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Habs' showdown in Columbus shaping up as pivotal game in playoff race

Canadiens need to take of business Tuesday against Panthers before facing Blue Jackets Thursday in their most important game of the season.

MONTRÉAL, Que. —

The Canadiens will play their most important game of the season on Thursday when they travel to Columbus to play the Blue Jackets.

No matter how you looked at the game, it was going to be important. But it became even more crucial after the events of Sunday night.

The Canadiens let a point slip away when they dropped a 2-1 overtime decision in Carolina, while the Blue Jackets salvaged a win on their three-game Western Canada swing by blanking the Vancouver Canucks 5-0.

The result left Montreal with a three-point edge over Columbus in the battle for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, but Columbus has a game in hand and it’s imperative that the Canadiens win Thursday if they hold any hope of advancing to the post-season.

But first, there’s  the matter of getting past the pesky Florida Panthers Tuesday at the Bell Centre. The Panthers are out of the playoffs and Montreal has won two of their three meetings this season. It’s the one loss that should concern the Canadiens. It was in their last encounter on Feb. 17, when the Panthers were easy 6-3 winners at home.

The Canadiens have to win the next two games because they finish the regular season with the toughest schedule imaginable. They play four teams that are playoff-bound and the Canadiens have a combined record of 2-6-2 against them.

On Saturday, they to travel to Winnipeg, where the Jets are battling to hold on to first place in the Central Division. Montreal beat the Jets 5-2 on Feb. 7 at the Bell Centre in their only game this season.

They’re back home next Tuesday to play the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has a 3-0 record against Montreal this season while outscoring the Canadiens 13-6. The Lightning has already wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the best regular-season record.

Next Thursday, they travel to Washington, where the Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division. The Canadians and the Capitals have split their two games this season.

And the season concludes with a home game against the Maple Leafs next Saturday. The Canadiens are winless in three games against Toronto, but they did take two games to overtime.

Speaking of overtime, for a team that emphasizes speed and skill, the Canadiens aren’t very good in 3-on-3 shinny. The Canadiens’ failure to win Sunday left them with a 4-8 record in games decided in overtime. They are 2-0 in shootouts.

The Canadiens flew home after Sunday’s game and had a day off Monday. It was regularly scheduled day off and it couldn’t have come at a better time because, as head coach Claude Julien noted, the Canadiens ran out of gas on Sunday night as they played their fourth game in six nights in three cities.

The Canadiens earned seven out of a possible eight points in those games, which is good, but forward Brendan Gallagher put the Sunday’s setback in perspective when he said: “There are no moral victories.”

Carey Price did his job Sunday when he made 38 saves. He has allowed only 12 goals in his last seven starts, but the Canadiens have lost three of those games because the offence hasn’t produced. The Canadiens’ power play failed to capitalize on its one opportunity Sunday, but the fact they only drew one penalty highlights another problem. The Canadiens aren’t putting enough pressure on opposing defences to draw penalties.

By Pat Hickey

phickey@postmedia.com

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