Steve Begin and the Canadiens have caught fire at the right time, unlike the arch-rival Maple Leafs.
MONTREAL - If living dangerously is an art, few NHL teams have mastered it like the Canadiens, who have turned their late season high-wire act into a playoff spot in recent years.
Stuck at No. 11 in the Eastern Conference as recently as March 8 and reeling from a four-game losing skid, the Habs flipped that familiar switch, surging to an 8-2 mark since then.
It's déja-vu time for the Canadiens who only last year rattled off 10 wins in their final 15 games to snag the seventh seed in the East. Ditto for the 2003-04 season when the Habs went 11-1-1 from Feb. 20 through March 23 to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference before upending the top-ranked Bruins in the opening round.
"I wish I could tell you how we've managed to catch fire late in the season like this. I don't think there's some magical formula that's helped us besides our motivation to not have our season slip away," shrugged Sheldon Souray. "One thing for sure is that it definitely helps to start the playoffs with some momentum. Edmonton proved that just last year. I mean they finished eighth, got on a roll and rode that wave all the way to the Stanley Cup finals."
Souray will never forget the rabbit the Canadiens pulled from their hat in 2001-02. Against all odds, the Habs finished the regular season with seven straight wins, culminating with Saku Koivu's emotional return from cancer on April 9.
"It'll be tough to top 2002. That was pretty special," said Souray. "Saku coming back had a huge impact on all of us. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience we'll always remember. And to top it all off by beating the Bruins in the first round was just awesome."
As for the playoff push of 2006, it will have a much happier ending should fellow contenders like the Leafs continue to stumble down the stretch.
"Getting a little help from other teams never hurts," said Steve Begin. "It gives us all a little boost when we see good news on the out-of-town scoreboard. But the best way to make sure we make the playoffs is to work hard and take care of business ourselves."
With three games left and counting, Tuesday night's battle with the Bruins is the latest in a seemingly endless string of must-win games for Canadiens, who wouldn't have it any other way.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com