With only a handful of games remaining in the NHL 2020-21 season, the 2021 NHL playoff picture is starting to take shape in the Scotia North Division.
While the top three Canadian teams have essentially been decided, led by the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs, the battle for the fourth and final playoff spot is heating up nicely. The Montreal Canadiens have had the upper hand all season but the Calgary Flames, who many left for dead, are making a serious final push, which promises to make these last two weeks rather interesting.
A Race to the finish
After flying out of the gate to start the year, the Canadiens have severely struggled over the past several weeks. A postseason berth seemed like a foregone conclusion not so long ago, but now it is anything but.
To make matters worse, a COVID-19 forced pause has condensed the Canadiens’ schedule and the impact of that is being felt at the worst possible time. They have seven games left in a demanding stretch of 25 games in 44 days, which has forced them to play four games a week over the past month. Not to mention that the injuries are starting to pile up too. The Habs currently have five regulars out of the lineup: Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Carey Price, and Tomas Tatar. On Friday night against the Jets, they also played without captain Shea Weber who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
NHL GP ranking, North Division, most games played since March 30th (#Habs' return from COVID week off):#GoHabsGo 1st#GoSensGo 19th#LeafsForever 20th#GoJetsGo 23rd#CofRed 29th#LetsGoOilers 30th#Canucks 31st No, fatigue isn't the same for everyone. pic.twitter.com/rEuGy2WzQs — J. D. Lagrange (@JD_Lagrange) April 29, 2021
Montreal sits six points ahead of Calgary in the standings. They posted an important victory over the Jets on Friday, but they will quite literally be limping into their final contests of the season. Their roster depth will be severely tested. They’ve made this race a lot closer than it should be and they’re going to have to win some games down the stretch, which is far from a guarantee despite now having rookie sensation Cole Caufield, the recent Hobey Baker Award winner, in the lineup. On the flip side, the Canadiens are still within striking distance of the third-place Winnipeg Jets. As if this 2020-21 campaign couldn’t get any weirder.
Meanwhile, the Flames aren’t exactly lighting it up either, but have won a few key games recently to keep themselves in it. They’ll be without defenseman Noah Hanifin for the rest of the season which is a big loss and makes their chase that much more difficult.
It may come down to which team survives these last few games instead of thriving under the pressure.
Potential playoff matchups
It looks like Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers will face the Jets in the opening round of the NHL Playoffs while the hockey world is collectively hoping that the much-anticipated Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens first-round series comes to fruition.
These two Original Six rivals have met in the postseason 15 times, but not once since 1979. To say that a playoff matchup is long overdue would be an understatement. The question is, would their passionate fanbases be able to handle it?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there is still lots to be decided in the coming days. It has been a drama-filled season north of the border and it promises to stay that way until the very end.