Shea Weber could return right in time for Canadiens

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Through 24 games, the Montreal Canadiens have found a way to earn enough points to put themselves in a Wild Card spot. The most impressive part of this story is that they’ve done it without captain Shea Weber. That’s impressive considering they’ve been forced to hand out minutes to defensemen like Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn, Mike Reilly, Xavier Ouellet, David Schlemko and youngsters Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen.

But the defensive issues are starting to become too much to overcome.

In fairness to Petry, he’s put together a solid season thus far (he’s averaging a shade under 25 minutes per game), but having Benn on the top pairing is less than ideal at this point. The good news, is that they’re about to get some reinforcements in Weber, who is expected to be back in the lineup ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Since the start of November, the Canadiens have given up three goals or more in 11 of 13 games. Sure, Carey Price has had his share of struggles, but the in-zone coverage has left a lot to be desired. The Habs have tightened up a little bit over the last two games, but they need Weber back.

Example: Taylor Hall probably shouldn’t be this alone in the slot:

These types of breakdowns have been happening a lot of the last few weeks.

Getting the 33-year-old in the lineup will allow everyone else to be slotted into roles that are more appropriate for their skillsets. Petry won’t have to play 25-plus minutes per game anymore, Benn won’t have to be on the top pairing, Schlemko can go back to being a third-pairing defender, and so on.

There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before the Canadiens lock down a playoff spot, but they’ll have a better chance of doing that with Weber than without him.

“There’s no doubt guys are getting excited to see his presence getting closer and closer,” head coach Claude Julien said last week, per the Montreal Gazette. “He’s the captain of this hockey team. He’s the leader on and off the ice.  Whenever you miss a guy like that, it makes a difference. He’s not going to be our saviour, but he’s certainly going to be a big answer to some of the things we’re trying to solve right now. We’re looking forward to getting him back, but we have a few games before that becomes a possibility.”

As Julien points out, Weber can’t fix everything. He’s a special talent, but getting him up to speed is going to take some time. Weber hasn’t played since mid-December, so he won’t be able to log huge minutes right off the hop. They’ll have to ease him back. At this point, they’ll take that.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.