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The final countdown

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – Monday’s below-freezing temperatures aside, it’s beginning to feel a lot like spring in Montreal.

Winners of four of their last five games, the Habs have outscored their opponents 14-7 over a week-long span, but the biggest sign of progress in the dressing room may very well be what hasn’t changed on the ice.

“The past two games I think our lines have been playing so well together that you can’t switch them around. We’re just giving coach reasons not to [change us],” noted forward Dale Weise, who hit the 10-goal plateau for the first time in his career with the game-winner on Thursday against Carolina. “I think every line has chipped in a goal in the last couple of games which is nice to see because we’re going to need scoring depth down the stretch.”

One area where the Canadiens’ depth is not up for debate is on defense. The Habs boast the stingiest back end in the NHL, allowing a league-low average of 2.14 goals against per game, and are looking prepped for the home stretch despite a recent injury to veteran rearguard Tom Gilbert.

“In Junior we always had eight guys and it was good because it gave us options, just like it does now. It’s always nice to have guys around, and our eight or nine D-men just goes to show that we’ve got a lot of depth. It’s a good thing to have,” acknowledged Nathan Beaulieu, who will be back in the lineup in place of Gilbert when the Habs visit the Predators on Tuesday after sitting out Saturday’s game against San Jose as a healthy scratch. “It doesn’t let you get comfortable. You’ve got to always be prepared. You never know who’s going to be in or out so it keeps you disciplined and ready to play.”

Back on track with just nine games remaining in the regular season, the Canadiens have also finally begun peeking beyond their own dressing room doors as April nears.

“Obviously we’ve started looking at the standings to see which teams we might meet in the postseason,” admitted Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, who has three points in his last five games since returning from a concussion earlier in March. “There’s still a lot of time for things to change, but the playoffs are definitely in the air.”

Or on the immediate horizon, at the very least, as the Habs can now clinch a playoff spot as early as Thursday.

“We definitely know what’s going on around the league this late in the year. Maybe earlier in the year you don’t pay as much attention, but with nine games left we’re trying to see who’s going to make the playoffs,” added Max Pacioretty, who is just five goals shy of his first career 40-goal campaign. “It’s been a great push by Ottawa, but obviously as a player you don’t have any preferences for who makes it and who doesn’t. It’s just good to see a lot of teams being competitive at this time of year.”

Montreal is hard to miss in the standings, currently sitting tied with the New York Rangers at 99 points in the East, but the Habs are focusing on something much bigger than Conference bragging rights.

“We take things one game at a time here – that’s been our philosophy since the start of the season. Our objective is to qualify for the playoffs in a very competitive league, and to finish in a good position to give ourselves home ice advantage,” underlined head coach Michel Therrien. “[The Presidents’ Trophy] isn’t something we’re obsessing over. We’ll continue taking games one at a time and see where we finish.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the dressing room on Monday as the Habs got set to take off for their antepenultimate road trip of the season.

“I don’t think it’s something we can focus on. At the end of the day, worrying about things like that will take away from our game,” agreed Pacioretty while looking ahead to this week’s two stops out west. “Next up is Nashville and they’re one of the best in the league. It’s going to be a playoff-style game there and we’re just focused on taking two points from them.”

Steven Nechay is a writer for canadiens.com

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