The Christmas break affords us and the league a bit of a pause for reflection and for the Montreal Canadiens, it's come at a difficult time. They are a talented group, but it's an open debate about just how dependent they are on goaltender Carey Price. That's turned from a curiosity to a big question this season because Price has dealt with lower-body problems. To be fair, Montreal has been serviceable during previous stretches without him, but since his last contest on Nov. 25, the Canadiens have a 3-9-1 record.
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It would be overly simplistic to say that Montreal's recent struggles are fire and foremost related to Price's absence though, even if the timing of their decline makes that seem obvious. In reality though, while having Price during that stretch would have certainly been beneficial, even he might not have been able to save them lately. After all, the Canadiens have found the back of the net just five times in their last five games, so it's hard to point to their issues as exclusively a goaltending problem. It seems more likely that this is a perfect storm of Price's absence corresponding with a rough patch for the squad overall to make both appear more pronounced.
Whatever the case though, this has in some ways squandered Montreal's dominant start (they went 9-0-0 and 18-4-3) as they now have just a one-point hold on the Atlantic Division title. At this point, calling them the division leaders at all is generous even if it's technically true as they've played in 36 games, which is three more than Boston, one more than Florida, and two more than Detroit, so it's not a stretch to think that two or all of those teams could end up with more points than Montreal has when they reach the 36-game mark.
Meanwhile, Washington got off to a hot start like Montreal, but so far they haven't endured any significant struggles. In fact, they haven't even lost two games in a row yet. Goaltender Braden Holtby emergence over the last season and change as one of the top goaltenders in the league has been a major factor, but they have quite a bit of scoring depth as well. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been doing their part, as is typically the case, but now Evgeny Kuznetsov is playing like a star too with 10 goals and 30 points in 33 contests while newcomers Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie have been significant factors as well with 23 and 22 points respectively.
The Capitals seem to have the pieces in place to be a serious Stanley Cup contender. It's true that they enjoyed some amazing regular seasons that were followed by relatively brief playoff runs earlier in the Alex Ovechkin era, but they look different now and just because they've failed to live up to playoff expectations in the past doesn't mean that they will going forward.
Another team with playoff high expectations going into the season was the New York Rangers, but thus far they've been a mixed bag. Their 20-12-4 record by itself is nothing to complain about, but the Rangers have won just four of their last 15 games. A troubling aspect of that recently has been the play of Henrik Lundqvist, who allowed four or more goals in four of five games before earning a 3-2 overtime win on Tuesday. It's hard to get too excited about that victory though because he only needed to make 17 saves and it was against the Anaheim Ducks, which have been offensively anemic this season. This stretch has made some Rangers fans understandably nervous, but having a bad stretch like this isn't a death sentence nor does it invalidate their earlier 13-1-1 stretch from Oct. 19 through Nov. 23. The Rangers still have the pieces in place for a lengthy run and sometimes a stretch like this can help a team grow.
At the same time, the Rangers might find themselves in a very tough place if they let this slump linger for much longer as the Metropolitan Division is a particularly interesting one now. The Washington Capitals are running away with the top spot and the New York Islanders are in a great position to claim a playoff berth as well. So are the Rangers for that matter, but a better than expected New Jersey Devils team remains a factor and the Philadelphia Flyers are emerging as a threat as well after a poor start to the campaign. Then there's the Pittsburgh Penguins, which are a major X-Factor because if they start to click, they can still claim one of those playoff berths. It's created a situation where a great team might find themselves on the outside looking in by the time the Metropolitan Division playoff berths are handed out.