How Canadiens can exceed expectations this year

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PITTSBURGH — Maybe you looked at the Montreal Canadiens roster at the start of the season and had the same thoughts that I did. Among them: This just isn’t a very good team. Who is going to score the goals out of that group of forwards? What exactly is the long-term plan here? And that defense without Shea Weber to open the year … woof. 

But if there is one thing we should have learned by now when watching the NHL it’s that if there is one sport where seemingly improbable and unthinkable results can happen, this might be the one. Given where this team is coming from a year ago and the roster it is putting on the ice to start this season the Canadiens being a seriously competitive team would probably be a pretty big surprise.

It is important to point out that we are still in the first week of the NHL season, right in the thick of that time period on the schedule where it’s easy to jump to bad conclusions that can make you look like a doofus a few months later when we look back on it. But it’s still better to start the season with some success than it is to start the season without it, and through their first two games it would be fair to say that the Canadiens have done that.

Opening the year with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the best and most talented offensive teams in the league and a couple of Stanley Cup contenders, the Canadiens have managed to collect three out of a possible four points. They turned in their most impressive outing of the two on Saturday night in Pittsburgh when they absolutely demolished the Penguins by a 5-1 margin, leaving Mike Sullivan in a little disbelief as to where his team is in the early stages of the season.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performance on Saturday is that the Canadiens entered the third period with a 4-1 lead, and instead of sitting back on their heels and nursing the lead, they took it to the Penguins, added another goal, and outshot them by a 14-3 margin over the final 20 minutes. It was exactly the way a team should want to close out a game on the road — and you almost never see it happen to that degree and executed with such perfection.

“Well that’s what I wanted from our team,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It was important we didn’t play on our heels and let them come at us.”

So here we are, after two games, and the Canadiens sitting 1-0-1 and looking pretty decent in the process. What would it take for this team to build off of this start and actually exceed their expectations this season?

There are a few things that can help.

The simplest and easiest answer is simply, Carey Price.

We have seen the impact Price can make on the Canadiens when he is at his best and it can be season-altering. But his potential is obvious. It still has to be more than him.

The Canadiens raised some eyebrows early in the season by scratching veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner for the first two games. The result has been a younger, faster team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi being one of the most intriguing young players. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft has been thrown right into the deep end of the pool and he has not yet looked out of place, even if he has been sheltered a bit (which he should be as an 18-year-old rookie). For a team that has been in desperate need of a big-time center, a promising rookie season from him would be a big development no matter what happens for the team in the standings.

They also need big seasons from the veteran forwards they have up front, including Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar. Pretty much all of them have something to prove this season.

Drouin, after being one of the team’s big acquisitions a year ago, had an okay debut season in Montreal but was not really the breakthrough season that many expected.

Domi came to Montreal in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, a trade that at the time seemed to be one-sided in Montreal’s favor given how much of a down year Domi had in Arizona, and how much has goal-scoring has dropped off the past two years.

Then there is Tatar, the main NHL asset acquired in this summer’s Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar has been a consistent 20-goal, 45-point player throughout his career and still has several years of term left on his contract. He is a better player than he showed during his brief time in Vegas, and could be one of the Canadiens’ best players.

But the veteran player that might do the most to help the Canadiens’ form some sort of an identity this season is Paul Byron, recently signed to a long-term contract extension to remain in Montreal after posting back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He was brilliant for the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a pair of goals and setting up Joel Armias’ shorthanded goal late in the second period that was probably the knockout punch for the night.

He was one of the most talked about players in their locker room on Saturday night.

“He’s kind of like the coyote and the roadrunner, right?” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s a guy that disappears pretty quickly. He’s been a good player for quite a while. As I said a few weeks ago am so happy we got him re-signed, he’s a great addition to our team, and not only that he’s wearing a letter because he’s such a great leader. He’s an important part of our team.”

“He’s just consistent,” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “You watch Paul, he’s going to be that way every game. He creates chances with his speed. You talk to anyone that plays with him, plays against him, you have to be aware of him. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and he definitely uses it. Game after game he’s an effective player for us.”

Again, this is just two games — the first two games of the season, no less — and we don’t want to make more out of this than it is at this point.

But you have to start someplace, and even though we don’t quite know what this team is yet the Canadiens probably couldn’t have had two tougher tests to open the year. So far they have passed them with flying colors.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.