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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.

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.