PITTSBURGH — For most of the season, the Canadiens have been battling the Boston Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division.
The speculation has not been whether the Canadiens would make the playoffs — they clinched a spot with eight games to play — but whether they would finish second or fourth in the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens are still in first place in the division as they prepare to meet the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night (7 p.m., TSN, RDS, TSN Radio 690), but the team faces the prospect of finishing outside the top four in the conference and opening the playoffs on the road.
It’s all about momentum and the Canadiens have lost it. They have dropped three of their last four games and were outscored 12-4 in their most recent losses to Toronto and Philadelphia.
The loss to the Leafs is the most troubling. Toronto looms as a potential first-round opponent and the Leafs have a 3-1 edge over the Canadiens this season. The concern over facing the Leafs is heightened by the possibility Toronto might enjoy the home-ice advantage. Toronto, which is 4-1-1 in its last six games, has crept to within four points of Montreal, and home-ice advantage for a potential 4-5 matchup could be on the line when the Canadiens visit Toronto in the regular-season finale on April 27.
Coach Michel Therrien admitted there was some concern, but added: “(Home ice) is something we want to have and we’re in a position to have. We just have to refocus. We caused a lot of surprise this year. We played with desperation this season, but we don’t have that same desperation since we made the playoffs. We have to bring it back as soon as we can.
“We didn’t respond last night, but we have to look ahead,” Therrien added. “Pittsburgh is a new challenge. They’re the best team in the East. “
The Penguins have won 19 of their last 21 games and are seven points clear of the second-place Canadiens. They have won their first two games against Montreal. The Canadiens do get one break Wednesday night because Sidney Crosby and James Neal are still recovering from injuries, and a shoulder injury has taken some of the sting out of Evgeni Malkin’s shot.
Defenceman Josh Gorges said the Canadiens are at a crossroads.
“We’re definitely not playing the way we want to be playing the last couple of games,” Gorges said. “But we have to make a decision, do we want to learn from this and get better or do we tuck our tails between our legs and cower? This is an opportunity to grow as a team.
“Every night is a hard night in this league.”
As for letting home ice slip away, Gorges said: “Those things are always in your mind. It’s more important to focus on pulling the right way. It’s about doing the right things, competing, winning battles, winning races. Obviously, we want home-ice advantage and to win out, but we have to focus on playing Pittsburgh tomorrow. We want to be playing our best hockey coming into the playoffs.”
Peter Budaj will put his seven-game win streak on the line as he gets the start in goal, but fans shouldn’t view this as a criticism of Carey Price, who has been part of the team’s recent malaise.
“He’s played well every time we’ve asked him to play and I have confidence in him,” Therrien said of Budaj.
As for Price, he’ll start Thursday when the Canadiens play the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Bell Centre (7:30 p.m., TSN-HABS, RDS, TSN Radio 690).
There will be another lineup change in Pittsburgh with Brandon Prust returning to the lineup after a “maintenance” day off for his wonky shoulder.
“I got banged up a bit in Toronto and it was good to get some rest,” Prust said.
Prust replaces Ryan White, who is facing a suspension for his hit to the head of Philadelphia’s Kent Huskins on Monday. White has accepted the offer of an in-person hearing Wednesday. Such hearings are scheduled when the National Hockey League is contemplating a suspension of at least five games.
Therrien said he was also considering bringing defenceman Yannick Weber out of mothballs. Weber has dressed for only two games this season with his last appearance on March 7 in Carolina.
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