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.”