A week or so ago, the legitimate question to answer was if the Montreal Canadiens would even make the playoffs. That answer came emphatically when the Canadiens won a few, and the Flames — their only real competition for the fourth spot — showed themselves to be indifferent to winning enough to take a playoff spot.

There’s a time lag on fans catching on that the latest losing streak won’t last forever, so as of a few days ago, pessimistic Montreal fans were still predicting a collapse, and the Leafs fans who just want Montreal to suffer were weaving fanciful scenarios where they lost every game and went home early.

Unnoticed in all of that silliness — because Montreal never had anything but a very high probability of making the playoffs — was a mini-slump by the Winnipeg Jets. As recently as a week ago, the Jets and the Oilers were neck-and-neck for second place, and as recently as a month ago, pessimistic Leafs fans figured the Jets would take over first since the Leafs were going to lose every game for the rest of the season. The Leafs stopped losing and the Jets stopped winning, and the result is a situation very much like what was predicted before this season ever began and we began thinking in five game increments.

The concept put forth by anyone who modeled the season (so not sports odds for gamblers) was that the Leafs were clearly the best team in the North, Ottawa was clearly the worst, and the other five teams were virtually indistinguishable. Now that we have the reality of 50 games played for most teams, the prediction failed, as these things do, to allow for Vancouver’s dreadful performance followed by the loss of Elias Pettersson to injury. The Flames and the Canadiens underperformed, one in shooting, the other in net, and the coaches were fired in the long-standing traditional method of dealing with the randomness of hockey results. The Flames never recovered from the change, the Canadiens did.

Which has left us with three of the five teams not the Leafs or the Senators battling for the two-three-four spots. The question now, legitimately is: Can Montreal finish third ahead of the Jets?

Yes, they absolutely can. They have 55 points in 50 games played, and the Jets have 57 in 50. The Oilers 62 in 49 seems safe right now. They won’t catch the Leafs, and the Leafs will finish first, but while it was heavily expected the Leafs would play Montreal in round one, now it’s possible it’s the Jets.

How possible?

The truth of this season is no different from any other. Making up a two-point deficit seems simple on day one when you consider the task of winning two more games than the other team. But it’s a lot more difficult to do that when there are only six games left.

This is Montreal’s remaining schedule:

  • vs Leafs
  • @ Senators
  • @ Leafs
  • @ Leafs
  • vs Oilers
  • vs Oilers/

This is Winnipeg’s:

  • @ Senators
  • @ Flames
  • vs Senators
  • vs Canucks
  • vs Canucks
  • vs Leafs/

Montreal definitely has the harder job, but by the time they play the Oilers, second place might be locked down and the Oilers will be playing their third goalie. (They have one now, right?) The Senators are not tanking for a worse placement and have been a tough team to beat lately, having their best results of their season, while Vancouver sinks slowly below them in the standings The Senators have six wins and one tie in their last 10 games, and have a large number of one-goal losses throughout the second half. They are seriously playing their best hockey right now.

The Canucks are running out a season they don’t want to be still playing, and that seems like the Jets should take those two games (back-to-back) easily, but you never know. Meanwhile the Oilers, with seven games left, play Vancouver five times around those two games in Montreal. It doesn’t seem possible they drop down out of second place.

However, the biggest factor in deciding who the Leafs play in round one is not who Vancouver loses to it’s the Leafs themselves. I’m not suggesting they try to game the system in some clever scheme. I’m suggesting that the six points on the table this week for Montreal, who also have to jaunt over to play the Senators while the Leafs rest, is what will decide the Canadiens vs Jets rankings.

Montreal’s focus should be on sorting out their current roster, who their goalies are, and some of the basics of their game while they hope they get Brendan Gallagher back soon. They can’t win in the playoffs without him. The Jets are in exactly the same position, suddenly failing without Nikolaj Ehlers and totally dependant on Connor Hellebuyck, who hasn’t looked very solid lately.

Right now, it looks like third place goes to the team that loses less.

Who will the Leafs face in the first round?

Someone else (I’m a Flames or Canucks beat reporter)13