The 2018-19 edition of the Montreal Canadiens were buried before the regular season even started. Coming off a terrible year, they were going to be without number one defenseman Shea Weber for at least two months. Somehow, this team managed to keep themselves in the middle of the playoff picture, but they were starting to fade in the month of November.
Jeff Petry was playing like a rock star while Weber was out, but the rest of the defense was struggling at times and it’s easy to see why. The group was made up of Petry, Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, Mike Reilly, Karl Alzner, and youngsters Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen. That group could only hold on for so long.
Even franchise goalie Carey Price looked human in November, as he posted a 3-5-2 record with a 3.81 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage. Yeah, it was getting ugly.
But that’s when Weber showed up to save the day.
Initially, the Canadiens believed their captain would be able to come back sometime in mid-to-late December. Instead, he returned on Nov. 27 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Keep in mind that the Canadiens had dropped four games in a row leading up to Weber’s return. They gave up 16 goals during that losing skid.
In his first game back, not only did the Canadiens win, they held the ‘Canes to just one goal. What makes his return even more impressive, is that the Habs didn’t ease him back in. The 33-year-old has played at least 23:59 in every game.
In his second game of the season, he managed to score two goals in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. Overall, he’s put up five goals and 11 points in 17 games. Weber’s CF% is at 55.37, his FF% is at 54.24 and his high-danger CF% is at 53.98. Those are some impressive numbers for a guy that didn’t get to go through training camp. Keep in mind that he hasn’t been playing with a true top-pairing defenseman, either. he’s spent time playing with Brett Kulak, Victor Mete and Jordie Benn.
Not only has he been played well from an individual standpoint, he’s also helped make his teammates better. The fact that he can eat up big minutes means that Petry, Benn and the rest of the defenseman on the team can slide back into their true roles.
And do you think Price is happy to see him back?
Price posted a shutout in last night’s win against the Canucks, which was his first game of 2019. In December, the veteran netminder an 8-3-0 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .916 save percentage. Those are radically different then the numbers he posted in November. It’s hard to argue that that’s just a coincidence. It’s not to say that Price has only been dominant because of Weber, but there’s no denying that the captain’s return has impacted his goalie in a positive way.
We’ll find out whether or not he’s going to hit a wall at some point. Sure, he got the first two months of the season off, but he’s not young and as we mentioned before, he’s playing a ton of minutes.
The biggest challenge for the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin, is finding a puck-moving, left-shooting defenseman to play on the top pairing. They’re getting by with the players they have now, but there’s no doubt that they’d like to add another blueliner. They almost got Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings in the summer, so maybe they’ll decide to revisit that now that the Kings are way out of the playoff picture.
But no matter who the veteran plays with, he finds a way to remain effective.
“You see him, as soon as he sees somebody open he moves the puck,” head coach Claude Julien said last month, per the Montreal Gazette. “It may look simple, it may look boring to the player himself, but to everybody’s eyes it’s effective and it’s what keeps players the kind of players that they are through their whole career. I think that’s where you go back to Lidstrom and Chara, that was one of his idols. Those are guys that you can use as good examples and that’s what Shea does. He can play lots of minutes because he doesn’t put himself in positions where he’s got to exhaust himself. He keeps the game simple.”
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.