Monday, December 22, 2008

Make or break

Well, ordinarily, the Canadiens' nineteen wins in the first thirty-four games of the season would be considered to be pretty successful. But in a season in which the Bruins, Devils, Rangers, Flyers and Penguins are keeping pace or bettering what the Canadiens have done, the Habs need to do more if they hope to not only secure a playoff spot, but also achieve a decent position. Home ice in the playoffs might not save a series, but it can't hurt.

In the last couple of years, the post-Christmas Florida road trip has been a pretty telling indicator of where the team is going. Two years ago, the team played three road games immediately after the holidays. They beat Washington on December 27, then played back-to-back games in Florida and Tampa on the 29th and 30th. The result? Back-to-back humiliating losses of 3-1 each night, on neither of which the Habs either showed up or seemed to care. That disgrace was followed by a 6-7 record in the month of January and a rapid slide down the standings ending in a playoff miss.

Last year, the team played three road games right after Christmas again. In back-to-back games against Tampa and Florida, they emerged with convincing wins of 5-2 and 5-1, looking stronger and more dominant as the games went on. They wrapped up the road trip with a 4-3 OTL to the Rangers, but the Florida wins sent the team on an 8-2-2 run for the month of January on its way to first in the eastern conference.

Of course, a couple of games in the Sunshine State do not a season make. But in each of those two years, the team followed the same pattern: fast start, slump in November and uneven play in December. The turning point of both 2007 and 2008...the point that turned out to be a microcosm of the entire years in question...was the Florida road trip. Lose those games in 2007 and miss the playoffs. Win them convincingly in 2008 and take the confidence and good habits the team exhibited in them into the new year, and win the conference.

So, here we are again. Quick start, rough November, up-and-down December. And back-to-back games in Florida on tap, following a less-than-convincing two points in Pittsburgh. I don't know if these two games will once again prove to be a turning point in the season. But I know one thing: This Canadiens team needs a couple of solid, convincing road wins against less-talented opposition. They've been playing up or down according to the level of their opponents' game all year, and if they're to do any damage in the playoffs, they have to learn how to dominate teams they should beat easily. A couple of wins in Florida will give the team a boost and help bank the points they'll need for later in the season when every game is a dog fight and a single win could make the difference between home ice or not...or even playoffs or not.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of days. I know I'll feel a whole lot better about where things are going this season if the Canadiens end the year with a couple of solid wins in Florida.

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