There are lots of factors that determine a team's performance in the NHL. The amount of skill you have in your lineup is, of course, number one. But then there are the forces that work on that, like tide on rock. Forces like scheduling, injuries, chemistry, coaching and work ethic. This season adds still another major factor to the mix along with all the usual stuff, though.
The Vancouver Olympics could conceivably make or break the Canadiens' season this year. The NHL schedule is compressed into two pieces; a long grind before the Olympic break, then two weeks off, then a crazy sprint to the finish over the last quarter of the season. Success in this Olympic year will hinge on two factors. The team that emerges the most rested and the healthiest from the break is going to have a good chance to make a strong run down the stretch. And, a must for any team making that push is competitive play within its own division.
The first issue could be a problem for the Habs. Looking at the rosters of the teams in the Northeast, the Canadiens have the most guaranteed Olympians of them all. Gomez, Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Hamrlik, Spacek and Halak give the Habs six regulars all but guaranteed to be heading to Vancouver. Markov would be a lock too, if he were healthy. In contrast, divisional rival Buffalo is likely to be sending only Ryan Miller to the Games, with a possibility of Derek Roy cracking a strong Team Canada lineup. The Senators have Daniel Alfredsson if he's healthy, Michalek and Volchenkov as the likeliest candidates for the Olympics, with a chance Kovalev and Spezza could make teams Russia and Canada respectively. The leafs will send Grabovski, Kessel, Kaberle and Komisarek to the Games. (Although we hope it won't matter by then.) And the Bruins will send Krejci, Chara and Thomas, with an outside possibility Lucic might make Team Canada.
It's nice to have national pride and all, but six regulars spending their whole mid-winter break risking injury in a passionate, nationalistic tournament aren't getting a whole lot of R&R for the playoff push. The sheer number of important players in the Habs' lineup who are going for the gold in Vancouver will hurt when you look at the lineups of their division rivals. The upside, if there is one to be found in Markov's injury, is that he'll have an extra two weeks to recover and come back to the Canadiens healthy and rested.
So, if everyone comes back intact from the Olympics and manage to find a second wind as they finish out the NHL season, the other big factor that will play into how the Northeast looks after 82 games is the way teams play within the division. The Habs and Senators have the fewest games remaining after the break, with 19 apiece. The Sens play 26% of their post-Olympic games against division opponents. The Habs, in contrast, have 37% of their remaining games against Northeast rivals. Only the leafs, with 38% of their final 21 games within the division, depend more on performing well against the Northeast.
So far, so good for the Canadiens, who've won both of their intra-division games so far. They're going to have to keep that up if they're going to snag a playoff spot this year. The Olympic break makes winning against your own division more important than usual. It's the x-factor in a season that's already got a lot of them in Montreal.