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.

Vegas Golden Knights provide a new template for expansion teams

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Dan Bouchard can appreciate, better than most, the Miracle in the Desert.

He was a goalie for the expansion Atlanta Flames back in the 1970s, so he knows how difficult it is to build a competitive team from scratch.

”It’s astonishing what they’ve done in Vegas,” said Bouchard, who still lives in the Atlanta area, when reached by phone this week. ”I think it’s the greatest thing to happen to hockey since the Miracle on Ice,” he added, referring to the seminal U.S. upset of the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. ”It’s that good.”

Indeed, Vegas has set a new norm for expansion teams in all sports. No longer will it be acceptable to enter a league with a squad full of dregs and take your lumps for a few years, all while fans willingly pay big-league prices to watch an inferior product.

The Golden Knights have come up with a stunning new template for how this expansion thing can be done.

They romped to the Pacific Division title with 51 wins. In the opening round of the playoffs, they finished off the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games , casting aside a franchise that has a pair of Stanley Cup titles this decade while becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its debut year.

Imagine how storied franchises in Montreal and Detroit and Edmonton must be feeling right about now.

They didn’t even make the playoffs.

From Bouchard’s perspective, it’s all good. Vegas’ success right out of the starting gate will make everyone raise their game in the years to come.

”This will wake up the teams that are sitting on $90 million budgets and not doing anything,” he said. ”People will say, ‘If Vegas can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a paradigm shift in the game.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When one considers how NHL expansion teams have fared over the years, the Vegas story becomes even more compelling.

The Golden Knights are the first new team in the NHL’s modern era to have a winning record in their inaugural season, a period that began in 1967 and encompasses 26 new franchises (including one, the ill-fated California Seals, who are no longer around).

Only six other first-year teams have made the playoffs – and that includes four that were assured of postseason berths in the landmark 1967 expansion. You see, when the NHL finally broke out of its Original Six format, doubling in size to a dozen teams, it placed all the new franchises in the same division, with the top four getting postseason berths even with sub-.500 records.

Until the Golden Knights came along, the Florida Panthers were the gold standard for NHL expansion. They finished one game below .500 in their first season (1993-94) and missed the playoffs by a single point. In Year 3, they had their first winning record and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

That remains the closest the Panthers have come to winning a title.

In Sin City, the wait for a championship figures to be much shorter. Heck, the Golden Knights might do it this year.

They’re 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in a city that has always had a soft spot for long shots.

”We’re still a few wins away from this being a great story,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a key contributor to the Golden Knights success.

Even now, it seems like a bit of dream to coach Gerard Gallant, who thankfully will be remembered for something other than getting left at the curb to hail his own cab after being fired by the Panthers.

”When this all started in October, we just wanted to compete,” Gallant said. ”Now we’re going to the second round of the playoffs. It’s unreal.”

For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams – partly through astute planning, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.

The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.

In addition, the Golden Knights wisely nabbed young Swedish center William Karlsson, who hadn’t done much in Columbus but became Vegas’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 35 assists.

”They’ve got some top centers. They’ve got some real good defense. They’ve got good goaltending,” Bouchard observed. ”They went right down the middle. That’s how the built it. Then they complemented it with the fastest guys they could get their hands on. They went for speed.”

Previous expansion teams didn’t have it nearly as good.

Bouchard actually played on one of the better first-year teams when the Flames entered the league in 1972. They were in playoff contention much of the season and finished with more points than four other teams in the 16-team league, including the storied Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that was a team that had to struggle for every win. The Flames had only three 20-goal scorers and were largely carried by their two young goalies, Bouchard and Phil Myre.

”We didn’t have a bona fide 30-goal scorer,” Bouchard recalled. ”We had a lot of muckers.”

That was then.

The Golden Knights have shown how it should be done.

If expansion teams are going to fork over enormous fees for the chance to play, they should have access to a much better pool of potential players.

They should have a chance to win right away.

That way, everyone wins.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.

AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this column.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck