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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.

Push for the Playoffs: Flyers, Canadiens looking to keep playoff hopes alive

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Philadelphia Flyers kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Sunday night when they stormed back against the Pittsburgh Penguins, stealing two points with two stunning late goals. It was a game they absolutely had to have if they are going to make up this ground in the Eastern Conference, and they have another game just like that on Tuesday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens.

This one might really be a win-or-be-done type of game for them when it comes to their playoff chances.

They do not just need a win, either.

They need to win in regulation.

The Flyers open the day still six points back of a playoff spot, and trail the Canadiens (who are the first team on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture) by three points. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within a point of the Canadiens, and depending on what happens with the Columbus Blue Jackets in their game against the Calgary Flames, could close the playoff gap to as little as four points.

A loss could be devastating for what is left of their chances, especially if Columbus manages to win in Calgary.

The Canadiens can pull to within a point of the Blue Jackets with a win and a Columbus loss, while it would also pretty much leave the Flyers in their rear-view mirror the rest of the way.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, the Penguins and Hurricanes meet in a pivotal game in the Metropolitan Division race as they both look to stay out of a wild card spot and what could be a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders (vs. the Bruins) and Capitals (vs. the Devils) are also both in action as they continue to fight for the top spot in the Division.

In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild have a chance to jump back over the Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot, while the Calgary Flames can extend their lead in the Pacific Division over the San Jose Sharks after they were blown out on Monday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Bruins vs. Islanders (7 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Flyers (7 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Capitals vs. Devils (7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN- livestream link)
Oilers vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Maple Leafs vs. Predators (8 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Wild (8 p.m. ET)
Panthers vs. Stars (8:30 p.m. ET)
Blue Jackets vs. Flames (9 p.m. ET)

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Islanders — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.8 percent
Penguins — 98.2 percent
Hurricanes — 93.5 percent
Canadiens — 20.5 percent
Flyers — 4 percent
Panthers — 0.9 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — 100 percent
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 98.2 percent
Stars — 91.3 percent
Coyotes 48.6 percent
Wild — 29.4 percent
Avalanche — 17.6 percent
Blackhawks — 12.3 percent
Canucks — 1.2 percent
Oilers — 1.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Avalanche — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Wild — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, New York Islanders — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Pastrnak on injury; Nashville’s Turris problem

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

David Pastrnak on his thumb injury: “Obviously I let the guys down a bit. It’s a tough time. It’s not an injury that happened on the ice, so I took full responsibility for that. That’s what hurt me most. Could I have avoided it? I wish [that I had]. But obviously things happen. The fact that I could let somebody down, I definitely hate that. The first couple of weeks were tough.” [NBC Boston]

• Just in time as the playoffs approach, James Neal returns to the Calgary Flames after a 14-game absence, hoping to find his scoring touch again. [NHL.com]

• When the postseason does arrive, who will get the starting gig in net for the Flames? [Featurd]

• A good look at the teams playing well with the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away. [TSN]

• Playoffs might be out of reach but the Vancouver Canucks are now acting as a spoiler. [Sportsnet]

• Meet the only female full-time Zamboni driver in the NHL. [ESPN]

• The younger members of the St. Louis Blues are really enjoying this playoff push. [Post-Dispatch]

• The San Jose Sharks are trying not to think too far into the future when it comes to a possible first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy need to give more to the New York Islanders as the playoffs approach. [Islanders Insight]

• Examining who’s chasing and possessing the puck the most for the Columbus Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• The Nashville Predators have a Kyle Turris problem. [A to Z Sports]

• A product of the “Ovechkin Effect” in Washington D.C., the Capitals signed Yale product and local boy Joe Snively on Monday. [Japers’ Rink]

• Which AHL players could step up and make an impact with the Edmonton Oilers? [Oilers Nation]

• Finally, there were a good number of bloopers in the NHL over the last week:

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Smith, Marchessault lead Shark slaughter; Connor helps Jets extend Central lead

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Three stars

1. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are unlikely to catch the Calgary Flames or the San Jose Sharks, but if the Sharks don’t surpass the Flames then both Vegas and San Jose are going to meet in the first round of the playoffs and the Smith and his squad fired the first shot on Monday with a four-point game in a 7-3 win.

Smith had a goal and three assists to help lead the Golden Knights to their third straight win. Smith has 16 points now in his past 12 games and has been on fire since early February.

2. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

See the above preamble, substitute Smith for Marchessault, and you have pretty much the same thing.

Marchessault notched his own four-point game in their win against San Jose, scoring twice and adding two assists. Marchessault now has four goals and two assists in his past two games.

The 28-year-old had one goal in 14 outings prior to his current little heater. He’s well off the 75-point pace he set last season, but if he’s heating up heading into the playoffs, watch out.

3. Kyle Connor Winnipeg Jets

When Connor is using his speed, he’s dangerous and he’s a bona fide playmaker.

So when he rushed down the left side of the ice, wrapped the puck around the net and fed it to Kevin Hayes to open the scoring, it was the 22-year-old’s speed that started it all off.

He’d then score a goal just 1:05 later in the game on the power play, using his diminutive frame as a net-front presence, jamming his 28th past Jack Campbell.

The Jets moved three points clear of the idle Nashville Predators and Winnipeg still has a game in hand on their Central Division foes.

Highlights of the night

Jumbo Joe still has it:

Can’t defend this:

Myers picks his corner:

So close…

Factoids

Patrick Kane hit 100 points for the second time in his NHL career on Monday.

Pettersson does it in the arena that he was drafted in:

Scores

Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Canucks 3, Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Jets 3, Kings 2
Golden Knights 7, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sharks’ Haley tries to pull Golden Knights’ Reaves off bench for fight

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Micheal Haley is a tough dude. There’s no question.

But wanting a piece of Ryan Reaves and go as far as trying to pull him off the bench to fight him? That’s ambitious.

Haley wasn’t happy after Reaves destroyed Melker Karlsson with a big hit right in front of the San Jose Sharks bench in the first period of Friday’s meeting with Reaves’ Vegas Golden Knights.

Reaves took a quick look at his handy work before going off on a line change. Haley, who was also on the ice, didn’t seem to care and went after Reaves, throwing a punch at one of the toughest — if not the toughest — men in the NHL.

Haley ended up taking a roughing penalty on the play. Reaves got a good laugh in, seeming quite amused at the whole ordeal.

This is a matchup that could feature in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and judging by this one, it would be a fantastic series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck