Henrik Lundqvist

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Grim times for Canadiens: Price struggles, surgery for Schlemko

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Forgive the Montreal Canadiens if they feel beleaguered heading into Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (which is part of NBCSN’s doubleheader).

After another captivating-but-polarizing summer of changes thanks to GM Marc Bergevin, the spotlight shone a little brighter on the Habs to start. Such magnification made it tough to hide the blemishes of what’s now a 1-4-1 start, even if abysmal luck takes the ugliness to an unrealistic extreme.

If getting beaten down in the local papers and in conventional wisdom didn’t leave them staggering, the Habs are also closing off a back-to-back set after dropping a fifth game in a row via last night’s loss to San Jose.

The hits keep on coming, too, with news that an already-shaky defense corps will lack savvy free agent addition David Schlemko for an estimated three-to-four weeks following hand surgery.

You know things are dreary when one of the more positive bits revolves around starting Al Montoya instead of Carey Price.

It’s true, though, that Montoya’s the right choice here. Most obviously, Price played last night, and you don’t want to lean too hard on any goalie, even one who will begin to cost $10M per season in 2018-19.

Price check

Price’s struggles feel like a microcosm of what this team is going through, as a whole, right now.

In the short term, it’s difficult to imagine things remaining this abhorrent both for the star goalie and his struggling team.

Price’s save percentage stands at .885 so far this season; he’s never been below .905 for a campaign. A 3.56 GAA won’t persist for a netminder who’s never averaged anything above 2.83 (and that was almost a decade ago).

The Canadiens are still easily the worst team in the NHL in both shooting percentage and save percentage perspectives at even-strength. They’re doing so despite grading well by Natural Stat Trick’s various metrics, including getting a friendly percentage of high-danger scoring chances (their fellow dour would-be contenders, the Oilers, feel their pain).

So, a lot of those patterns will just sort of work themselves out naturally.

Still, there are some nagging concerns.

Price already turned 30, and his new, massive cap hit hasn’t even kicked in yet. While goalies have a decent track record of aging more gracefully than, say, snipers, Price’s history of knee issues provides some worry.

Even if he continues to be Carey Price in italics, there really isn’t a great comparable for his contract (Henrik Lundqvist‘s is the closest, according to Cap Friendly). Montreal could serve as a guinea pig for other NHL teams pondering building around an expensive goalie.

Growing pains or signs of a fall?

There are also unsettling questions about Bergevin’s vision, and the way Julien uses players.

Bergevin’s win-now mentality is the source of plenty of debate, but it’s objectively clear that many of his moves have made the Habs older. Shea Weber‘s considerably older than P.K. Subban, and even very young Jonathan Drouin is a grizzled veteran compared to Mikhail Sergachev.

Re-signing Alex Galchenyuk hasn’t ended that saga, and the Habs can’t just blame the media, either.

At the moment, Galchenyuk ranks ninth in even-strength ice time average among Canadiens forwards. He’s currently slated for fourth-line duty alongside Torrey Mitchell and Ales Hemsky.

If the goal is to eventually trade him, this is a backwards way of doing so. If the goal is to “send him a message,” there seems to be a better time than when your team isn’t exactly setting nets on fire like “NBA Jam.”

***

When you break things down issue by issue, it’s reasonable to expect better times. Still, it’s tough to shake the worrying signs overall, whether you’re just looking at 2017-18 or beyond.

Things could at least look a little sunnier if Montreal can dig deep and come out of this California trip with a win or two.

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.

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Rangers’ losing streak continues with OT defeat vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers needed a win.

Their slow start is among the surprises early this season, as the Rangers have now lost four in a row with only one win to their record through seven games so far. They’ve had trouble scoring. Mistakes at inopportune moments have been costly.

Facing the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, the Rangers had a brutal start and a brutal finish in a 5-4 overtime loss to their Metropolitan Division foes.

Phil Kessel scored just 43 seconds into the game, utilizing that dangerous wrist shot off the rush to beat Henrik Lundqvist top corner. By the end of one period, it was 2-0 Pittsburgh.

Despite a second-period comeback, with three goals in under three minutes, and taking the lead in the third period, the Rangers couldn’t hang on and the Penguins won in overtime.

Sidney Crosby scored a crafty tying goal with only 56 seconds remaining in regulation, waiting for the Rangers defender to touch the puck negating what would’ve likely been called a hand pass on Pittsburgh before firing a no-look backhander toward the net from behind the red line. The puck deflected in off Lundqvist, helping send this one to overtime.

Evgeni Malkin capped off a four-point night with the overtime winner.

“Right now it’s a little bit challenging as far as putting a whole game together for us,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault following the game. “But this group is very accountable … and I’m very confident that if we keep doing a lot of the things we’re doing right now, we’re going to be on the right track.”

A trio of Rangers recorded their first goals of the season. That included David Desharnais, Michael Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich, although the latter played less than 10 minutes on Tuesday, despite nearly four minutes in power play time, and of course the goal.

The Rangers host the New York Islanders on Thursday. Another loss, and one has to wonder how hot the seat may be getting under Vigneault.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

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It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

***

Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

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.

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Video: Holtby evokes Hasek, MLB playoffs with sliding gambit

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As fantastic as Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is, it feels like he doesn’t generate a ton of Dominik Hasek comparisons.

Generally, it feels more logical to compare him to Martin Brodeur or Henrik Lundqvist: increasingly the NHL’s go-to workhorse goalie. In a league where starts get parceled out to backups more and more, Holtby’s been a rock in net for the Capitals, and his numbers remain strong.

Sometimes talk of being high-level “innings eaters” can make a guy sound boring.

Holtby made sure to remind us that he’s far from bland during tonight’s Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins game, cutting off speedster Carl Hagelin‘s would-be breakaway by sliding down the ice and cutting him off.

The only drawback was that Holtby was whistled for a delay of game minor in the process, to the chagrin of Barry Trotz. Still, that moment was so cool – and the Capitals killed the penalty – that we can bask in its glory.

As an aside: it’s kind of insane how often that works for goalies, right? Then again, if you’re a player breaking away, you’re already worrying about defensemen at your back … imagine a heavily padded goalie also cutting you off?

(Somewhere, Marian Gaborik is sadly nodding his head.)

The Penguins currently lead Holtby and the Capitals 1-0 after one period. Check it out on NBCSN and stream it here.

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.

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Lundqvist bounces back, steals one for Rangers

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Henrik Lundqvist still has it.

After getting benched on Saturday night in Toronto, the New York Rangers’ long-time starter bounced back in a big way on Sunday night to help lead his team to its first win of the season by stopping all 34 shots he faced in a 2-0 win.

Brady Skjei and Mika Zibanejad provided the offense in the win, but the story of the game for the Rangers was absolutely Lundqvist.

In what was almost certainly a rerun of last season for Rangers fans, their team ended up getting outshot by a 34-25 margin on the night (the total shot attempts were 64-43 in favor of the Canadiens) and spent most of the night defending in their own zone. But Lundqvist was able to play what was by far his best game of the young season and keep the Canadiens off the board.

He needed a game like that after giving up eight goals in his first two starts.

He also needed a lit bit of assistance.

It appeared as if the Canadiens scored two goals early in the first period only to have them both end up being disallowed.

First, Andrew Shaw had an apparent goal taken away when it was ruled he kicked the puck into the net behind Lundqvist.

Just a few minutes after that, another potential Canadiens goal was negated when the Rangers challenged for goaltender interference. After review it was determined that Max Pacioretty had interfered with Lundqvist, keeping the game scoreless.

Not long after that, Skej broke the ice with his first of the season.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made some lineup changes on Sunday by going with seven defenseman and benching Brendan Smith after he struggled in his first two games.

As for the Canadiens, well, this wraps up a pretty miserable weekend that saw them get blown out in Washington Saturday night then shut out in New York on Sunday.

Even though they have a win on the season they still have not held a lead at any point. They won their first game of the season in a shootout against the Buffalo Sabres (playing the entire game either from behind or tied) and were then never really in Saturday’s game against the Capitals.