The Canadiens are in town Wednesday, and once was the time when a midwinter’s visit, even with the Red Sox about to start spring training, was one of the anchors on our sports calendar and further defined one of hockey’s greatest rivalries.
Not true this year, in large part because the Habs again are only tenuously tethered to the playoff race in the East. On Tuesday morning, the distant sons of the Rocket, the Flower, and St. Patrick were a mediocre 27-24-7, buried 5 points behind the Maple Leafs for the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division and 8 points below the Flyers for a wild-card spot.
Matters only grew grimmer for Les Glorieux Tuesday when they determined that hobbled defenseman Shea Weber, their biggest shooter and No. 2 point producer on the blue line, would miss the game here and the one Friday in Pittsburgh.
Can the Habs shimmy their way into a postseason spot? The math says so. But if Weber (13-21—34 in 55 games) isn’t back quickly, and firing his lasers off the point, they are more likely destined to a third consecutive postseason DNQ, for what would be a third time in the proud franchise’s history.
Meanwhile, the 34-11-12 Bruins, atop the league standings with 80 points, are more fixed on remaining healthy and fending off Tampa Bay’s charge over the final 25 games of the season.
A distant 13 points behind the Bruins as of Thanksgiving, the Lightning were only 1 point in arrears after Tuesday night’s 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh. In their 19 games since Jan. 1, the Bolts had lost but twice in regulation with an overall mark of 16-2-1 (.868), and they have won eight in a row.
If the Bruins keep the Lightning at bay, it should mean a division title and a first-round matchup against one of the two wild cards. If not, then second in the Atlantic at least would mean home ice for Round 1.
As of Tuesday, only the Bruins, Lightning, and Avalanche had won more than half their overall games without needing to go to overtime.
“That’s important down the road,” noted Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, looking ahead to possible playoff implications. “There’s no shootouts. There’s no three-on-three. I look at that as a barometer as well, you know, ‘Can we win games, 60-minute games, five-on-five hockey?’ I like that about our team.”
Matters of timing
Tuukka Rask, 20-5-6 after his loss as the surprise starter Sunday in Detroit, is expected in net against the Habs.
Jaroslav Halak was supposed to be in net vs. the Red Wings, but was a last-minute scratch because of an undisclosed injury.
“I feel fine,” Halak said after going the distance in Tuesday’s 35-minute workout in Brighton.
According to Cassidy, the plan is for Halak (14-6-6) to start in one of the back-to-backs this weekend vs. the Red Wings (home) or Rangers (away).
“Just a little nagging thing,” offered Cassidy. “Maybe if it’s a night game, he gets through it in the morning, gets some treatment. I think it had something to do with the timing of the game [12:30 p.m.] as well. Just a lot of bad things kind running together. I don’t believe it will be a problem.”
The start time Sunday in Manhattan is 3:30 p.m., more than 24 hours after the 1 p.m. matinee at TD Garden vs. the Red Wings. The later time, following the flight Saturday to New York, could play in favor of Halak getting the start vs. the Blueshirts.
“Maybe we just set it up that way,” said Cassidy. “He has a chance to get off the plane, relax, get his treatment.”
Connor Clifton, injured Dec. 29 in Buffalo, returned to practice after six weeks. He will not suit up against the Habs but could see duty over the weekend, following scheduled workouts Friday and Saturday . . . Joakim Nordstrom, sidelined by allergy symptoms the last three games, is expected back at fourth-line left wing . . . Ilya Kovalchuk has gone 6-6—12 in his 16 games with Montreal after his buyout by the Kings. Three of his strikes have been game-winners. The Habs have less than two weeks to decide whether to keep Kovalchuk aboard for a playoff push, or ship him out as a gun for hire at the Feb. 24 trade deadline . . . The Bruins have two games left against Tampa Bay and will play them across five days in March, with a stop in Tampa March 3 and the return match here March 7.
His scoring hands cooled of late, David Pastrnak (38 goals) is parked in third in the league’s goal-scoring race, trailing Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews (each with 40). Pastrnak added three more assists (40 total) in the last two games, but has scored but one goal over the last seven games and only three in the 12 games since Jan. 9 . . . Rask’s .929 save percentage is the best of all goalies who have played in at least 30 games. Habs workhorse Carey Price (24-19-4) is a pedestrian .913, albeit with 16 more decisions than Rask. Halak is .921 in 26 appearances . . . Jeff Petry (8-27—35), 1 point better than Weber, leads the offense among Habs defensemen. He is also minus-9, just a step better than Jesperi Kotkaniemi (minus-11), the Finnish center who has slipped to 6-2—8 this season after his promising freshman season.