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The Montreal Canadiens are in the thick of a three-team race for two wild-card playoff positions in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Desperate would be an accurate way to describe their predicament over the final four games of the regular season. The Habs are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets with 90 points, one point back of the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s too close to call.
Columbus and Carolina both have five games remaining while Montreal has a murderer’s row of opponents on tap as they face the Winnipeg Jets, league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and the ever dangerous Toronto Maple Leafs over the next eight days.
“It’s a fun time of the year to be playing meaningful hockey,” veteran right-winger Brendan Gallagher said on Friday afternoon as the Canadiens prepped for Saturday’s clash with the Jets.
“We know it’s not going to be easy. If we win our games, you’ve gotta believe you’re going to eventually be in the dance at the end.
“You still control your destiny, it’s a matter of not looking too far ahead. This isn’t any easy place to win a hockey game. For us, we’re going to have to play a really smart road game.”
The Habs are coming off a demoralizing loss in Columbus Thursday in which they held 1-0 and 2-1 leads before five unanswered goals by the Blue Jackets resulted in a 6-2 loss.
Gallagher expects a quick reset.
“Obviously it hurt, but you wake up and you move on,” he said. “We’re all pretty used to it, especially at this time of the year you’re going to have tough losses — it’s how you respond. We’ve done a pretty good job of responding all year.”
Habs goaltender Carey Price was brimming with confidence when asked about the difficult road his team must travel to qualify for the post-season.
“We’ve got to start with tomorrow,” the all-star goaltender said. “Obviously, we’re playing really good teams, but it’s going to be a great challenge for our hockey team. If we are successful and we play the way that we need to play, we have a great chance.”
The Canadiens prefer to rely on themselves to finish in a wild-card position.
“That would help to have some help,” head coach Claude Julien said. “But at the same time, I don’t want our team not to do their job and hope somebody does it for them. That’s where I’m going with our hockey club. I’d like to see us take control of our own destiny in the games we have left.”
Could the imminent return of veteran blue-liner Dustin Byfuglien, who has missed Winnipeg’s last 19 games with an ankle injury, be a major factor?
“I’m not really concerned about it, to be honest,” centre Max Domi said. “It’s not our team.
“We’re focused on ourselves, but I know he’s a huge part of that team. He’s one of the best defencemen in the league so, of course, it’s going to help and it’s going to be a spark but it’s not really something that we’re too focused on.”
NO FURTHER DISCIPLINE: the NHL has ruled that Andrew Shaw’s hit on Blue Jackets defenceman Adam McQuaid Thursday night will not require supplemental discipline.
Shaw knocked McQuaid down during the second period with a hit Columbus head coach John Tortorella called “ridiculously suspendable.” Shaw was assessed a minor penalty for interference.
“It was an accident,” Shaw said Friday. “You feel bad about it, obviously. I mean, stuff like that happens in a game. I didn’t mean to, obviously. I was watching our player come towards me and my route was to go that way and by the time I picked up my head to look, he was coming the same way that I was going and I kind of just flinched.
“It was an accident, for sure. I feel bad. I sent him a message, sending him my best wishes, obviously.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.