dangerous in that situation.”
The talented Lightning still have a shot at reaching the post-season with a strong final push and have two games left against the Canadiens. There are also two games remaining against the Florida Panthers, who split two earlier meetings with the Canadiens this season.
The only current playoff opponent on the schedule is at home on Saturday night against Ottawa, and the Canadiens are coming off a two-game sweep of the Senators last weekend.
“If you’re thinking about that, your mind’s in the wrong spot as a player,” said Montreal captain Max Pacioretty. “What we want to do every day, especially in a new system and with a new coach and trying to get a new identity with guys we got at the (trade) deadline, is we’re trying to improve our game every night.
“It’s not like other sports where there’s an automatic win. Everyone can compete with everyone in this league. An example would be us playing Colorado. We won 10-1 and then we got smoked the next game by them.”
The Canadiens have gone on a tear since Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien as head coach on Feb. 14 and have all-but secured a return to the post-season.
They’ve done that while integrating a handful of deadline acquisitions, including defencemen Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson and depth forwards Steve Ott, Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen.
Julien said it would be a bad time to take a foot off the accelerator.
“In this situation, you really have to focus on your own game as a team â€” what you want to accomplish, how good you want to play, because you also want to prepare.
“If you’re a team that’s going to the playoffs, you don’t want to go in there having been sloppy because you thought you’d be playing against teams that aren’t in the playoffs and you could do whatever you want to do. This is when you have to bear down and focus even more than ever and make sure that your game is at its best.”
Often coaches will stick to a set lineup when their teams are winning, but Julien has been making lineup changes from game to game. Mostly, it’s to keep the new players active and let them get used to his system. Against Detroit, former Red Wing Ott moved back into the lineup in place of rookie Michael McCarron.
“We have so many players healthy that we will continue, for now, to rotate certain players and let everyone stay at their best,” said Julien. “You never know when injuries will hit you and you want to be ready for any scenario.”
Currently, only defenceman Nikita Nestorov (lower body) and forward Brian Flynn (upper body) are injured.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press