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Why the Habs are so hot right now

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Look, you don’t need to dig too deep to start raining on the Montreal Canadiens’ parade.

On one hand, the Canadiens enter Sunday’s action as the third seed in the Atlantic Division. That said, it’s easy to poke holes in that, as while Montreal has 29 standings points, they’ve done so in 28 games; the Boston Bruins are right behind them with 28 despite having only played 24.

And you could argue that management is still making unforced errors.

Still, considering how dour things were for so long in November, forgive Habs fans if they’re merely shaking their heads in shocked joy while muttering “five straight wins.”

At 13-12-3, the Canadiens are rolling and, at worst, can consider themselves reasonable contenders for one of the East’s two wild card spots. With four games remaining against the Bruins this season* and other Atlantic teams struggling, they might feel like they can “control their own destiny,” as weird as that is to consider in early December.

We could debate their standing in the East for quite some time, but let’s instead look at their five-game winning streak and ponder how things are turning around. PHT will also consider what lies ahead, too.

1. Carey Price, duh.

From the Dept. of the Painfully Obvious, the Canadiens sure are a lot better when a healthy, focused Carey Price is in net. Yes, that’s some hard-hitting analysis.

During this five-game winning streak/return, Price recorded one shutout and also limited opponents to a single goal on three other occasions. Overall, the superstar netminder has only given up six goals in five games.

2. Resurgent scorers

Even so, Price is far from the only talented Habs player who’s heating up.

Paul Byron lorded his speed over his opponents to collect a hat trick recently while piling up six points in five contests. Despite getting fairly modest ice time, Alex Galchenyuk is on fire with eight points during this run, including four assists in Montreal’s blowout win over Detroit. Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are heating up, while Jonathan Drouin was looking dangerous before dealing with some injury issues lately.

3. Special teams, indeed

Montreal’s penalty kill has been perfect in four of the five games of this winning streak, while the power play has generated at least one goal in … four of five games.

Now, that’s the sort of stat that you can chalk up to luck quite a bit, although it’s probably also true that the Canadiens were due for some bounces.

[Claude Julien on things starting to turn around about a month ago.]

4. Home cooking

The Canadiens have played four of their last five games in Montreal. That’s not the extent of this cozy stay, either, as Montreal’s domination of Detroit began a five-game homestand. If you want the Canadiens to enjoy consistent success, it will need to come despite a very hot-and-cold schedule, as they’ll face long homestands and lengthy road trips for some time. Let’s consider December and January, alone:

Tue, Dec 5 vs St. Louis
Thu, Dec 7 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 vs Edmonton
Thu, Dec 14 vs New Jersey
Sat, Dec 16 @ Ottawa
Tue, Dec 19 @ Vancouver
Fri, Dec 22 @ Calgary
Sat, Dec 23 @ Edmonton
Wed, Dec 27 @ Carolina
Thu, Dec 28 @ Tampa Bay
Sat, Dec 30 @ Florida
Mon, Jan 2 vs San Jose
Wed, Jan 4 vs Tampa Bay
Sat, Jan 7 vs Vancouver
Fri, Jan 13 vs Boston
Sun, Jan 15 vs NY Islanders
Tue, Jan 17 @ Boston
Thu, Jan 19 @ Washington
Fri, Jan 20 vs Boston
Mon, Jan 23 vs Colorado
Wed, Jan 25 vs Carolina
Mon, Jan 30 @ St. Louis

Overall, that’s a pretty favorable schedule going forward, though, right?

Ultimately, it remains true that the Canadiens dug themselves a pretty deep hole with early-season struggles, but not to the point of burying their 2017-18 season altogether. They probably shouldn’t read too much into their positive clippings now (just as they might want to scroll past the negative stuff in the darkest times), but this stretch is about more than just a 10-point boost in the standings.

* – They might as well circle/highlight one week in January as especially huge, as they face the Bruins three times, with two of those meetings coming in Montreal:

Fri, Jan 13 vs Boston
Sun, Jan 15 vs NY Islanders
Tue, Jan 17 @ Boston
Thu, Jan 19 @ Washington
Fri, Jan 20 vs Boston

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.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.