How it all went wrong for the Canadiens this season

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It was just a little more than five months ago that the Canadiens were playing in the Stanley Cup Final, only a couple of wins away adding to the team’s championship collection.

Today, they are objectively one of the NHL’s worst teams across the board, have already fired their general manager, and after losing to the Penguins, 5-2, on Tuesday night have lost seven in a row and 16 of their past 19 games. The only team with a worse record is Arizona, a team that spent its offseason tearing its roster down to the foundation to accumulate as many future assets as it could. The main difference between Arizona and Montreal right now is the Coyotes’ season is mostly going to plan. The Canadiens really put in an effort to be good. Or to at least try to be good. That makes the current results even more disappointing.

Following Tuesday’s loss in Pittsburgh veteran defenseman Jeff Petry sounded like a player that is out of answers.

“It’s frustrating. It’s the same things over and over,” said Petry. “We are not playing as a team. We are not playing as a group. It’s like you’re searching to find where people and it seems like there’s no structure out there.”

Tuesday’s game was Petry’s first game back in the lineup after missing two weeks, and even the perspective of watching the games did not offer any answers.

“You watch it up top and there times where you’re scratching your head,” he said. “It feels like everybody knows where we should be, but we are not going to those places, we are not making it easy for anybody on the ice except, most of the time, the other team.”

So how do you go from the Cup Final, to whatever that is.

[MORE: The highs and lows of the Marc Bergevin era in Montreal]

For starters, the Cup Final run probably raised the bar too much because it was the perfect storm of circumstances, from the playoff format, the division they played in that allowed them to get into that playoff format, to Carey Price putting in a Conn Smythe worthy performance in goal. And that does not even include a 6-1 record in playoff overtime games, including 2-0 in the First Round when one shot in either game going against them would have resulted in a First Round loss, and a 2-1 mark in the Semifinals against the Golden Knights. There is a fine line between winning and losing there, and the Canadiens consistently came out on the right side of it in the playoffs.

There were some things to like about that Habs team and the way it played, but at the end of the day it was still a .500 hockey team that probably would not have sniffed the playoffs in a normal season. But even that was better than this, and even if you expected the Canadiens to regress, nobody expected them to be this bad.

Petry’s comments are certainly not a glowing endorsement for the job head coach Dominque Ducharme is doing. But structure and systems and being on the same page can only take a team so far. It still comes down to talent, and the Canadiens lost a lot of talent from last year’s roster.

Price, the driving force behind their postseason run, has yet to play in a game this season, leaving the net in the hands of Jake Allen, Sam Montembeault, and Cayden Primeau. They have not come close to matching what Price did in the playoffs.

On defense, Shea Weber is sidelined for the season and probably for his career. That is a huge loss that was never going to be adequately replaced by free agent acquisition David Savard (nothing against him. He just is not Shea Weber).

Then there is the talent that exited the roster in free agency, including Philip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Eric Staal, and Tomas Tatar.

For the past couple of years the Canadiens had one of the best, most productive lines in hockey with Brendan Gallagher, Danault, and Tatar working together as a trio. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21 when that group was on the ice together during 5-on-5 play they outscored teams by a staggering 94-49 margin and controlled more than 61% of the total shot attempts. That is as good as you can get in the NHL and it was a game-changing, shutdown line that could also score.

Two of those three (Danault and Tatar) left in free agency.

Even if you rightly point out that Tatar did not play much in the playoffs, the loss of Danault is still significant given how well he and Gallagher played together. When it was just Gallagher and Danault on the ice last season, including playoffs, the Canadiens outscored teams by a 27-7 margin. With neither on the ice, they were outscored by 11 goals.

It is difficult to replace that many players in one offseason, especially when it comes to the guys at the top of the lineup (Price, Weber, Danault).

What’s made matters worse is the returning players that were supposed to take big step forwards to help make up for that.

Nick Suzuki has been good, but his production has taken a small step backwards.

Cole Caufield, who was supposed to be a Calder Trophy contender, has one goal in 22 games and spent time in the American Hockey League.

But it’s not just the young players that have regressed. After finishing as a top-five goal scorer a year ago, Tyler Toffoli has five goals in 26 games. Gallagher’s production has dropped. Off-season additions Mike Hoffman and Christian Dvorak have not really made much of an impact yet. Adding to all of that is the fact that injuries and COVID-19 protocols have also mounted, with Toffoli, Gallagher, and Josh Anderson all being sidelined.

While the 2020-21 season was the perfect storm of everything going their way, with some outrageously strong performances from veterans sprinkled in, the 2021-22 season has been the complete opposite. Players that were supposed to take big steps forward, have not. Core players that were expected to be there have not been. The new additions have not been able to replace some of the talent that left. Add in the fact they are now back in the Atlantic Division and not playing the same six Canadian teams over and over again, and you have the situation that is playing out now. They lost too much, too quickly, and do not have the people that can make up for that in a tough division.

Given how long players like Toffoli, Anderson, and Weber (all season in this case) are out, it is difficult to see any of this improving anytime soon.


Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS – Jonathan Marchessault scored twice and started an early blitz that chased the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie, and the Vegas Golden Knights seized control of the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-2 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game 2 on Monday night.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Golden Knights, who grabbed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We finished some plays,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s a good performance for us. Our guys were ready to play.”

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all coming after the first round.

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Teams that take a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era. The Panthers will try to buck history beginning with Game 3 on Thursday in Sunrise, Florida.

Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.