This season the Eastern Conference seems to have a well-defined elite with Philadelphia, Washington and Boston making up the class of the conference and Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh not trailing far behind, but the hottest of those teams -- and hottest in the entire League -- could get a rude awakening from an unlikely contender tonight.
The Caps are opening a season-high six-game road trip tonight at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and when they take the ice a formidable group will be looking to prove they belong in the discussion. The Canadiens currently sit sixth in the East and while they seem relatively safe in the hunt for a playoff berth (seventh-place Buffalo is seven points back) Montreal isn't a regular in the chatter about teams likely to hoist Stanley this spring. If the Habs can snap Washington's eight-game winning streak tonight, however, some heads may be turning towards Rue de la Montagne.
And if they aren't, they should be.
The Canadiens have quietly won six of their last seven games and taken advantage of an untimely swoon by Boston to pull within two points of first place in the Northeast Division. Should Montreal overtake the Bruins and pick up a top-three seed, the Habs will get at least one series with home ice in the never hospitable Bell Centre. While the Bell Centre is yet to see a championship, something shocking for a franchise that claims 24 of them, Montreal fans are unlikely to make life easy for any visiting foe, particularly if it happens to be their rivals from the Hub.
More importantly, however, is that Montreal has several ingredients that can equate to a long playoff run. The Canadiens have offense spread all across the lineup -- seven players have double digit goal totals -- while the blue line features pieces both sturdy -- Hal Gill and Brent Sopel -- and dynamic -- PK Subban and James Wisniewski.
Most importantly, however, the Habs have man between the pipes who is playing some spectacular hockey. In the last 40 years, Montreal's championship teams have all had a young, stellar goaltender. In the 1970s, Ken Dryden crafted a Hall of Fame career that saw him lead the Habs to six Cups and accomplish the remarkable feat of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy a year before he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. In 1986, Patrick Roy led the Canadiens to the first of two titles, taking his own Conn Smythe in the process.
Could it be Carey Price's turn? Last year, the British Columbia native appeared to have lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak, but after Halak was shipped off to St. Louis, Price took the job over and has won 33 games while compiling career bests with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. In addition, Price can be devastatingly good on occasion, has he has in his eight shutouts this year, and lately he appears to be reaching an entirely new level. In his last six starts, Price has five wins, a 1.17 GAA and a .965 save percentage.
Add all this up along with the fact that Montreal's roster is experienced with deep playoff runs after reaching the Conference Final last spring, and the Canadiens could be a dangerous foe this postseason. Being one would require them to continue their strong play of late, a challenge with the Capitals coming to town tonight.
If the Habs take out Washington, though, it could be a sign to the rest of the conference that le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge are for real.