2011-12 season preview: Montreal Canadiens

2010-11 record: 44-30-8, 96 points; 2nd in Northeast, 6th in the East.

Playoffs: Lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

Sure, they didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference finals like they did in 2010, but the Habs still played over their heads at times last season. That included the guy who took over for one-time hero Jaroslav Halak, as Carey Price showed why Montreal’s front office made the brave decision to side with him and let Halak leave. The Canadiens took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to overtime in Game 7, but Nathan Horton’s goal ended their season in an instant.

Offense

The Canadiens scored the lowest amount of goals (216) of any team who made the playoffs. Ultimately, Jacques Martin’s teams don’t get to where they are by blowing their opponents out with staggering offense and there’s little reason to believe that will change this season.

Montreal parted ways with depth players such as Benoit Pouliot and decided to make one splashy move by signing former Hurricanes power forward Erik Cole to a risky contract. Cole brings a nice mix of scoring punch and flat-out punch to a team heavy in ‘finesse’ forwards, but the worry is that he’ll falter without an All-Star center like Eric Staal. (He certainly stumbled in his only experiences outside Carolina with Edmonton.)

That being said, it would be pretty cool to see an ‘All-American’ Canadiens line of Cole, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Speaking of Gomez, the Habs hope that he will bounce back from a lousy season, even if the chances of Gomez justifying his oft-cited price tag are close to none. It wouldn’t hurt if the team could find a way to motivate Andrei Kostitsyn either – he was in full-on pout mode this offseason.

Max Pacioretty’s attempt to bounce back from that notorious Zdeno Chara hit ranks as one of the potential ‘feel-good’ stories of the season.

Defense

The bad news is that Andrei Markov’s knee is still a problem. The good news is that the Habs made the playoffs without him last season, as the underrated Russian defenseman missed all but seven games.

Still, that puts a lot of pressure on a Habs’ defense that lost valuable all-around guy Roman Hamrlik and suddenly expensive scoring blueliner James Wisniewski. That probably means P.K. Subban will shoulder an even greater burden as he increasingly works his way up to being the Canadiens’ ‘go-to-guy’ on the blue line. Such a situation smells a bit like Buffalo resting too much of their hopes on Tyler Myers last season, but we’ll wait and see. (Subban doesn’t lack confidence, for whatever that’s worth.)

On paper, this defense is somewhere between questionable and awful.

Goalies

Perhaps even more than last season, this campaign will be ‘The Carey Price Show’ in Montreal. He played a stunning 72 games last season, notching 38 wins and an outstanding .923 save percentage. Those numbers might go down a touch because of the declining defense in front of him, although a contract year should give him motivation to plug many of the leaks.

His backup is a slight downgrade. Alex Auld was a steady, if unspectacular backup, while his replacement, Peter Budaj, has had an up-and-mostly-down career with Colorado. Budaj has one benefit though: he’s carried the ball as a top or 1a/1b goalie plenty of times before. He has three seasons with a considerable workload: 57 games played in 2006-07, 56 in 08-09 and 45 last season. Of course, his results were mediocre, but at least Budaj is familiar with that role in case something happens to Price.

Coaching

Martin isn’t much of a ‘charmer’ – at least when he’s in head coach mode – but he might not get enough credit for yielding strong results with whatever roster is put in front of him. (He probably deserves at least a partial mulligan for failing in Florida, because everyone fails in Florida.)

This season will test Martin’s strategic skills. As mentioned before, that defense looks pretty lousy on paper. It should be interesting to see if he can make it all work.

Breakout candidate

OK, so Subban already ‘broke out’ in a way last season. Still, going from ‘obvious up-and-comer’ to ‘probable All-Star’ ranks as a breakthrough in its own right. With all the problems on Montreal’s blue line, the power play will likely go through Subban’s talented hands. Don’t be surprised if he flirts with 50-plus points and big minutes, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble for his occasional mischievous moments.

Best-case scenario

The Canadiens ride a cushy schedule to a Northeast title as Price earns serious Vezina (maybe even Hart?) Trophy buzz. Martin finds ways to minimize the team’s problems and maximize Subban’s output. Cole clicks with his linemates while Gomez gets his act together. Montreal makes a deep playoff run to shake off whatever Halakian monkey remains on Price’s back.

Reality

An easy schedule should help Montreal achieve the usual: squeaking into the playoffs as a seventh or eight seed. Gomez should improve merely based on how awful he was last season. Cole won’t live up to his contract, but might provide a rare physical element. Price will play just as well as last season, although a leakier defense will keep his numbers from completely showing it.

The Habs have a chance to be frisky in the playoffs, but a limited defense and mediocre (if opportunistic) offense will keep their ceiling low. Michael Cammalleri will probably still score a ton of postseason goals, though.

Crosby: Penguins ‘probably deserved better’ vs. Senators in Game 6

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If you didn’t know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be awfully cruel, then the last week or so of action should make it pretty clear.

The Nashville Predators lost top center Ryan Johansen to a scary ailment few would have seen coming. The Anaheim Ducks fell in both games to the Johansen-less Predators, even after dominating significant chunks of Game 6. At least one Ducks player wondered if the better team won.

Much like in life, “fair” and “deserve” only matter so much. Sports have a scoreboard to serve as the ultimate deciding factor.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have similar thoughts after falling 2-1 to the Ottawa Senators tonight, extending the Eastern Conference Final to a decisive Game 7. You can nitpick questionable penalties and missed chances, but really, how negative can you be after Craig Anderson puts forth a blazing 45-save performance (with no overtime)?

Mike Sullivan and others echoed such thoughts.

” … Obviously, we’re disappointed in the result, but I don’t think we can get discouraged by that,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve got to take the positives from it, and we’ve got to build on it, and we’ve got to become a more determined team for Game 7.

That’s not the sort of take that’s going to make the Senators angry in Game 7. The tone of the Senators’ discussions was likely very different after they lost Game 5 by a 7-0 score, yet maybe there was similar self belief.

Anderson puzzles Penguins as Senators force Game 7

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Who could blame fans for chanting “Andy” tonight?

The Ottawa Senators said they would choose to fight in Game 6, and Craig Anderson truly battled in this one, refusing to allow this unlikely run to an end on Tuesday. They wouldn’t roll over, even after a 7-0 humiliation in Game 5.

The underrated goalie continued his memorable (and emotional) 2016-17 season with a brilliant performance, making 45 saves to help Ottawa manage a gutsy 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With that, hockey fans get a true treat: the Eastern Conference will go to a Game 7 on Thursday.

The Senators opted for a “bend but don’t break” strategy for much of the contest, possibly to Guy Boucher’s preference. Even so, the Penguins managed to grind their way to a 1-0 win thanks to another hard-work goal from Evgeni Malkin.

Mistakes would come back to haunt the Penguins, however, as Bobby Ryan broke Ottawa’s lengthy power-play drought to tie things up on a 5-on-3.

With their season in question thanks to a 1-1 tie in the third period, Mike Hoffman sent a booming shot by Matt Murray, and that ended up being all the Senators needed to tie the series 3-3.

Anderson was the standout, but Erik Karlsson was a hero in the way his detractors might not expect.

You can watch Game 7 on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. The game is also available to stream via the NBC Sports App.

Report: Avalanche get permission to speak with Leafs assistant GM Dubas

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Could one of the most hapless possession teams of this more analytics-leaning era nab arguably the most promising analytics-leaning executive in the NHL?

It’s a reasonable question, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Colorado Avalanche asked for and received permission to speak to Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas.

Current GM Joe Sakic recently got a vote of confidence and also cleaned out some of the coaching staff around Jared Bednar, so this is certainly a time of change for the Avalanche.

It will be interesting to see what kind of role Dubas would receive if he did join the fold in Colorado. Would he still be considered an assistant GM, only with more sway with what would likely be a smaller group of decision-makers? Could we see Sakic move up and give Dubas the full GM title (or eventually transition that role to the young upstart)? Might there be some other factor that would qualify as a more “outside the box” idea?

One thing seems clear: the Avalanche might want to be decisive, as demand could be significant for Dubas if he’s even somewhat on the market.

This could be interesting, especially if you’re a nerd for team-building storylines.

Video: Senators score twice to take 2-1 lead in Game 6

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The Ottawa Senators have defied odds during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they’ve done so with what’s often been an ice-cold power play.

They finally struck gold on the man advantage on Tuesday, and at a key moment. The Pittsburgh Penguins were dominating much of the game and pressing for an even bigger edge after Evgeni Malkin made it 1-0.

Maybe the Penguins got overzealous, or maybe officials … finally started making some calls. Either way, the Senators ended up with a 5-on-3 advantage for almost a minute-and-a-half. With that opportunity, Bobby Ryan scored a huge goal for Ottawa on a shot that was both oddly and perfectly placed.

Moments later, Kyle Turris narrowly missed a golden opportunity, so the contest remained tied 1-1.

Despite a late push by the Penguins to finish the second, Game 6 will enter the third period with a 1-1 score.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE COVERAGE FOR GAME 6

Update: Mike Hoffman‘s booming shot gave the Senators a 2-1 lead in the third. We’ll see if Pittsburgh can tie it up.