TORONTO – For the Canadiens, Saturday’s game won’t be about setting the tone or providing a preview for the playoffs; it will just be about leaving Toronto with another two points.
Fresh off clinching a spot in the playoffs, the Habs hit the ice for practice in Toronto ready to work on Step 2 of their regular season game plan. With just five points separating the fifth-place Leafs from the ninth-place Jets, the playoff-like atmosphere will be out in full force at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night as Toronto battles to earn a berth in the postseason for the first time since 2003-04.
Some standings-watchers are already salivating at the prospect of seeing a potential playoff date between the Habs and Leafs for the first time since 1979, but the only match-up Michel Therrien is interested in planning for is the one scheduled to take place at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night.
“We’re not going to spend the next few weeks speculating on who we might play in the playoffs,” he stressed. “For sure there’s a rivalry here that would be interesting for the two teams and the two cities and for the passionate fans on both sides, but honestly, I’m not about to start speculating; we have no idea who we’re going to face in the first round. What’s important to me about tomorrow is that we play a good game. It has nothing to do with playing Toronto.”
Saturday’s tilt will feature a battle of two of the most potent offenses in the league, with Montreal and Toronto sitting fourth and fifth in the NHL, averaging 3.10 and 3.08 goals per game, respectively. Currently on a special teams tear, the Canadiens have capitalized on 35% of their power play opportunities in the last seven games, going 7-for-20 with the man advantage since March 30, while also posting a perfect 100% efficiency on the penalty kill in that span.
“Five-on-five, we’ve been playing good hockey. We’ve played solid, inspired hockey. The players are sticking to the game plan,” described Therrien on his team’s steady improvement throughout the compressed season. “We all know how important special teams will be and our power play has been clicking lately and the penalty kill has done an exceptional job in the last three weeks. And to win in the playoffs, you need a good goaltender and we know we’ve got that in Carey Price.
“Confidence is important,” he added. “Confidence gets you to the next level and we’re a team that gets more confident when we’re playing the way we’re supposed to play.”
Just five wins shy of matching the 31 they registered in 82 games in 2011-12, the Canadiens have been the NHL’s Cinderella story all season long. From finishing in the Eastern Conference basement to sitting atop the division one year later, the Habs aren’t going to stray from their game plan no matter who they end up meeting in the first round.
“I think it’s a huge accomplishment for our team and for the organization to be back in the playoffs. Last year wasn’t too fun watching the playoffs and watching other teams go through the postseason,” admitted Toronto native, P.K. Subban. “We play because we want to win the Cup and we’re going to have an opportunity to do that this year.
“I grew up a pretty big Habs fan, but one of my favorite players growing up was Doug Gilmour, who played for the Leafs. I think my mom is still a Leafs fan,” he added with a laugh. “My dad is a massive Habs fan and he grew up in a French neighborhood in Sudbury, ON. I got drafted to Montreal and it’s been a lot of fun playing here. For the league, everybody wants to see Toronto in the playoffs and it adds to the rivalry. If it ends up being Montreal and Toronto, that’s what people want to see.”
In the meantime, both teams can enjoy a taste of that potential match-up when the puck drops at the ACC on Saturday night.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
Words from the room