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Inconsistency only consistent thing about Canadiens

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The 2017-18 edition of the Montreal Canadiens has been underwhelming at best. The only thing that’s been consistent about them is their lack of consistency.

On some nights, they look like a team that should have no problem making the playoffs. Other times, they look like a squad that should be picking in the top five of next summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Through 31 games, they own a 13-14-4 record, but how they got there is the most interesting part.

Let’s forget the fact that five of those wins have come against the Sabres (three times) and Red Wings (twice). Hey, in the NHL, a win is a win. But the Canadiens have rarely not been on some kind of positive or negative streak this season.

After opening the season with an overtime win in Buffalo, Montreal went on to lose seven games in a row. They ended that skid at home against Florida, followed that up with a loss to the Los Angeles Kings and then went on to win five of their next contests.

That hot run came to an end with a 3-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild. In fairness to the Canadiens, they didn’t have Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin in that game. But after beating Buffalo in their next game, they went on to lose five in a row to Columbus, Arizona, Toronto (they were obliterated 6-0 in that one), Dallas, and Nashville before snapping the skid against (you guessed it) the Sabres.

The game against Buffalo was the night Carey Price returned to the lineup. Price’s return sparked the Canadiens and they went on to win their next four games over Columbus, Ottawa and they beat Detroit twice, including a 10-1 drubbing at the Bell Centre.

After the blowout win over the Wings, a lot of people thought they had turned the corner. Instead, they followed up the win over Detroit with home losses to St. Louis, Calgary and Edmonton. Saturday’s loss to the Oilers was beyond embarrassing, as they were totally dominated in front of their fans.

“Well, if I knew, I certainly would’ve done something about (the Canadiens’ streaky play),” head coach Claude Julien said after the loss to the Oilers. “It is frustrating. We had a good stretch there, but this week has been a tough week for us. At the end of the day, you have to be better than you were tonight.”

There’s a number of reasons for Montreal’s lack of consistency. They’ve dealt with injuries to key players like Drouin, Price, Weber, David Schlemko and Artturi Lehkonen, but every team goes through that.

Their goaltending was brutal early on, and that certainly didn’t help during their tough start to the year. Also, the fact that 5-on-5 scoring doesn’t come easy to them is another reason why they don’t produce with any regularity. They’re also lacking some mobility on defense, which isn’t exactly ideal for today’s NHL.

And, of course, the fact that their two streakiest scorers have been “off” more than they’ve been “on” has really hurt them. Both Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk haven’t scored nearly enough. Pacioretty has eight goals in 31 games, while Galchenyuk has seven goals in 31 contests. Both have scored 30-plus goals in recent reasons.

The one thing going for the Canadiens is that the third spot in the Atlantic Division is up for grabs. Yes, the Bruins currently have four games in hand on Montreal and a two-point lead in the standings, but those old rivals will be going head-to-head three times in just over a week during the month of January.

As ugly as the season has been at times, the Habs still in it.

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.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson