Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive

Raise your hand if you expected the Montreal Canadiens to be sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division after 51 games this season. Anybody? I didn’t think so.

After finishing 28th in 2017-18, expectations for the Habs this year were fairly low. They traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, and they were without Shea Weber for the first two months of the season. So you can understand why no one thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have really helped. Carey Price‘s performances in December and January have also propelled the Habs up the standings and career year’s from Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault and a few others haven’t hurt, either.

But one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens have had so much success, is because head coach Claude Julien has them playing faster than ever. They’re at their best when they’re aggressive on the puck and on the forecheck. Julien has admitted that this edition of the Canadiens isn’t the most talented or skilled, but when they work hard, they know they can go head-to-head against anybody.

“We’re a team that came into this season with the intention of changing the perception of our hockey club and what’s expected of us,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette after his team dropped an ugly home decision to the Boston Bruins in December. “And the only way we could do that was to go out and compete hard and that was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do and that’s the No. 1 thing I think people appreciated from our team. We’re a fun team to watch, we competed hard, and lately it’s just been on and off. We can’t think that all of a sudden we’re a skilled team and we can get away with just half efforts because this is too good of a league. With the parity, you’re not going to survive that way.”

And that consistently aggressive forecheck might not be easy to maintain, but they know that when they’re able to execute on that part of their game, they can force their opponents into making mistakes.

“We put a lot of pressure on teams and when you can close on a player, you force him to make decisions quickly,” Paul Byron said back in October, per the Gazette. “When you have the forwards we have — Max (Domi), myself, Artturi (Lehkonen) — pressuring the other teams it forces them to make mistakes and cough up pucks. We want to get on them fast. The more we can take time and space away from the them the more advantageous it is for us.”

Adding Luke Richardson to the coaching staff has also helped change the identity of the Canadiens. Richardson has found a way to get his group of defensemen into the rush to help create offense.

Here’s an example of Petry not being shy about handling the puck deep in the offensive zone:

The defense has also just played faster in the way they skate with the puck and move the puck, which has led to an increase in puck possession and quality scoring chances.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens are the fourth best possession team in the league behind San Jose, Carolina and Vegas. They’re also fifth in FF%, sixth in SF%, sixth in GF%, and sixth in SCF%. Those are impressive numbers considering they don’t have a superstar forward like a lot of the other teams around them in the standings. Julien has put his team in a position to succeed and he’s done it by using all five skaters on the ice.

Even though there isn’t one specific way to measure this, it’s become increasingly clear that they’ve found a way to shoot from more dangerous areas on the ice. Last season, the Canadiens outshot their opponents fairly regularly, but a lot of those pucks came from the perimeter, where you just won’t score often enough. Now, they aren’t shy about getting to the dirty areas to make life more difficult for the opposing goaltender.

If Julien’s team can continue to hold on to the puck as much as they do, while getting incredible goaltending from Price, the Habs will continue to have success.

Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? No. But they’re way ahead of where many expected them to be at this point in their re-tool project.

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.

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s hat trick powers Habs; Stars end Blues’ streak

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Three Stars

1. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Canadiens were dominant on Thursday night in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, turning in one of their best overall performances of the season. At the center of it was Brendan Gallagher who recorded his first career hat trick to continue his great season. After his performance on Thursday he is now up to a team-leading 26 goals.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. The Pittsburgh Penguins were no match for the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night who looked like the Stanley Cup contender that they are. Tomas Hertl was one of the big driving forces in the win as he scored a pair of power play goals, including one in the game’s first two minutes to set the tone for what would go on to be a decisive win. This game ended up getting very heated late.

3. Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes. The Carolina Hurricanes are back in a playoff spot after their come-from-behind win over the Florida Panthers. Captain Justin Williams had a huge game by scoring a pair of goals, including one off of his face. His second goal was a bit more conventional and went in the books as the game-winner. Nino Neiderreiter and Teuvo Teravainen also had multi-point games for the Hurricanes in the win.

More Notable Performances From Thursday

  • The Dallas Stars were 5-2 winners over the St. Louis Blues, snapping what had been an 11-game winning streak. Jamie Benn eclipsed the 20-goal mark in the win for the Stars.
  • The Nashville Predators reclaimed the top spot in the Central Division with a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. You can read about it and what is ahead for the Predators here.
  • Big night for New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider as he recorded his first shutout of the season in blanking what is left of the Ottawa Senators’ roster.
  • The Arizona Coyotes are not going away. Their overtime win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday was huge and now has them just one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Given where they were coming from a year ago and the injury situation they have dealt with this season it is an impressive accomplishment to still be in this race.

Highlights of the Night

This sequence early in the Washington Capitals-Toronto Maple Leafs game was bonkers.

Another highlight reel goal for Aleksander Barkov!

Tomas Hertl may never score an easier goal in the NHL.

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid recorded his 25th multi-point game of the season in leading the Edmonton Oilers to a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders. One of those points was the game-winner in overtime. His 25 multi-point games are the third-most in the NHL this season. He also had a questionable hit on Nick Leddy in the first period that could result in a review from the NHL’s DoPS. Eventful night.  [NHL PR]
  • Nikita Kucherov reached the 100-point mark faster than any other player over the past 22 years. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Ovechkin scored career goal No. 650 in the Washington Capitals’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. [NHL PR]

Scores

Washington Capitals 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Florida Panthers 3

New Jersey Devils 4, Ottawa Senators 0

Minnesota Wild 4, New York Rangers 1

San Jose Sharks 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (SO)

Nashville Predators 2, Los Angeles Kings 1

Dallas Stars 5, St. Louis Blues 2

Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Islanders 3 (OT)

Arizona Coyotes 3, Vancouver Canucks 2 (OT)

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.

Predators top Kings, take over top spot in Central

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The Nashville Predators, at least for now, are back on top of the Central Division standings.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night they were able to reclaim first place by temporarily jumping over the Winnipeg Jets.

Yes, it is true that the Predators probably haven’t been playing their best hockey as of late and still have a lot of room to improve before the playoffs begin. And yes, it is also true the Jets still have three games in hand on the Predators as of Thursday, so this position might prove to be short-lived.

But the recent slump of the Jets has put the division back up for grabs and the Predators look poised to try and take advantage of that situation.

Especially given what their upcoming schedule looks like.

After effectively shutting down a Kings team that is going nowhere on Thursday, the Predators continue their current home stand against a fading Colorado Avalanche team and then get to play Edmonton two nights later.

After that, they have head-to-head matchups against St. Louis and Winnipeg, which are followed by back-to-back games against a Minnesota Wild team that has gone into sellers mode ahead of the trade deadline.

They not only have some favorable matchups in front of them, but they also have an opportunity to really gain some ground and create some distance for themselves by playing the teams they are directly competing with. Nothing is a guarantee, obviously, but the opportunity is there.

You also have to assume that general manager David Poile is going to be active ahead of the NHL trade deadline as he has a rare luxury that most Stanley Cup contenders do not have — salary cap space. And a lot of it.

As for Thursday’s game, it Kyle Turris and Roman Josi that provided the offense for the Predators, while starting goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced.

Josi’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, was an especially beautiful play that was set up by Viktor Arvidsson.

Thursday’s loss extended the Kings’ current losing streak to six games and leaves them in the bottom spot in the Western Conference.

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.

Kane’s spying sparks big Penguins, Sharks scrum

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PITTSBURGH — It turned out to be a pretty lousy Thursday night for Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

Not only was his team completely outclassed and outmatched in a decisive 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but he also ended up getting himself ejected late in the third period after a line brawl nearly broke out during a commercial break.

The entire ordeal started at center ice and seemed to be the result of Sharks forward Evander Kane trying to sneak a look at the Penguins’ white board as they were drawing up a play after pulling goalie Casey DeSmith for an extra attacker.

We know this is what started it because Kane admitted as much after the game.

“I was just standing there, looking at their bench, just looking at their board that they were using and one of their players, not really sure who it was, jumped over and tried to do something about it and it just kind of escalated,” said Kane when asked about what happened.

He was then asked if that is something he normally does.

“Well they were about to pull their goalie, right?” Just like to think that is little bit of a savvy veteran thing to do. If you can see it, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Touche.

The result of that was a heated scrum at center ice involving all of the players that were on the ice at that time.

Things really started to escalate when Sharks defender Brenden Dillon punched an unsuspecting Marcus Pettersson in the face, infuriating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby, Kris Letang, Dillon, and recently acquired Sharks forward Michael Haley were all involved in the altercation.

While that was happening, Kane ended up getting the better of a fight with Penguins forward Tanner Pearson.

The next thing everyone knew, Sullivan was exiting the Penguins’ bench after being seen screaming at the officials.

For the Sharks, Haley and Dillon both received 10-minute misconducts for their roles, while Kane was given a five-minute major for fighting.

On the Penguins’ side, Crosby and Pettersson were both given 10-minute misconducts,

Pearson was given a five-minute major for fighting, and Sullivan was given a game misconduct.

The Penguins’ coach had absolutely zero interest in discussing the matter after the game, highlighted by this exchange that took place during an uncharacteristically short and tense press conference.

Reporter: “Mike can you describe as best you can what happened there at the end?”

Sullivan: “No.”

Reporter: “Or what led to your ejection…”

Sullivan: “No.”

Maybe it was the events that preceded the brawl, or the ejection itself, or just his overall disappointment with the way his team played in what should have been a measuring stick game that soured his mood.

Or perhaps it was the way the Penguins’ meltdown continued after the brawl with Phil Kessel taking an offensive zone penalty right off the ensuing face-off, which was quickly followed by Kris Letang going off for cross-checking Tomas Hertl after the latter took a late swing at Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith. That sequence resulted in an extended two-man advantage for the Sharks that produced Brent Burns‘ 12th goal of the season, turning the game into a rout.

All four of the Sharks’ goals on Thursday came as a result of their special teams, scoring three power play goals and a shorthanded goal.

The Penguins still occupy the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division but are just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (winners on Thursday night) and only two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

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.

Aleksander Barkov can’t stop scoring ridiculous goals for the Panthers

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How’s your week going? For Aleksander Barkov, it’s been quite good.

The Florida Panthers captain has been on an offensive tear, scoring five goals and registering nine points in three games. In each of those three games he’s scored a highlight-reel goal.

Let’s take a look.

Sunday

The 2018-19 goal of the year competition might have ended Sunday afternoon when Barkov drove to the net and went between-the-legs to beat Carey Price.

He would end the night with his second career hat trick.

“I’ve seen those [goals] in the YouTube and in highlights, and I was just dreaming about maybe one day I can score that kind of goal,” Barkov said afterward. “I think I’ve tried that like 17 times in my career. It worked [for] the first time. I’m happy, but, of course, more importantly we got the two points.”

Tuesday

Continuing to add to his highlight reel, Barkov took a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and brought it between-his-legs and nonchalantly tucked it under Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark’s pad.

“I was kind of trying to look for a pass until the end,” Barkov said. “Then I just tried to jam it in the goalie’s pads, maybe get a rebound. Then, behind the net, I saw the puck was in the net. I would call it a lucky goal.”

Thursday

In a back-and-forth game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Barkov evened the score after a wild deflection from a Evgenii Dadonov shot-pass that was going very, very wide.

At only 23 years old, we have plenty of years left to enjoy the wonder that Barkov brings to the ice every night.

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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.