With an embarrassing loss to the Arizona Coyotes fresh in memory, the Canadiens will wrap up their road-trip in Denver tonight as they take on the Colorado Avalanche. With their window of opportunity rapidly closing shut, the Canadiens roll – or perhaps stumble – into Colorado in desperate need of a win if they hope to make a playoff push this season.
A loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday did nothing to help their chances at accomplishing that. The fashion in which they lost likely did even less for the confidence of the team, which has been in dire straits for the better part of three months. Over the course of those months innumerable discussions have been had about when the Canadiens will be able to get back on track. The reality that we are now facing is that the time is quite literally now or never.
The Habs simply don’t have many games left with which to work. Sitting four places behind the final wildcard spot and with more games played than any of the teams ahead of them, things don’t bode well for the club’s chances. While the three-game winning streak at the beginning of February provided some much-needed hope to an otherwise hopeless fan base, it looks like the team is right back in the slump.
It has been much publicized, yet bears repeating, that the Canadiens have been the worst team in the NHL since early December. In order to climb back into the playoffs at this point, they would need to turn on a dime and quickly become one of the best down the stretch. The likelihood of that is obviously low, but if it’s going to happen, there’s no better time than now.
In fact, there’s no other time but now. The good news, if there is such a thing, is that with Desharnais out of action with an injury, Montreal’s new lines look very promising.
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The Avalanche currently sit in the final wildcard spot in the Western conference, though it may prove difficult to remain in that position with a number of teams within striking range who have games in hand.
In particular, the Avs will need to overcome league-worst possession numbers in order to remain in a playoff spot – something they have been able to deal with with some moderate success to this point, but may become challenging as the season drags on down the stretch.
Colorado is led offensively by the duo of Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, the pair of first-round picks each recording 44 points through 59 games thus far. Duchene in particular has been a huge asset to the Avs in overcoming their possession woes, scoring 25 goals thanks to a very high 15.24% shooting percentage.
Defensively, the team is led by 24-year-old Tyson Barrie who has evolved into a top-end blue-liner for the Avalanche. Following a breakout season in 2014-15, Barrie looks poised to put up another impressive stat-line with 36 points already this year. Helping carry the weight is veteran Francois Beauchemin, who is enjoying his best offensive season in 10 years.
Semyon Varlamov has proven many times that he can be a top goaltender in the league, and this season has been no different. The Russian puck-stopper has been the backbone of the Avalanche for much of the season and bails them out regularly when the team is heavily out-shot by their opposition. The challenge for the Avs going forward is to give Varlamov more support, as they should have very few concerns about the performance they will get between the pipes.
Last Time Out
If tonight’s affair turns out anything like the last game between these two clubs, the Canadiens are in for a thumping.
That’s what they received at the hands of the Avalanche back in November, falling 6-1 to their long-ago provincial rivals at the Bell Centre.
It started early, with Mikhail Grigorenko finding the back of the net with a shot through traffic just three minutes into the contest. The rest of the first period was fairly uneventful until the closing minutes when MacKinnon was able to beat Mike Condon – making his seventh straight start – twice in the span of 13 seconds.
Brendan Gallagher gave the Habs life in the second period after receiving a centering pass from Tomas Plekanec, though it would not be nearly enough to make a difference in the game. Blake Comeau added a short-handed marker in the same period to restore the Avs’ three-goal lead, while Matt Duchene and John Mitchell later added on to that total en route to a dominant victory.
Time will tell if the Habs are motivated to get revenge for this home-ice embarrassment, or if history will simply repeat itself.