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Canadiens face obstacles, embrace challenges in playoff bid

Difficult schedule ahead in battle with Blue Jackets, Hurricanes for final two spots in East

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- The Montreal Canadiens' final three games of the regular season might be the definition of difficult. They will play the Tampa Bay Lightning, the best team in the NHL this season, the Washington Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and their archrivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They might need wins in all three games to reach the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs but no matter, the Canadiens believe they'll be hard to keep out of the postseason.

"We're excited about the opportunity and we're going to rise to the occasion," said forward Max Domi, who had an assist in a crucial 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place on Saturday.


[RELATED: Canadiens defeat Jets, keep pace for second wild card in East]


Montreal (42-29-8) is one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens are two points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the first wild card. The Blue Jackets (44) and Hurricanes (41) each has more regulation and overtime wins than the Canadiens (40), which is the first tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same amount of points at the end the season. 

"We've talked about this the whole time -- we're not giving up," Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. "We're not out yet. Six more points available for us. We'll take the next game here and try to win that one and see what happens."

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The Canadiens, who host the Lightning at Bell Centre on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN2, RDS, SUN, NHL.TV), are 5-1-1 in the past seven games but the regulation loss came against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday.

It appeared to be a crushing blow to the Candiens' hopes, but they responded with the win over the Jets, who are battling the Nashville Predators for first place in the Central Division. 

"Ups and downs of the season," Weber said. "Obviously that one hurt a little more against Columbus, but we know there was nothing we could do at this point except win our games. We just have to take care of our business. One game at a time.

"We won the first one we set out to win this week. Obviously, we had to do that to win all four. We have a lot of work ahead of us and we've got a good team [to play] on Tuesday so we'll enjoy it for a few minutes and then go home and get ready for Tampa."

Forward Jordan Weal, who had a goal and an assist against the Jets playing on the top line with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia, said the schedule in the week ahead suits him just fine.

"We've got three games here against good teams and that's who you want to play, play the best teams to get in because then you'll know we deserve it," said Weal, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for forward Michael Chaput on Feb. 25. 

"It was good to get this one back and stay in the hunt."

Weal has eight points (three goals, five assists) in 13 games for Montreal since the trade. He said that despite the tough road they have faced, the Canadiens' outlook has not wavered over the final weeks of the regular season and that outshooting the Jets 44-24 and earning the road win in Winnipeg proved it.

"Just shows the work ethic of the group in here," he said. "The day I came in here, you could tell it was a group of guys that really likes to be around each other and work for each other. That's really important to be a winning team.

"You've just got to keep pushing and keep pushing and not worry about the outside noise. It's tough. You're going to look at scoreboards. It's everywhere. You're scrolling through your phone and it pops up in your face. You just have to keep pushing."

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The schedule doesn't favor the Canadiens. 

Three of the Blue Jackets' four remaining games are against teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention: at the Buffalo Sabres Sunday; at the New York Rangers on Friday and at the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. They host the Boston Bruins, who are second in the Atlantic Division, on Tuesday. The Hurricanes play two games against teams in playoff contention (at the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday; at the Maple Leafs on Tuesday), but finish the season against two teams that have been eliminated (vs. the New Jersey Devils on Thursday; at the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday). 

Before the game at Winnipeg, Canadiens coach Claude Julien had the customary stay-the course, believe-in-his players comments about getting back on track after the loss at Columbus.

But his tone turned extra serious when it was suggested to him the Canadiens might need the Blue Jackets or Hurricanes to lose a few games to help them get into the postseason.

"That would help," Julien said. "But at the same time, I don't want our team to not do their job and hope somebody else does it for them. That's kind of where I'm going with our hockey club. I'd like to see us take control of our own destiny, win the games that we have left and hopefully that will get us into the playoffs."

Julien spoke about the Canadiens being an excellent bounce-back team for most of the season, that apart from a couple of weeks, they've not allowed let a poor game or two develop into a long losing streak.

Montreal lost five straight games (0-3-2) from Nov. 19 to 27 and lost four in a row Feb. 9 to 17 (0-3-1), but those were the only instances of streaks greater than two losses in a row all season.

"For the most part we were able to bounce back quickly," he said. "You've got to trust in your players and you've got to trust in your team that they're capable of doing that."

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The same would apply late in the season, Julien said.

"We don't go in there and re-invent the game because of where we are in the season," he said. "You don't want to make a mountain of it because you don't want the guys to go out there tight. You want them to go in there loose but to understand the outcome of what's at stake. That's the best way to prepare for a game."

"You go out there, play and hopefully have some wings … play a fast game like we've done this year when we've had success."

Using their speed and making plays with the puck will be the key to it all, just like it has been for Montreal all season, Domi said.

"We've come this far right, so why change now?" he said. "It's a tight-knit group on the ice and off the ice as well. We've worked very hard this year to continue to prove all you guys wrong. We're going to enjoy it and make the most of this."

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