I think tonight's game is going to tell us an awful lot about the hopes of this year's Montreal Canadiens. A lot has happened since this time last year. The lineup has been gutted, the Halak vs. Price debate has heated up, injuries have ravaged the players and controversy has surrounded the departures of Guillaume Latendresse and Georges Laraque. The demotion of Sergei Kostitsyn early in the year and the lack of a team captain have had tongues wagging around the league. The team has been surrounded by questions that only time could answer. Through it all, the Canadiens have managed (with a little help from the wretched Eastern Conference) to stay within reach of a playoff position.
This is it though. If a team gets a half-dozen cockups or do-overs during the course of a long season, the Canadiens have used up theirs. If they blow another chance to move this season ahead, they will have a very, very difficult time finishing top-eight this year.
They can't have it any better right now. The goaltending is hot, the special teams are good, the additions of Pouliot, Darche and O'Byrne to the lineup have improved even-strength play. The teams racing with them for the final couple of playoff spots have obligingly lost important games in hand this week.
Tonight, the Habs play Florida, which has just lost leading scorer Nathan Horton and should be...must be...a beatable team. The stage is set for what will become, when we look back, a game that could turn the season for good or for ill. If the Canadiens win, they keep the pressure on the teams around them and rack up valuable points. They knock the Panthers, one of their immediate competitors for a playoff spot, down a place. They extend their winning streak to three games and put themselves three games above .500 for the first time all year.
If they lose, they blow the temporary advantage they've got with all the teams around them failing to advance in the standings this week. They stay mired in mediocrity and remain uncertain about which team they really are: the one that got stomped 6-2 by the Rangers or the one that came back and pounded the Rangers 6-0.
That's the most important thing about this game tonight. It will tell the Habs what kind of team they are. Good teams beat the teams they should beat most of the time, but always when it really matters. Coming off two huge victories against the Rangers and Devils, there's a bit of momentum happening for the Canadiens. A win tonight validates that fledgling belief that maybe this team can play really well. It says, "we're moving ahead and we've learned from the mistakes we've made." A win keeps the momentum going and gives the team the feeling it's not just trying to stay alive, but that it's actually building toward something.
Not to be too dramatic about it, but I think this game is one of those subtle "message" games in which the team needs to find an answer to a question it's asking itself. The question is: "Are we good enough to not just get into the playoffs, but to play convincingly well to win once we're in?"
They, and we, will know the answer before the day is out.