Cam Tucker

AP

‘Things have started to come around,’ says Julien, with Habs suddenly surging

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Are the Montreal Canadiens turning the page here?

It wasn’t that long ago the Habs were badly slumping with seven straight losses and issues scoring goals. General manager Marc Bergevin was on the hot seat. That was last week.

Since then, the Habs have won three of their last four games, as they look to move up the Eastern Conference standings. In addition to getting some positive results and points, they’ve scored a pile of goals in the last seven days.

Montreal has scored a combined 18 goals over those three wins, with the latest offensive outburst occurring Monday when they put up an eight-spot on the Ottawa Senators. Certainly not Erik Karlsson‘s finest night, as the Senators star defenseman was a minus-six in that contest.

“I think it’s about confidence in execution. When things are going well, confidence takes over and everything we’ve been working on falls into place and the guys gain confidence. We’re hoping to build on that success,” said Canadiens head coach Claude Julien. “Things have started to come around now. Confidence comes with seeing things go the right way. That makes a big difference for us.”

Further to the Habs shedding their earlier struggles — well, at least for now — is the fact that previously slumping skilled forwards Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, who was banished to the fourth line only a short time ago, have come around, finding their scoring touch of late, with three goals each over this recent four-game stretch.

Yes, good times right now for the Habs. They’re not out of the woods just yet, as they sit 15th in the East, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. And they’ll be in tough to sustain the lofty 4.5 goals-for per game average they’re currently posting through this stretch.

In the midst of a four-game road trip, the Habs face the Minnesota Wild tonight, before playing the Jets on Saturday and the Blackhawks on Sunday.

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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.

Devils aim to ‘get some respect back’ around NHL

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VANCOUVER — Travis Green made an astute observation about the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday.

“They’re not the Devils of old,” said the Canucks coach, hours before his team faced the Devils at Rogers Arena.

For the past few years, the Devils have been mired at or near the bottom of the NHL in scoring, and the results have been a team out of the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference.

This season, however, the Devils are off to a good start in the East, leading the Metropolitan Division heading into Wednesday’s game in Vancouver. Not only have they been winning games, but New Jersey has been doing so with an offense that ranked third in the league with 3.80 goals-for per game, which is surely one of the bigger surprises to this point.

A transformation of the roster has helped.

It started with the acquisition of Taylor Hall in the summer of 2016 and continued with the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this spring, resulting in the first overall selection of Nico Hischier a few weeks later. They added Marcus Johansson, and Jesper Bratt — yes, 19 year old Jesper Bratt, a sixth round pick from 2016 — has enjoyed quite the beginning to his NHL career with 10 points in his first 10 games.

College free agent signing and defenseman Will Butcher was averaging just over a point per game through 10 appearances this season, with seven of his 11 assists coming from the power play.

The addition of youth to the lineup has paid off nicely. Early on against the Canucks, the Devils were aggressive, quick and confident with the puck before eventually holding on for a 2-0 victory. Cory Schneider was sensational in net making 37 saves for the shutout. The bad news, though, was that Johansson took a nasty fall into the end boards early in the first period, left the game and didn’t return due to an upper-body injury.

What Green’s comments may reflect is a change in the perception around the league for how the Devils play now and the challenge they are starting to pose.

“I don’t know if we’re trying to change the perception around the league,” said Devils coach John Hynes.

“I know we’re trying to play a certain way and we want to be an aggressive team. We want to be a team that can play with lots of pace. And I feel with the group of players we have, we’ve been able to do that. We feel within our team we have guys that are quick, they’re fast, they’re tenacious on the puck, they’re very competitive and those are things we want to have.

“And we’re scoring as a result of playing with those attributes.”

Hischier, 18, has made a seamless transition from the top pick into the NHL as a rookie. Bratt, on the other hand, was taken 162nd overall in 2016. He won’t turn 20 years old until July 30, 2018.

Fascinating tidbit about his ascension: There are still 16 players taken during the first round of that 2016 draft that still haven’t played their first NHL game, and yet Bratt is not only on the Devils roster but he’s among the team leaders in points.

Here’s a sample of his work:

“He’s got a high, high hockey intelligence,” said Hynes of Bratt. “He can think his way through the game.”

Then Hynes went through a more detailed checklist.

— Tenacious? Check.

— Fast? Check.

— Consistent? Check.

“The focus coming in for us was trying to get a team that was going to be hard to play against and get some respect back for ourselves, our team and organization,” said Hynes.

“We’re just proud of the fact that some of the younger guys on our team have come in and been very consistent. They’ve been able to play to the identity we want to play with, and good results have followed that process.”

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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.

The Capitals are still seeking an identity

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The first month of the NHL season taught the Washington Capitals that they can’t simply repeat their success of the past two seasons.

Depleted of their depth by offseason departures and injuries, the Capitals stayed afloat by going 5-6-1 while playing eight of their first 12 games on the road. But as they return home to begin a stretch of 13 of 18 games in Washington, the Capitals are still looking to find out what kind of team they are.

Last year they were a talented team that could win games in various ways.

No longer a juggernaut with four lines and three defensive pairs that can play against any opponent, the Capitals also can’t rely on Alex Ovechkin scoring 10 goals a month or Braden Holtby making almost 30 saves a game. Their expected lineup Thursday night against the New York Islanders includes eight players who weren’t with them in the playoffs last year, so the growing pains are an ongoing process.

“The group has to sort of create its own identity to see what works for them,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You have to create an identity and you’ve got to have success. I think it’s inching its way over there to where our team will be a little bit more consistent.”

Without the depth and the skill of previous squads, once health this group may find its identity on defense.

Consistency hasn’t been a hallmark of Washington’s game so far. It’s taking the second-fewest shots on goal in the league, allowing the seventh-most and struggling on the penalty kill. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin are in the top 10 in points and Holtby has been solid in net, keeping the team out of a deep hole to start the year.

Even staring at a 1-3 home record, now’s the chance to make up some ground in a still-uncertain Eastern Conference.

“It’ll be a good opportunity,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We haven’t had more than one game in a row here at home, so it’s kind of a weird schedule to start off. It’s tough to generate any kind of momentum or rhythm at home. Hopefully we can take advantage of that.”

Injuries to defenseman Matt Niskanen and forward Andre Burakovsky continue to test the Capitals’ youth and unproven players. But even the veterans who were part of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning seasons haven’t been sharp.

The result has been the Capitals chasing games. They’ve played from behind for almost 178 minutes in their past five – more than half the game.

“Just mentally it’s draining because you have no comfort,” Trotz said. “It works on you mentally, and then you’re trying to force things and the other team can just sort of wait and be patient and we’re not a really patient team. At times we will try to force things that aren’t there.”

Another result is committing the fourth-most penalties in the league and having the sixth-fewest power-play opportunities. Because the Capitals have been on the wrong side of five-on-five possession, they’re struggling to keep up with opponents and are ending up in the penalty box.

“We’ve taken too many penalties because you get beat one-on-one or something and then you have to reach out and grab the guy,” right winger Tom Wilson said. “We need to get the puck in the offensive zone and use our bodies to kind of draw penalties.”

Over the past two-plus seasons, Washington has scored on 22.4 percent of its power plays, best in the NHL. Right now it’s ranked ninth but has the firepower to produce.

“I think it’s just mentally-wise,” Ovechkin said. “We know what we have to do out there. It’s just a situation when it’s just the work ethic, I think.”

Work ethic shouldn’t be a problem for the Capitals as they sit 11th in the East. In previous years perhaps the regular season could be brushed off because of their playoff failures, but now they need to care because the margin for error isn’t there to just qualify for the postseason.

As Ovechkin acknowledged, “Every point is needed.” That’s a message that the coaching staff has tried to get across.

“We’ve got to go on a little bit of a run,” Trotz said.” And when I say run, it’s not winning six in a row or anything like that. We’ve just got to be consistent in collecting points every night. And that’s what we’ve done very well the last three years and we’ve got to get that mentality of collecting a point.”

 

Connor Hellebuyck is on a roll for the Jets

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The Winnipeg Jets went out this summer to make a move that would solidify their goaltending, signing free agent Steve Mason.

One of Winnipeg’s most pressing concerns over the years has been goaltending. So far this season, the potential solution to that issue has come from within the organization.

Mason, on a two-year deal worth a total of $8.2 million, began the season as the starting goalie in the opener but struggled right away, which has opened up the opportunity to Connor Hellebuyck. And so far he has made the most of it, with only one loss in eight games and the Jets still earned a single point in that defeat.

He has six wins so far, posting an early save percentage of .940. Head coach Paul Maurice told reporters today that Hellebuyck will get the start Thursday against the Dallas Stars, acknowledging that his 24-year-old netminder is “going well right now.”

On three occasions over his last five starts, Hellebuyck has held the opposition to just a single goal, including last night’s 28-save performance — and 2-1 Jets win — against the Minnesota Wild.

“I think the big games bring out the best in him and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, per CBC. “We’re trying to do a good job in front of him, letting him see pucks, and he’s making some big saves so that keeps you in games.”

Mason’s most recent start was last Friday. It was a promising one for the Jets, as he stopped 35 of 37 shots faced, although Winnipeg lost to Columbus in overtime.

The Jets, second in the Central Division with a 6-3-2 record, host the Stars on Thursday and the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, before setting off on a three-game road trip that includes games against Dallas, Vegas and Arizona. They’ll play the Golden Knights and Coyotes in a back-to-back situation next Friday and Saturday, which could give Mason an opportunity to get back in the net for at least one of those games.

But for now, Hellebuyck has provided the Jets with the type of performances you’d expect from a No. 1 goalie, which bodes well for a team that certainly isn’t lacking in top-end talent in other parts of its lineup.

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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.

‘It’s been a long road’ — Brian Boyle set to make season debut

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VANCOUVER — Not even two months after his cancer diagnosis, Brian Boyle will make his season debut for the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday.

Head coach John Hynes confirmed the good news following the morning skate — on the first day of this month’s Hockey Fights Cancer initiative.

“It’s been a long road,” said Boyle, who was diagnosed with Chronic myeloid luekemia at the beginning of Devils training camp in September.

He said he received an “overwhelming” amount of well wishes from throughout the hockey community, and the care people have shown him and his family is one of the positives he has taken from this entire ordeal.

“From the start of it back in September, it was very touching for my family, people reaching out to not only me but my parents, my wife,” he said. “Obviously it’s a situation you don’t want to be in but we’ve got a pretty good handle on it and I’m able to play now.”

It promises to be an emotional night for the 32-year-old Boyle.

The Devils signed him on July 1. It was an addition that gives the club a veteran forward that can play both center and the wing, and perhaps add more secondary scoring. The diagnosis and treatment, however, forced Boyle to ultimately miss the team’s first 10 games of the season.

He returned to practice less than two weeks ago and has received full clearance for what will be his first game since April 23, when he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs as they faced Washington in the first round of the 2017 playoffs..

“I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m really trying to downplay it,” he said. “Just so I can get some sleep this afternoon. But I’m really excited. Yeah, I could probably take a little sense of accomplishment but the boring answer is I’m really trying to play my best. The team is playing really well and I want to fit in nicely with that.”

With the NHL season advancing into November, the Devils are atop the Metropolitan Division with an 8-2 record and the third-best goals-for average in the entire league. That is, at least so far, a drastic turnaround for this club after struggling to score in recent years.

Boyle will play left wing on a line with Blake Coleman and Miles Wood tonight, said Hynes, adding that the coaching staff will track his minutes and see how Boyle feels throughout the game.

“We’re adding a very good player, we’re adding a guy with a ton of experience,” said Hynes. “We’re really looking forward to having him back in the lineup. It’s been a long road. It’s been a long offseason … with the cancer diagnosis and his recovery from that, so I know he’s really excited to play and we’re excited as a team and an organization to have him back in the lineup.”

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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.