2010-2011 NHL season preview: Montreal Canadiens

GYI0060552015-cammalleri-mcisaac-getty.jpgLast season: (39-33-10, 88 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference) In what was a highly frustrating regular season for fans, edging into the playoffs in the final days of the season turned into a miraculous run through the playoffs to the conference finals.

Head coach: Jacques Martin begins his second season with the Canadiens. The Habs’ miraculous playoff run may have helped him keep the wolves at bay. His curious personnel decisions as well as adherence to playing staid, boring hockey won him few friends last season. Then again, being the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens may be one of the most demanding jobs in professional sports.

Key departures: G Jaroslav Halak, F Sergei Kostitsyn, F Glen Metropolit, D Marc-Andre Bergeron, F Dominic Moore. Halak is the most noticeable guy they’ve lost. Carrying a team on your back through the playoffs makes that possible. The contributions of Metropolit as a role player will be missed, however.

Key arrivals: F Jeff Halpern, F Lars Eller, F Dustin Boyd, G Alex Auld. Halpern will fit nicely into a hybrid role to make the loss of both Metropolit and Moore go mostly unnoticed. Auld is set to be the guy who fans will yell for to start games when they get too upset with Carey Price. Their cries will be laughed at, however.

Under pressure: Without a doubt, Price is the man under the gun in Montreal. After Jaroslav Halak led the Canadiens to the playoffs and through to the Eastern Conference finals, thus securing cult hero status in Montreal, the offseason trade of Halak to St. Louis made Price’s job as the No. 1 goalie that much harder.

He’s already dealt with overzealous Montreal fans in the preseason, getting booed after a lackluster performance in his first start, so if Price thinks that poor play can fly under the radar, he’s greatly mistaken. Every start he makes for the Habs will be over-analyzed to the point of madness. Price will either succeed and stick it to his nay-sayers or he’ll crumble under the weight of great expectations. The drama will be incredible to watch play out.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for careyprice3.jpgProtecting the house: We’ve already analyzed what Price’s season is going to be like and Auld is a serviceable backup goalie just the same. That said, unless Price turns back into the guy we saw in his rookie season, the Habs goaltending is a bit weaker because they have to rely on Auld for a long stretch of time.

Defensively, Montreal could prove to be a lot of fun. Andrei Markov will return from injury soon enough and rookie P.K. Subban thrilled fans during the playoffs last season and will likely get a full year of NHL play to show what he’s capable of. There will be some hiccups since he’s still very young, but he’s going to be a joy for fans to watch. Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, and Josh Gorges have gotten it together to help make Montreal’s defensive unit veteran strong and capable of playing well. Ryan O’Byrne could be the odd-man out or the right guy to jump in the lineup if the Habs need a little more thump along the blue line.

The top line we’d like to see: A line of Mike Cammalleri-Scott Gomez-Brian Gionta would be an outstanding offensive unit. Gomez and Gionta have the chemistry that goes back to their days with the Devils and Cammalleri is the hottest thing in Montreal since poutine. If Martin doesn’t get too allergic to offense, this would be a fun line.

Oh captain, my captain: The Habs still haven’t named a team captain as of yet. Expect any one of Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, or Andrei Markov to get the nod, however.

Street fighting man: The Habs really aren’t a fighting team so picking out the designated brawler is difficult. If you’re looking for a fight with Montreal, however, it can’t hurt to make a run at Travis Moen. The former Duck and Blackhawk is more than accustomed to putting on the foil. Just don’t expect it too often. If Ryan O’Byrne sticks around he also will make a solid dance partner.

Best-case scenario: For things to break perfect for the Habs, Cammalleri has to score like it was the playoffs all season long. Getting at least 40 goals would be a great target for him to hit. Another big season out of Plekanec and getting Gomez and Gionta to play like it was the early 2000s again would help. Markov comes back and plays like he hasn’t missed a day while also helping Subban’s game to blossom further. Oh yeah, and Price plays out of his mind. That would do the trick both on and off the ice.

Worst-case scenario: Cammalleri struggles while Price plays inconsistently enough to make it an end-of-the-world issue to the fans and media. The uncomfortable political angling of the decision to make American-born Gionta captain gets magnified to a degree that even ‘The Daily Show’ starts to pick on the team. Meanwhile the Habs miss the playoffs and run Price out of town while erecting gold statues to Halak and yearning for the ‘good ole’ days’ of when he played for the Habs. C’est terrible.

Keeping it real: Price will play just fine. Yes, the fans and media will get on him, but he’ll do just fine in Montreal. Put the torches down and stop preemptively burning that effigy. Provided that Martin doesn’t get too insane with his lineup juggling and allows the Habs potentially fun offense the room to be creative and work, Montreal should be a playoff team. They won’t land an impressive-looking seed, but checking in at 6th, 7th, or 8th would be acceptable.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Habs are a definitive 3. Too many things need to break right for Montreal to reach the finals and you can’t help but wonder that maybe all that magic got spent last season. They’ve got a chance to do it, but there’s a lot of questions surrounding the team to make it happen.

(Photo1: Jim McIsaac – Getty Images)

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    Holtby ‘wasn’t as sharp as he can be,’ says Trotz

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    Presidents’ Trophy winners once again in the regular season, the Capitals once again face an uphill climb if they are to advance beyond the rival Penguins and the second round of the playoffs.

    What began with a strong first period for the Capitals in Game 2, albeit without a reward on the score board, faded into a frustrating 6-2 rout, as the Penguins took a commanding 2-0 series lead as it shifts back to Pittsburgh for a pivotal Game 3 on Monday.

    Braden Holtby was pulled after the second period. He gave up three goals on 14 shots, while his opponent at the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury was brilliant with 34 saves.

    “He’ll tell you that he can be better. He’s a straight up guy and he will be. I was just trying to change the mojo,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz of his decision to sit Holtby.

    “I thought some of the goals, he wasn’t as sharp as he can be for us. He’s a game-changer for us. So when he didn’t change the game, I just looked to change the mojo a little bit there. That’s all. Braden’s our backbone. He has been all year. We’ve got to find some goals for him, too. We can’t just put it on Braden Holtby.”

    Now in a deep but not insurmountable hole against the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Capitals reportedly held a players’ only meeting following this latest defeat.

    After failing to open the scoring in an otherwise dominant first period, Washington surrendered three goals in the second, as the Penguins broke it wide open with their transition game, led by two great plays from Sidney Crosby.

    “We can’t get frustrated. I think that would be our biggest mistake is to get frustrated right now,” said T.J. Oshie, before expanding on the meeting between the players.

    “It was things that people need to say and things that some people need to hear. We were very together with what we said. I don’t need to go into details. Sometimes in our game … you need to hear from your teammates more than your coach. And tonight was one of those nights.

    “It was the players in here and what was said is what needed to be said.”

    We’ll find out Monday if what was said actually has any impact on the ice.

    Penguins rout Capitals to take commanding series lead

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    The Washington Capitals are in trouble. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Again.

    Despite a dominant first period, at least in terms of shots on Marc-Andre Fleury and puck possession, the Capitals saw this game go sideways in a hurry during the second period, on the way to a 6-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 2.

    Washington is now in quite a hole, trailing its nemesis 2-0 in this second-round series.

    Last year, Matt Murray stymied the Capitals. Though it’s only been two games this year, Fleury has stepped up in the absence of the injured Murray and given the Penguins solid goaltending and frustrated a dangerous Capitals lineup.

    After withstanding the storm of pressure from the Capitals in the first period, the Penguins broke this game open with a trio of second-period goals. It started with a shorthanded goal from Matt Cullen, and later continued with a beautiful goal from Phil Kessel and then Jake Guentzel‘s sixth goal of these playoffs.

    That led Barry Trotz to take Braden Holtby out of the game, after he gave up three goals on 14 shots, putting in Phillip Grubauer to begin the third period. The Penguins continued the onslaught.

    For the Penguins, there are some injury concerns to keep an eye on.

    Patric Hornqvist left the game in the first period after blocking a shot around his foot or ankle. He didn’t return. Ron Hainsey had to go to the locker room late in the third period after taking an Alex Ovechkin shot up around the head.

    Game 3 goes Monday in Pittsburgh.

    ‘I wasn’t good enough,’ says Lundqvist after double OT loss to Senators

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    The task wasn’t impossible, but certainly daunting.

    The Ottawa Senators needed five goals on Henrik Lundqvist just to send Game 2 into overtime.

    The Rangers goalie had been spectacular for most of this post-season entering Saturday’s contest, but the Senators, led by a sensational four-goal performance from Jean-Gabriel Pageau, found a way to break through for a 6-5 double overtime win to take a 2-0 series lead against New York.

    They did so on just 34 shots through almost 83 minutes against Lundqvist.

    “I wasn’t good enough,” said Lundqvist, per the New York Daily News. “Coming up with the extra save there in the end, that’s my job. Even though it’s tough plays on deflections, I’ve got to find a way.”

    On three occasions, the Rangers held a two-goal lead. That includes with under five minutes remaining in regulation. They even had a pair of shorthanded goals. But they couldn’t hang on, as Pageau scored twice in the final 3:19 of regulation to record his hat trick.

    That set the stage for the eventual winner, as he beat Lundqvist over the left shoulder with a shot from his off-wing on a two-on-one rush.

    With the Senators in control, the series returns to New York for Game 3 on Tuesday and Game 4 on Thursday.

    “We played well enough to win this game, there’s no question about it,” said Lundqvist. “It’s really tough to lose this one. Clearly they’ve gotten the bounces here in the first two games.”

    Capitals’ Holtby begins third period on the bench, Grubauer takes over in net

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    Braden Holtby began the third period of Saturday’s Game 2 on the bench, giving way to Philipp Grubauer.

    The Washington Capitals fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 after two periods, with Holtby allowing three goals on just 14 shots. It will be interesting to hear the reason for this decision from coach Barry Trotz following the game.

    The Capitals had dominated on the shot clock, but gave up a pair of quick goals to fall further behind Pittsburgh in this game, while trailing in the series 1-0.

    Phil Kessel — on a great play from Sidney Crosby — and Jake Guentzel scored 3:10 apart to give Pittsburgh a two-goal lead.