Canadiens' playoff hopes may rest on the shoulders of Carey Price
Montreal goalie needs to be at his former MVP-best in stretch run
The man of the hour, within the most demanding hockey fan base in the world (sorry, Toronto, it's not you), was Carey Price on Tuesday evening.
The 31-year-old "serenity now goalie" of the Montreal Canadiens registered his 315th victory for the Les Habitant to breeze by the legendary late Jacques Plante for most regular season wins in club history with a 20-save performance in Montreal's 3-1 win at home against the struggling Detroit Red Wings.
All that now matters is whether or not Price and the Habs can close the deal on a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament. The Canadiens have a dozen games left in the regular season and are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets at 81 points for the final playoff spot in the East.
Before the puck was dropped on the 2018-19 season, the consensus wager — even among the most optimistic Habs fanatics — was Montreal would be in a battle for the first overall selection in the 2019 draft, 17-year-old centre Jack Hughes.
But thanks to general manager Marc Bergevin, his scouts, an open-minded coaching staff led by Claude Julien and a group of speedy, overachieving players, the playoffs are a possibility this late in the season.
Since then, Montreal has gone a middling 6-8-1 to fall out of the top-eight playoff positions in the East. The Habs are in danger of missing the playoffs for back-to-back seasons for the first time since three playoff-less years in a row between 1998-99 to 2000-01.
WATCH | Price sets Habs' all-time wins record
As mentioned, the Habs have a dozen games remaining, six at home and six away from the Bell Centre. They have only four games left against teams below them in the standings and a key game on March 28 when they visit the Blue Jackets. Most wouldn't be surprised if the Habs playoff possibilities came down to their regular-season finale against the Leafs at home.
Domi already has surpassed his career-best totals with 24 goals, a team-leading 38 assists and 62 points. The June 15th swap of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk was a steal for Bergevin and his pro scouts.
The speedy Domi, who was a left wing with the Arizona Coyotes and made the move to centre this season, has given Montreal a strong middle with centres Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Danault is the oldest of this group at 26, two years older than Domi and Kotkaniemi doesn't turn 19 until July 6. Imagine how good the teenaged Finn will be in two or three seasons.
What Kotkaniemi brings down the road is only part of why it won't be a massive failure if the Habs can't close the deal on a playoff spot this spring. They have plenty of prospects coming down the pipe in forwards Jesse Ylonen, Ryan Poehling, Joni Ikonen and Nick Suzuki, defencemen Josh Brook and Noah Juulsen, as well as goalie Cayden Primeau.
Forwards a force for Canadiens
The strength of the current Habs group is its speedy balanced top-nine forwards. Julien and his staff recognized this back in training camp and created a swift, transition-game attack through the middle that can cause fits for the opposition.
The Habs' top-nine forwards have allowed them to put up strong numbers five-on-five. They're sixth in the league with 160 goals.
Of course, all clubs endure injury woes but imagine where the Habs would be had captain Shea Weber had not missed 24 games, speedy Paul Bryon hadn't missed 23 outings or important forward Andrew Shaw wasn't absent for 19 more.
The key factor for the Habs in the final few weeks may rest on the shoulders of the man of the hour. The 31-year-old Price has battled back from two injury-riddled seasons and another under-achieving year since he was at his best and won the Hart, Lindsay and Vezina trophies in 2014-15.
If he's on his game for this interesting collection of players, who knows what can happen this spring, even if the future looks fine for the most demanding hockey fan base in the world.