Habs’ defense ranks as big wild card

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When the Montreal Canadiens have been at their best lately, it’s been thanks to timely offense, great goaltending and a suffocating defense. With all apologies to Francis Bouillon “Cube,” they haven’t added much to their blueline, yet their group could be impressive if enough toss-ups go their way.

1. Can Andrei Markov get healthy?

The Canadiens took a leap of faith when they handed Andrei Markov a three-year contract in the 2011 off-season. That gamble went splat as he went from seven games played in 2010-11 to 13 in 2011-12. By that pattern (just 20 games in the last two seasons), one would say Markov’s knee is done.

There is one pattern that’s a bit more heartening, though. All 13 of his games last season came after March 10, so maybe he’s turned the corner? If so, the Habs would get one of the better power play weapons in the NHL (not to mention a solid minute-eater) back on their blueline.

2. Will P.K. Subban progress?

Despite receiving two more minutes per game and playing in four extra contests, Subban scored half as many goals (14 to 7) and two fewer points (38 to 36) last season compared to his impressive first full campaign. He also drew attention for bickering with teammates and coaches – whether that was overblown or not.

That being said, he faced a much greater burden last season and also had inferior luck (his shooting percentage went from 7.1 to 3.4). It’s reasonable to expect more promise – and some extra positive bounces – from Subban, especially if Markov takes some of the heat off of him.

3. Can Tomas Kaberle regain his game?

Few defensemen have seen their stock plummet quite like the former perennial Toronto Maple Leafs trade rumor magnet. Still, his numbers looked a bit like the old Kaberle once he landed in Montreal; he scored 22 points in 43 games, almost exactly a point every two contests. Perhaps this fresh start will pay off, as he could make sweet PP music with Markov and/or Subban if things go well.

The rest

This could be a very deep defense if Markov stays healthy and Kaberle proves semi-useful. Raphael Diaz showed signs of promise while Josh Gorges is a popular shutdown man (or at least was with the old regime). The rest of the guys range from intriguing up-and-comers to respectable depth guys.

If this group responds well to Michel Therrien, it would certainly lighten the load for an iffy offense and an encumbered Carey Price.

Related

Offseason Report: Montreal Canadiens

Roundup: Habs re-up with Geoffrion, Pens sign Strait

It’s Montreal Canadiens day on PHT

What can the Habs expect from Michel Therrien?

Carey Price faces greatest pressure yet next season

WATCH LIVE: Game 1 for Penguins – Capitals, Rangers – Senators

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It’s really happening.

For all the griping about having the Penguins and Capitals meet in the second round (again), it’s easy to forget the bright side: upsets didn’t dislodge this juicy matchup from taking place.

The West’s duo of Game 1 matchups kicked into gear last night, and now the East provides that battle between Sidney Crosby‘s squad and Alex Ovechkin‘s loaded team. Don’t sleep on Rangers – Senators, either, though; there should be plenty of intrigue in seeing superhuman Swedes Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson try to one-up each other.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the action:

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: CNBC (Stream online here)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream online here)

Sutter won’t retire from coaching, willing to join a rebuild

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Given he turns 59 this summer, has won a pair of Stanley Cups and coached over 1,000 NHL games, Darryl Sutter probably could’ve called it a career after getting fired by the Kings earlier this month, and done so comfortably.

But that’s not happening.

In speaking with TSN’s Gary Lawless, Sutter said he has no plans to retire from coaching. What’s more — and, perhaps more interesting — is that Sutter said he wouldn’t limit his next job solely to a contending team.

Currently, there are just two vacant coaching gigs in Buffalo and Florida. We wrote about the Panthers’ search earlier today (more on that here). The situation in Buffalo is more complex, as the Sabres need to hire a new general manager and coach. Logic suggests the GM will be hired first, then spearhead the new bench boss hire.

In that regard, Buffalo is pretty intriguing.

Though the Kings have yet to be contacted for an interview request, ex-GM Dean Lombardi has been tied to the Sabres gig. And Lombardi, of course, is forever tied to Sutter — he was the one that hired Sutter after a five-year coaching exodus to join the Kings, and the pair went on to achieve great success together.

That five-year coaching exodus does need to be mentioned, though.

History suggests that Sutter isn’t joking when he says he’ll be picky about the situation and won’t rush to find the right fit. After being dismissed in Calgary in 2006, he returned to work on the family farm in Viking, Alberta and seemed fairly content doing so.

That said, hockey always seems to draw him back.

“The game has given us everything,” Sutter told Lawless. “We still have lots to give.”

Coyotes fire assistant coach Newell Brown

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The Arizona Coyotes have parted ways with some personnel.

Assistant coach Newell Brown has been fired, along with Doug Soetaert, who was the general manager of their AHL affiliate in Tuscon.

Pro scouts David MacLean and Jim Roque won’t be back either. Their contracts will not be renewed.

“I’d like to thank Newell, Doug, David and Jim for their contributions to the club,” said GM John Chayka. “They are all good people but we believe these changes are necessary in order to improve our organization. We wish them the best in the future.”

A longtime NHL assistant coach, Brown is perhaps the most prominent of the four men. He joined the Coyotes in the summer of 2013 and received high praise for his work with their power play.

But Arizona’s power play slipped to 26th this past season, converting at a rate of just 16.2 percent.

As for Soetaert, he was only named GM of the Roadrunners last summer. The former NHL goalie had previously been a scout.

Plenty of seats available for tonight’s game in Ottawa

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The Ottawa Senators say they’re still expecting a full house, but Ticketmaster’s website shows plenty of available seats for tonight’s second-round opener with the New York Rangers.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Many of the available tickets for Thursday’s game were in the corners of the upper bowl, seats that carry a $96 price tag.

The Senators sold out all three games in the opening round of the playoffs against Boston. Game 1 drew a crowd of 18,702, while 18,629 showed up for Game 2 and 19,209 were in the seats for Game 5.

Attendance has been an issue in Ottawa — or, more specifically, suburban Kanata — all season, to the point owner Eugene Melnyk expressed great frustration with the lack of sellouts at Canadian Tire Centre.

Poor attendance also led to friction behind the scenes. At least, it sure sounded that way in the lawsuit that was filed against the team by its former chief marketing officer.

Poor attendance is why the Sens are trying to get a new downtown arena built. They believe that a more central location is the key to bigger crowds.

But regardless of the arena’s location, it won’t be a good look if there are empty seats tonight. This is the playoffs, and the Senators are one of eight remaining teams in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. The building should be full.

Related: Melnyk thinks Sens can make deep playoff run