Blue Jackets-Canadiens is absolutely gigantic for both teams

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The phrase “must-win game” gets thrown around a lot, even in the NHL, where teams play 82-game regular seasons. Most of the time, big games should get the clunkier (but more accurate) title of “would be really inconvenient to lose” games.

Yet, Thursday’s game between the Canadiens and Blue Jackets in Columbus is about as close as you can get to a literal must-win game, at least in March.

Just consider how each team’s odds would swing with a win or loss. According to Money Puck:

  • Montreal’s would climb to 80 percent if they win in regulation, while they’d drop to 32 percent if the Habs lost in regulation. The Canadiens’ odds are currently at 56.38 percent.
  • If Columbus wins in regulation, their chances would rise to 75 percent. A regulation loss, however, would make the Blue Jackets’ chances drop to 27 percent. They’re currently given a 51.65 percent chance.

Yeah, those are some “Jekyll & Hyde” swings. In case the stakes weren’t obvious, consider that The Athletic’s Marc Antoine-Godin wonders (sub required) if this is the Canadiens’ regular-season game of the decade. That’s especially true if this one is decided in regulation.

Naturally, things would get a little more complicated if the game went into overtime and/or a shootout, so it’s probably helpful to look at where the two teams rank in the standings, and consider if anyone else is in the neighborhood:

With the Atlantic Division teams at 97 points or higher and the Metro teams at 95+, Carolina is the only team that could realistically storm slip out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs … but neither Montreal nor especially Columbus should count on that. The Hurricanes have been hot, and they have three points on Columbus, while Carolina holds a one-point edge and a game in hand on Montreal.

Speaking of games in hand, check out the remaining schedules for each team:

Columbus

Mar. 30: at Nashville
Mar. 31: at Buffalo
Apr. 2: home vs. Boston
Apr. 5: at Rangers
Apr. 6: at Senators

Schedule observations: There are definitely some tough elements here. With just five games remaining after Thursday’s clash with the Canadiens, it’s remarkable that they face two back-to-back sets on the road.

Maybe you can rationalize some of this as a lack of motivation. The Sabres, Rangers, and Senators all will have little to play for by then, and the Bruins might also find themselves so comfortably entrenched in the second seed as to maybe rest some players, too.

Of course … the Senators would certainly love to foil the Blue Jackets, wouldn’t they? And maybe some Rangers fans would love to see John Tortorella fail?

Montreal

Mar. 30: at Winnipeg
Apr. 2: home vs. Tampa Bay
Apr. 4: at Washington
Apr 6: home vs. Toronto

Schedule observations: Boy, April 6 could be such a day of spite, it might actually be a more appropriate April Fool’s Day than April 1 this year. While the Senators could try to end the season for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel on the same day their season ends, the Maple Leafs could spoil things for their nigh-ancient rivals. Delicious, delicious trolling opportunities.

While the Blue Jackets face a road-heavy schedule with back-to-backs, the Canadiens get better rest opportunities … but face much tougher teams on paper.

The Jets and Capitals are likely to have plenty of motivation, while the Lightning seem compelled to battle history at this point.

[Read the latest Push for the Playoffs for more on how the Capitals might be in quite the joust for the Metropolitan Division title.]

Normally, that Toronto game would be kind of a write-off (the Maple Leafs haven’t batted an eye about saying they’re considering resting players, and they’ll likely will be locked into the third seed), but the rivalry factor could really get the blood pumping.

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If Montreal wins in regulation, they’d open up a four-point lead on Columbus, mitigating much of the advantage that comes from the Blue Jackets’ game-in-hand. If the Blue Jackets won in regulation, the two teams would be tied at 90 standings points, and Columbus would have that extra game.

With so little time remaining in the regular season, this is huge. And the storylines are juicy.

Consider the coaching battle:

  • Torts, who is at risk of seeing a team go all-in only to fall out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Versus Claude Julien, a coach who’s generally been instrumental in helping a team with low expectations overachieve … but is still at risk of following justshort of the postseason in a hockey-mad market.

The goalie battle is huge, too.

  • After seemingly seeing his career fall off the rails – to the point that his contract looked like a cautionary tale regarding investing in Bob – Carey Price has largely had a redemptive season. Even so, has Price ever really had that big, triumphant win? After all, it was Jaroslav Halak who powered that unlikely run many years ago, not Price.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky‘s season has swirled with drama and erratic play. Much like Price, Bobrovsky’s heating up. Also like Price, Bobrovsky hasn’t had those big team wins, mostly standing out with lofty individual stats. Far more so than Price, Bob has inspired rumblings (fair or not) about “choking.” Bobrovsky is also seeking the sort of franchise goalie deal Price already possesses … what better way to prove that Bob deserves one too, then to beat out Price — both on Thursday and during this stretch run?

Throw in the saga of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene’s almost-cursed run of disappointments, and the pressure cooker environment in Montreal, and this is absolutely one of those “grab your popcorn” nights.

At least, it is if you’re a fan of the sport as a whole. If you’re rooting for the Canadiens or Blue Jackets, you’re crossing your fingers, not grabbing popcorn.

(Although we’d all understand nervous snacking at a time like this.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.