BROSSARD, Quebec -- When the Anaheim Ducks take the Bell Centre ice Tuesday with a chance to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens will be left to watch and wonder what if.
What if the Canadiens had made the types of adjustments the Ducks made when they were playing well but still not producing victories?
What if the Canadiens had made the type of midseason trade that brought forward David Perron to the Ducks on Jan. 16 for Carl Hagelin, helping to trigger a 21-5-2 run that Anaheim carries into the game Tuesday?
What if the Canadiens had goaltending depth anywhere near that of the Ducks duo of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson instead of relying solely on Carey Price, only to see him miss all but 12 games this season because of a lower-body injury?
The Ducks can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a point in Montreal on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; PRIME, FS-SD, RDS, SNE, NHL.TV). The Canadiens' playoff hopes are all but mathematically dashed.
When you look back to the beginning of the 2015-16 season, this scenario playing out would have been unthinkable.
The Canadiens began the season 9-0-0, setting their record for best start to a season, while the Ducks had a 1-7-2 start.
Video: ANA@WPG: Silfverberg buries his own rebound for GWG
Montreal was sitting atop the NHL standings with a 19-4-2 record as late as Dec. 2 when things really headed south.
The Canadiens outshot the Washington Capitals 35-19 on Dec. 3 and lost 3-2, with goaltender Braden Holtby doing to them what Montreal had become so accustomed to seeing Price do to opponents for years. It became a theme over the course of December, with the Canadiens severely outplaying quality teams like the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings but coming out on the losing end.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien was reluctant to make serious changes because of how well the Canadiens were playing, so well that he even said they played better going 2-8-0 over the first three weeks of December than they did in starting the season 9-0-0.
Meanwhile, Anaheim was 12-15-6 after an overtime loss at the New York Rangers on Dec. 22, a record that did not correlate with underlying statistics that suggested the Ducks were playing far better than their record suggested. The Ducks came back home to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 in a very physical game Dec. 27 and prepared to leave again on a three-game trip through Western Canada.
That was when coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff made a critically important decision.
"The point in time was when the realization was, 'Hey, you know what? We might not average more than a goal and a half a game.' But if we want to win, that means we have to limit the teams to one goal a game and not using the crutch of bad luck or puck luck or whatever you want to call it, because that might never end," Boudreau said. "So the coaches took it upon themselves to say, 'OK, let's just focus totally on defense.' If things went better that way, the confidence would allow them to score more. And they did."
The Ducks defeated the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames 1-0 and were leading the Vancouver Canucks 1-0 in the third period before losing 2-1 in a shootout on that road trip. They took five of six points and have gone 25-7-2 since coming home from Vancouver on New Year's Day, allowing more than two goals 10 times in 34 games.
"We definitely changed our mentality," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "I think our coach's plan was always to play that way; we don't always follow that. But I think that was a part of our process of buying in and understanding what it takes to win at this level, and in our division, for that matter. When you're talking about teams that struggle to score goals, you have to keep them out of your net. We were able to do that, and then the offense started from there."
Video: ANA@WPG: Kesler goes top-shelf with a one-timer
Boudreau said having forwards like Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler show not only a willingness but an eagerness to trade their offensive points for points in the standings helped drag the rest of the Ducks along for the ride.
Boudreau, however, did not like the suggestion that the Ducks became a trapping team, as some members of the Flames suggested after their 1-0 loss to them Dec. 29.
"I call it responsible. We were responsible," Boudreau said. "The term we use all the time is 'playing above them.' When we don't have the puck, we want to make sure we're above them. If it's three guys down low below the circles, as long as we're above their third guy, we're OK. If it's in the neutral zone, and as long as we're above the middle guy, we feel it's OK. It's a very simple concept and simple rules, but it's easier for the guys to pick up."
The irony of that defensive simplicity is it allowed the Ducks offense to come out of its early-season slumber. Ever since their return from Vancouver on Jan. 1, the Ducks have scored 3.26 goals per game. They are a different team from the start of the season, but in many ways that rough start might have been what allowed this change to happen.
"I don't know," Boudreau said with a laugh. "I hope to never know again."
The Canadiens did not have as much time as the Ducks to save their season, but the realization that drastic tactical changes were needed never came in Montreal. That's in part why there is one team entering the game Tuesday hoping to celebrate at the end, and another simply happy that the season is one game closer to ending.