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Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Scheifele lights the lamp three times; Binnington earns second straight shutout

Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets
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Three Stars

1) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele picked up his third NHL hat trick in the Jets’ 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.  The overlooked centerman completed the milestone with 1:33 remaining in the third period. Nick Paul kicked off the scoring to give the Senators an early advantage, but the Jets stormed back with five unanswered. Scheifele scored his first two goals late in the first period to help Winnipeg gain control of the game. He collected a loose puck near the top of the crease and buried a wrister to even the game, 1:11 after the equalizer, Scheifele redirected Neal Pionk’s shot from the point to give the Jets a lead they would never relinquish. With the win, Winnipeg claimed the top wild card spot in the Western Conference for the time being.

2) Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens

Chiarot recorded his second two-goal game of the season in the Canadiens’ 4-3 overtime victory against the Washington Capitals. The defenseman had two pretty goals, including the overtime winner when his blistering one-timer sped through the legs of Braden Holtby to help the Canadiens end a five-game losing streak. Early in the third period, Chiarot fired a wrist shot from the high slot to give the Canadiens a one-goal advantage. With two more years after this season remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $3.5 million, Chiarot is unlikely to be moved in the coming days even though the playoffs are a long shot for the Canadiens.

3) Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs and Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

Andersen rebounded from a tough performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week and posted his second shutout of the season in Toronto’s 4-0 victory. It was Andersen’s first win in four starts since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for four games. Binnington has not been tested frequently in the past two games, but two consecutive shutouts is an accomplishment despite the limited save totals. Mackenzie Blackwood’s 36 saves and Antti Raanta‘s 45 stops also deserve recognition on a solid night from a few goaltenders in the NHL.

Highlights of the Night

The between-the-legs craze continued when Nick Foligno fooled Brian Elliott with this beauty.

Chiarot is not known for his offense but hammered this one-time feed from Max Domi.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel Vilardi to score his first NHL goal.

Raanta was nearly unbeatable, but Ryan O'Reilly finished a precise pass from Brayden Schenn to lead the Blues past the Coyotes.

Kevin Hayes‘ game-winning goal wasn’t anything special, but his celebration following was something to see.

Pavel Zacha threaded a perfect stretch pass and then Jesper Bratt mesmerized Martin Jones with a series of dekes.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

New Jersey Devils 2, San Jose Sharks 1

Montreal Canadiens 4, Washington Capitals 3 (OT)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 5, Ottawa Senators 1

St. Louis Blues 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Vegas Golden Knights 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Los Angeles Kings 5. Florida Panthers 4


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Ovechkin ends scoring drought in Capitals OT loss

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Alex Ovechkin inched closer to 700 career goals, but the Washington Capitals fell in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, 4-3.

The Capitals captain recorded his 699th career goal to open the scoring early in the first period, but Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot scored twice, including the game-winner after regulation.

The Pittsburgh Penguins took over the top spot in the Metropolitan Division earlier this week, and the Capitals’ recent slump could cost them home-ice advantage in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Additionally, the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets and trail the Capitals by five points for second place in the division.

Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher also scored for the Canadiens as they snapped a five-game losing streak. Carey Price made 29 saves in his 25th win of the season.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson evened the score in the final minute of the third period to force overtime and help Washington earn at least one point. The power forward jammed a puck past Price to give Ovechkin another shot at 700 in the extra session.

However, less than a minute into the three-on-three portion, Chiarot hammered a feed from Max Domi through the legs of Braden Holtby. The defenseman scored his first of the evening early in the third period when he wired a wrist shot from the high slot to give Montreal a 3-2 lead.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 to break a five-game streak without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Price.

Weber knotted the game at 1-1 when he notched his 14th of the season late in the first period. The Canadiens captain was originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks due to an ankle injury but returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing only six games.

Ovechkin’s chase for 700 continues Saturday when the Capitals square off with the New Jersey Devils.

 

Ovechkin’s quest for 700:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

WATCH LIVE: Ovechkin continues chase for 700 vs. Canadiens on NBCSN

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington hosts Montreal in D.C. tonight in what will be the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season. All eyes will be on Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin as he continues his quest for 700 career goals.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

The Capitals have struggled in the midst of Ovechkin’s trek towards 700 goals. For the first time since mid-October, Washington no longer owns at least a share of the Metro Division lead as Pittsburgh now occupies the top spot.

Tuesday afternoon, the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks for a 2020 second round pick (originally acquired from Colorado) and a conditional 2021 third round pick.

Montreal lost 4-3 at Detroit on Tuesday night after blowing a two-goal third period lead. The Habs led 3-1 entering the third and gave up three unanswered goals to pick up their fifth straight loss. To make matters worse, the Red Wings swept the Habs in the regular season (four games) for the first time in franchise history. Four of Detroit’s league-worst 15 wins this season have come against Montreal.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Jonathan DrouinNick SuzukiJoel Armia
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiIlya Kovalchuk
Paul ByronNate ThompsonNick Cousins

Ben ChiarotShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Xavier OuelletChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Travis BoydNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Michal KempnyRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

NHL teams get jump on deadline with flurry of early trades

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Tom Fitzgerald changed teams twice at the NHL trade deadline as a player and knows how it feels.

As interim general manager of the New Jersey Devils, he didn’t wait until deadline day to trade captain Andy Greene or forward Blake Coleman. Beating the buzzer by more than a week, Fitzgerald recalled his own rough experiences of getting dealt late.

”I wish I was traded a week and a half before so I could get adjusted a little bit quicker,” he said.

Greene and Coleman are among more than a half-dozen players who are already adjusting to a new team because of an early trading flurry. The deadline isn’t until Monday, but some major moves are already done thanks to a clear definition between buyers and sellers, contenders interested in the same possibilities, and reasonable prices around the league.

”Over (last) weekend, a lot of things started to pick up,” said Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake, who has already made three trades and could still be active. ”It seems after the All-Star break, a lot of teams start finding their direction on where they’re going, what’s available and prices.”

Los Angeles got things going by dealing goaltender Jack Campbell and versatile forward Kyle Clifford to Toronto in early February, and this week traded winger Tyler Toffoli to Vancouver and defenseman Alec Martinez to Vegas. On Tuesday, Pacific Division rival San Jose traded defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington, and the Winnipeg Jets got blue liner Dylan DeMelo from Ottawa.

A couple of days earlier, the Devils traded Greene to the New York Islanders and Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning within hours of each other.

It isn’t taking much time to close the book on some big trades.

”I think there’s probably five or six teams talking to the same teams about the same players,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”And it sorts itself out for each team and then it happens quickly because then you’ve got to react to what happens with your other conversations.”

MacLellan didn’t rule out the Capitals making another move. But by getting Dillon early, he could be in the lineup for three extra games – which is significant given how tight the standings are.

It helps Dillon get acclimated, too. The 29-year-old who was considered the top pending free agent defenseman available didn’t have to sit around and wonder when San Jose would trade him.

”I’m sure you guys can read the papers just as much as we are, or social media,” Dillon said. ”It was definitely nice just from the mental side of things to get that done with.”

The NHL several years ago moved the trade deadline from March to February to give teams more time to benefit from acquiring players. Fitzgerald was traded in March each time and played 11 and 15 regular-season games, respectively, after getting moved.

Times have changed.

”A lot of teams like to get to things early,” Fitzgerald said. ”(Teams) want you to mesh with the team quicker rather than later. … A little bit longer runway is useful.”

DEADLINE DAY

All the early trades does not mean Monday might be quiet. The New York Rangers could wait until the last minute to trade forward Chris Kreider or one of their goaltenders. The Devils, Kings and Senators still have assets, too.

A few days after Montreal traded defenseman Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues, speculation continues to swirl around the Canadiens. Coach Claude Julien said, ”I don’t know that the noise is done,” and players involved in rumors are trying to block it out.

”Anything can happen, obviously,” winger Tomas Tatar said. ”I’m not too worried now. It’s just part of the business.”

WHO’S GONE

– Campbell and Clifford traded from Kings to Maple Leafs for Trevor Moore, 2020 third-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

Jason Zucker traded from Wild to Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison and conditional 2020 first-round pick

– Greene traded from Devils to Islanders for David Quenneville and 2021 second-round pick

– Coleman traded from Devils to Lightning for Nolan Foote and 2020 first-round pick

– Toffoli traded from Kings to Canucks for Tim Schaller, Tyler Madden, 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2022 fourth-round pick

– DeMelo traded from Senators to Jets for 2020 third-round pick

– Dillon traded from Sharks to Capitals for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

– Scandella traded from Canadiens to Blues for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 fourth-round pick

– Martinez traded from Kings to Golden Knights for 2020 second-round pick and 2021 second-round pick

WHO’S LEFT
– Rangers: F Chris Kreider, G Alexandar Georgiev, F Jesper Fast
– Kings: F Trevor Lewis
– Devils: F Wayne Simmonds, D Sami Vatanen, G Louis Domingue
– Senators: F Jean-Gabriel Pageau, F Vladislav Namestnikov
– Red Wings: F Andreas Athanasiou, D Mike Green, D Trevor Daley
– Canadiens: F Ilya Kovalchuk
– Sharks: F Patrick Marleau, F Joe Thornton
– Jets: D Dustin Byfuglien

WHO COULD STAY
– Rangers: G Henrik Lundqvist
– Devils: F Travis Zajac
– Senators: F Anthony Duclair
– Canadiens: F Tomas Tatar, D Jeff Petry
– Sabres: D Zach Bogosian
– Wild: D Jonas Brodin