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Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

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The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Islanders-Panthers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Islanders-Panthers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 4 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. Sergei Bobrovsky stepped up in net and made 20 saves just one day after allowing four goals on 34 shots in a 4-2 loss in Game 2.

Only seven times out of 57 has a team forced Game 5 after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five. The only team of those seven to complete the comeback was the Islanders, who defeated the Capitals in a 1985 series.

The Panthers did have three separate three-plus game winning streaks this season (3, 3, 6). Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Penguins turn to Tristan Jarry in net for critical Game 4 vs. Canadiens

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Mike Sullivan wouldn’t say why, but he has decided to start Tristan Jarry in goal as the Penguins face elimination in Game 4 Friday vs. Montreal (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

The Penguins head coach, while stressing he has “complete trust and confidence in both of our guys,” has made the change with Pittsburgh down 2-1 in their best-of-five series. The Canadiens scored three times in the final 30 minutes of the game to move a win away from advancing.

Jarry’s last start came March 8, a 6-2 win over the Hurricanes. This will be his NHL postseason debut.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There were plenty of arguments that Jarry should have been the No. 1 from the beginning, but Sullivan went with experience. Murray, who backstopped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, has struggled in the series. He’s posted an .899 even strength save percentage, putting him 16th among goalies with at least 60 minutes played at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

It’s now Jarry’s turn to try and help the Penguins force a Game 5 on Saturday.

“He’s much more mature in his daily approach every day,” Sullivan said. “His work habits in practice have been terrific all year and consistent. I think those types of habits transfer to a game environment. Tristan deserves a lot of credit for how hard he’s worked on his game and where he’s at today. He’s a real good goalie.”

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

*if necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

————

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.

NHL Return to Play: Round-robin standings, scenarios

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While the 16 teams in the qualifying round play for the right to move on, the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference are still up for grabs in the round-robin format of the NHL’s return to play.

The round-robin schedule resumes on Saturday with a pair of games (Lightning vs. Flyers and Golden Knights vs. Avalanche) and here we take a look at the impact those games can have on the standings.

Below is a look at the current round-robin standings and everything at stake on Saturday.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Current standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

• Winner of TB/PHI will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of BOS/WSH will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

• Carolina will face either Boston or Washington in First Round.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

• Winner of COL/VGK will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of STL/DAL will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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 Wraparound: Six NHL teams face elimination on Friday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your nightly roundup of all the postseason action.

• Sheldon Keefe was not pleased with the way the Maple Leafs played Thursday night.

• The Jets joined the Rangers in heading home from their bubble after losing to Calgary in Game 4.

There are six games on the NHL slate Friday, and all of them could end with handshakes … or fist/elbow bumps in this age of coronavirus. Beginning at 12 p.m. ET with Islanders-Panthers and ending at 10:45 p.m. ET with Canucks-Wild, the First Round picture could become much clearer if some of these series conclude.

According to the NHL, only one day in league history has featured more than six elimination games. On April 13, 1985, the Rangers, Blues, Red Wings, and Kings all saw their seasons end, while the Sabres, Islanders, and Flames kept their playoff hopes alive in the best-of-five format. (The Islanders won the first of three straight to complete a comeback from 0-2 down in the series against Washington.)

One year later, the Nordiques, Bruins, Islanders, Blackhawks, Canucks, and Jets were part of a record-setting day. On April 12, 1986 those six teams were eliminated, the highest number of series to end in a single day in NHL history.

Today, two series that would have a quick turnaround for a Game 5 are Canadiens-Penguins and Blackhawks-Oilers, who would finish out their matchups on Saturday should the Penguins and Oilers win. The other four series would finish up Sunday if the Panthers, Predators, Maple Leafs, and Wild win.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 4: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (NYI lead 2-1): The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. After receiving just four power plays through the first two games of the series, the Panthers earned five in Game 3. Florida capitalized on their opportunities by converting twice with the man- advantage (2/5). The Panthers were successful on the PK as well, killing off all three of the Islanders power plays. Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

Game 4: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (ARZ leads 2-1): Will we see Pekka Rinne with the Predators’ season on the line? Perhaps. “It’s going to be tough decision,” said John Hynes. “The good part is you can’t go wrong with either guy. Both of them give us a chance to win. … It’s not a decision you take lightly.” Darcy Kuemper, meanwhile, has been solid in net for Arizona, posting a .923 even strength save percentage through three games.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Game 4: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (MTL leads 2-1): Jeff Petry scored from a sharp angle by banking it off Matt Murray’s helmet early in the third period, which proved to be the game-winner once again in this series for the Habs. The Penguins has now lost eight of their last nine playoff games dating back to the 2018 Second Round.

Game 4: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (CHI leads 2-1): Trailing 3-2 with under six minutes to go in regulation, the Blackhawks tied the game on rookie Matthew Highmore’s goal and then captain Jonathan Toews scored his second goal of the game with 1:16 remaining in the third period which gave Chicago the comeback win. Mikko Koskinen got the nod in Game 3 for the second straight outing, letting in four goals on 25 shots. Game 2 was Koskinen’s first career postseason start after his relief effort of Mike Smith in Game 1 was Koskinen’s playoff debut. Dave Tippett has not announced who will start Game 4.

Game 4: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (CBJ leads 2-1): Pierre-Luc Dubois completed Columbus’ comeback with an overtime goal to finish off his hat trick. The win pushed the Blue Jackets to the verge of a second straight postseason with a series victory. Prior to the 2019 playoffs, the franchise had not won a series.

Game 4: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (VAN leads 2-1): Vancouver could end its playoff series win drought with one more victory over Minnesota. Having not closed out a series since 2011, the Canucks shutout the Wild 3-0 on Thursday to inch closer to the First Round.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

SATURDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD – NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD – NBCSN
Game 5: Canadiens vs. Penguins, TBD* – NBCSN
Game 5: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, TBD* – NBCSN
*if necessary

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks