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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.

The Buzzer: Petersen gets first win for Kings; Skinner scores again for Sabres

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Three Stars

1. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. With injuries to Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell, the Kings have had to resort to their third-and fourth-string goalies Cal Petersen and Peter Budaj. On Friday night in Chicago it was Petersen getting the start and he was absolutely fantastic in a 2-1 shootout win over the Blackhawks stopping 34 shots through regulation and overtime to pick up his first NHL win. This is only the sixth win of the season for a Kings team that has struggled from the start. It also snapped what had been a three-game losing streak. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have now lost nine of their past 10 and have managed just four goals in their past four games.

2. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. Things are starting to look good for the Buffalo Sabres who have now won four in a row and five of their past six thanks to a 2-1 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night. At the center of this recent surge has been Jeff Skinner, their biggest offseason acquisition. His goal early in the third period on Friday was the game-tying goal and his 14th of the season, which keeps him in second place in the league’s goal-scoring race. He has been especially hot lately with five goals in his past four games and 13 goals in his past 12 games. He has been everything the team hoped he would be when they acquired him from the Carolina Hurricanes over the summer.

3. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues. After his 10-game point streak came to an end on Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryan O’Reilly was able to get back on the scoresheet with a pair of goals on Friday in a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. O’Reilly has been the Blues’ best player by a substantial margin this season and is already up to 10 goals and 23 total points this season in only 17 games.

Highlights of the Night

The Washington Capitals were 3-2 overtime winners in Colorado on Friday night and it was Devante Smith-Pelly getting them on the board by finishing this beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play.

Morgan Rielly continued his incredible season on Friday night with the game-winning overtime goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the win Toronto takes over the top spot in the NHL standings while Rielly continues to pace all defenders with 25 points in 20 games. Ottawa Senators rookie Thomas Chabot and San Jose Sharks defender Brent Burns are the only other players at the position with more than 20 points so far this season.

Factoids

This is a tremendous stat from the Washington Capitals-Colorado Avalanche game, where both Avalanche goalies are former long-time Capitals netminders, and the Capitals two goalies on Friday have barely played for the team.

The Dallas Stars win over the Boston Bruins did not have a lot of offense, but it certainly had a lot of excitement thanks in large part to Brad Marchand. Still, it was the Stars getting the 1-0 overtime win. That is something that had never happened in Stars franchise history.

 

Scores

Dallas Stars 1, Boston Bruins 0 (OT)

Buffalo Sabres 2, Winnipeg Jets 1 (SO)

Los Angeles Kings 2, Chicago Blackhawks 1 (SO)

Washington Capitals 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 2, Anaheim Ducks 1 (OT)

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.

Brad Marchand pulls a Roger Neilson, waves ‘white flag’

Fox Southwest
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It was another eventful for night for Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

After a series of penalties in the second period of his team’s 1-0 overtime loss in Dallas, he decided to pull a Roger Neilson and wave the white flag by sticking a towel on the blade of his hockey stick and … well … waving it from the penalty box. This was presumably a form of surrendering to the referees.

Or simply Brad Marchand doing Brad Marchand things.

His adventure started in the second period when he was given a double-minor for roughing Radek Faksa after Marchand came to the defense of his linemate, Patrice Bergeron, who was sent flying into the boards at the hands of Faksa. Bergeron briefly exited the game before returning.

Here is the entire sequence.

After serving his four minutes for that altercation, Marchand returned to the ice and was almost immediately sent back to the box for slashing stars goalie Ben Bishop.

Nobody from Boston liked the call at all, with Marchand at being at the top of the list.

That was when he waved the white flag and was sent off for 10 additional minutes.

That might look familiar to you because you might recall former long-time NHL coach Roger Neilson doing something similar during the 1982 playoffs when he was coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Marchand has been in rare form this season, even for him. Earlier this month he was given a 10-minute misconduct for mocking Nashville Predators forward Colton Sissons for embellishing a high-sticking call, which came after he bloodied Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller in the season-opener after Eller taunted the Bruins’ bench.

In the playoffs the NHL had to instruct Marchand to stop licking opposing players.

No matter what you think of Marchand as a player you at least have to admit this: It is never boring with him around.

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.

Josh Archibald suspended two games for hit on Ryan Hartman

via NHL DoPS
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After holding a hearing with Josh Archibald earlier on Friday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspended the Arizona Coyotes forward two games for his “high, hard hit” on Ryan Hartman of the Nashville Predators.

The league’s explanation video explains that Hartman’s head was “the main point of contact” and that contact with the head was avoidable.

During the game itself (a 2-1 win for the Coyotes on Thursday), Archibald received a minor penalty. He doesn’t have a history of supplemental discipline at the NHL level, which may have prompted a lighter punishment. Hartman eventually returned to that loss for Nashville.

Here’s the explanation video via the NHL’s DPoS:

Archibald will be eligible to play for the Coyotes again on Nov. 23.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins’ Matt Cullen fined $1,000 by NHL for dangerous trip

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NEW YORK (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen has been fined $1,000 by the NHL for a dangerous trip of Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Miller.

The infraction came during the first period of Thursday night’s game, a 4-3 victory by Tampa Bay. Cullen was assessed a minor penalty for tripping.

In announcing the fine, the league said Friday the money will go the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.