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Canadiens spent too much time getting tougher, not enough time getting better

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For several years now the Montreal Canadiens have been a very good, but very flawed hockey team.

Before this season their biggest issue was an overreliance on starting goaltender Carey Price, where they would be content to allow him to make as many saves as he had to make for the team to squeeze out a bunch of 2-1 or 2-0 wins. When he was healthy and on top of his game, his performance masked a lot of the flaws and the team won a lot of games (and he won a lot of awards). When he wasn’t there a year ago, the entire thing collapsed on itself and the Michel Therrien-led Canadiens were exposed for the house of cards they always were. If they were ever going to make the leap to serious Stanley Cup contender they were going to have to find a way to offer their All-Everything goalie some additional support and give him some help.

Their apparent strategy in doing that for this season only seemed to create more flaws. They were on display in their six-game first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers.

From the very start of the offseason the Canadiens’ plan for this season seemed to revolve around getting bigger, tougher, stronger, grittier and more difficult to play against. Before the start of the 2015-17 season they traded Lars Eller for draft picks. They traded different draft picks for Andrew Shaw and his playoff experience and “hate to lose” mentality. They traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber in a deal that will be dissected, analyzed and second-guessed for decades.

To be fair, they also added Alexander Radulov during the offseason, and he not only proved to be the best free agent signing by any team this summer, he was almost certainly the most impactful move the Canadiens made. But even with that addition, the direction general manager Marc Bergevin and then-coach Michel Therrien wanted to take the team in was clear.

It became even clearer at the trade deadline when almost every move the Canadiens made was centered around adding size and grit to the bottom six as opposed to some much-needed offensive punch. Along with adding Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson to their defense, they made the following changes to their forwards before the deadline.

  • They traded for noted cage-rattler Steve Ott, a fourth-line forward that has scored just six goals and recorded only 14 assists in 152 games over the past three seasons.
  • They traded for 6-4, 229-pound winger Dwight King from the Los Angeles Kings.
  • They traded for 6-3, 220-pound winger Andreas Martinsen from the Colorado Avalanche

After the deadline Bergevin talked about not being able to add offense because the price was too high, and that a lot of their goal scoring issues could be fixed by improved confidence from within and that because playoff hockey gets tougher there would not be as many goals scored anyway.

From the Montreal Gazette:

“For us, we felt we had a good start (and) we had four lines producing,” said Bergevin. “Of late, that hasn’t been the case but I feel comfortable that, as guys get more confidence as we move forward, they’ll be able to chip in. And down the road, there won’t be as many goals and there will be those one-goal hockey games 2-1, 3-2, 1-0. It’s a tight league.

“I always say you can play with a bad shoulder or a bad foot but if you have no confidence, you can’t play,” said Bergevin. “Also down the stretch, it’s hard to score. You look at Columbus last night, one of the highest scoring teams in the league. You have to grind it out to score goals down the stretch.”

In other words: We might as well just try to embrace continuing to win every game 2-1.

As for the players they did add, those three forwards (Ott, King, Martinsen) combined to score 15 goals this season. These were their big trade deadline acquisitions.

The Canadiens played two games in this series where all three of them played in the same game. They lost one 2-0. They were 18 seconds away from losing the other one if not for some late-game (and overtime) heroics from Radulov to set up the tying goal in the closing seconds then score the winner early in overtime.

When it came to the decisive Game 6, when Martinsen and Shaw were out of the lineup (and Torrey Mitchell, who had played well in his limited action in this series was, also scratched) Brian Flynn and Michael McCarron (seven combined goals between the two this season) were inserted in.

The Canadiens were basically playing as a (at best) three-line team when it came to creating offense, and that is simply not good enough, especially when the whole mindset of the team seemed to be focussed on getting bigger and tougher. It runs counter to most everything the NHL’s most successful teams have done in recent years. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 20-9 the past two seasons with one of the NHL’s smallest, least physical rosters. When the Chicago Blackhawks had their mini-dynasty they were consistently one of the smallest, least physical teams in the league. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that reached the NHL’s final four in two of the past three seasons, did it with a collection of forwards that can be described as “undersized.”

It is a speed, skill league, and you can’t beat teams anymore by simply grinding them down with bigger, stronger players (you could argue there was never a time that was possible, but that’s a different argument for a different day). The Canadiens seemed to lose the plot on that one from the start, and then doubled down on it later in the season just before the playoffs began.

The Canadiens added their size and grit. But the end result was the same as we have seen from them in recent years: A flawed team that couldn’t produce anywhere near enough offense to make a deep playoff run with arguably the NHL’s best goalie playing at a high level.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs Schedule for Sunday, April 23

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Only two series remain in the first-round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and both of them continue on Sunday.

First, the Boston Bruins look to push their first-round series to a seventh game after their double overtime win on Friday when they host the Ottawa Senators on Sunday afternoon. That game will be followed by Washington Capitals trying to, as Barry Trotz wants to see, push the Toronto Maple Leafs off the cliff.

Here is everything you for Sunday’s games, both of which will be shown on the NBC networks and streamed online.

Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 3:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBC (Stream Online Here)

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream Online Here)

Bobrovsky, Holtby and Price named 2017 Vezina finalists

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The NHL announced the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy on Saturday: Sergei Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby and Carey Price.

Each goalie has one Vezina to his name, with Holtby aiming for back-to-back wins. Here’s a quick look at their stats in 2016-17:

Bobrovsky: 41 wins (third), 63 games played, 41-17-5, .931 save percentage, 2.06 GAA and seven shutouts

Holtby: 42 wins (tied for first), 63 GP, 42-13-6, .925 save percentage, 2.07 GAA and nine shutouts.

Price: 37 wins (tied for fifth), 62 GP, 37-20-5, .923 save percentage, 2.23 GAA and three shutouts.

The league’s GMs vote on the Vezina, for what it’s worth.

This continues a tough night for Devan Dubnyk, who ranks as one of the leading choices among goalies who failed to become a nominee. He had 40 wins and a .923 save percentage, but may have been penalized for a weak finish.

Cam Talbot was a workhorse for Edmonton, tying Holtby for 42 wins while easily leading the NHL in saves (1,946) and save attempts (2,117). His wins and workload would help his cause, but perhaps GMs knocked his .919 save percentage from a “quality vs. quantity” standpoint.

Bobrovsky seems like the frontrunner on paper with that .931 save percentage, but then again, it may come down to the stats league executives weigh the most.

Trotz wants Capitals to take advantage of opportunity to push Maple Leafs ‘off the cliff’

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Thanks to their overtime win in Game 5 on Friday night, the Washington Capitals will have a chance to knock the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the playoffs in Game 6 on Sunday night.

It’s a big opportunity, and it seems that coach Barry Trotz wants his team to take advantage of it so they can avoid a Game 7 in what has been an incredibly close, evenly played series.

He just had a very grim way of putting it.

“If you have the opportunity to push someone off the cliff, you want to push them off, if you can,” said Trotz in a conference call on Saturday.

Maple Leafs forward Matt Martin had perhaps the best response, saying (via NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy), “Makes me not want to ever go hiking with him. Maybe it’s a strong analogy but it make sense.”

Naturally, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was also asked about Trotz’s approach and he said he agreed with his mindset 100 percent.

“I think the way I said it is if you have someone down and you have a chance to step on them, you step on them. Or they might get up and kill you,” said Babcock, via the Atlantic. “I agree with him 100 percent. We’re in the same thing, if we don’t win, we go home. There should be no more desperate team than us We are all aware and understand that fully.”

Things are starting to get real in that series.

If the first five games have shown us anything, it’s that you should probably expect another tight, close game on Sunday as it has been the most competitive series in the entire first round. Every game in the series to this point has been decided by a single goal, with four of the first five games requiring overtime.

Babcock was also asked on Saturday about this series of exchanges prior to leaving the Verizon Center on Friday night.

“They were being nice to me on the way out, saying ‘have a good year,’ and I said no we’ll se you in a couple days. In my mind and in my heart I know that is what is going to happen.”

The winner of the series will move on to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

Kadri defends controversial hit on Ovechkin

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In a playoff series, individual battles between players can sometimes provide the most intrigue.

Take what is happening between Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals and Nazem Kadri of the Maple Leafs.

The Capitals won Game 5 in overtime, pushing the Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination. That’s a big story, because the Capitals are favored to win this series and expected to go on a deep playoff run, but Toronto has made this a heck of a series, with four of five games going to OT.

What occurred between Ovechkin and Kadri is also making headlines.

Late in the first period, Kadri delivered a controversial hit on Ovechkin, who was hurt on the play, leaving the ice and unable to put pressure on his left leg. It could’ve been a defining moment for the Capitals this post-season.

Fortunately for them, Ovechkin returned to the game but it’s been pointed out by a few people in the media that, during the second period, he seemed more intent on going after Kadri than anything else. After all, Ovechkin is a star player and based on comments after the game, it’s obvious the Maple Leafs want to get under his skin.

For his part, Kadri defended the hit, which was penalized for tripping.

“I thought he got rid of the puck and I just kind of tried to get a piece of him and he tried to get out of the way,” Kadri told reporters. “It’s not like I stuck my knee out or got my arms high or anything like that. It happened pretty quick. From what I saw, I thought it was OK.

“At the end of the day, I’m cheating my teammates if I don’t try to get a piece of him because he’s dumping the puck in and going around our defenseman. At the end of the day, I’ve got no choice. I’ve got to try and hold him up and save my defensemen,” he added, per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

Late in the second period, Kadri was slashed on the arm by Ovechkin and on the back of the knee by Matt Niskanen — basically at the same time, sending him to the ice.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he was going to keep his opinion of the Kadri hit to himself, adding he was “quite concerned” when the “face of this franchise” went down like he did. His Toronto counterpart, Mike Babcock, thought the hit was all right.

“It’s interesting. [Trotz] probably thought there should’ve been a major. I thought there should’ve been no penalty,” Babcock told reporters. “The other night when [Roman Polak‘s] done for the year, our bench thought it should’ve been a major and they thought it should be no penalty.”

For both teams, the only thing that matters now is winning that next game. The Maple Leafs are looking to force a Game 7. The Capitals are looking to survive a first-round scare.

Babcock is apparently quite confident in his team going into Game 6.