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Canadiens using speed to overwhelm opponents

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Heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, the expectations weren’t very high for the Montreal Canadiens. After all, a team that has struggled to score goals five-on-five traded away Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. But thanks to their newfound identity, they’ve managed to exceed all expectations  and boast a 5-2-2 through nine games.

The Canadiens don’t have a superstar up front or an elite player on defense (Shea Weber is still injured), and Carey Price hasn’t even been dominant yet, but they’ve managed to remain competitive thanks to their ability to move the puck quickly. Also, newcomers like Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Xavier Ouellet have fit in really nicely, and they’ve all contributed to the speed the team is playing with.

Not every player on the roster is fast, but Claude Julien and his staff have found a way to change their approach after a horrendous year in 2017-18. Coaching additions like Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson have also helped with that change.

When things are going well for the Canadiens, you can tell by the little time they spend in their own end. Last season, it seemed like they would get hemmed in the defensive zone all the time. Now, their defenders have found a way to move the puck quicker. The fact that the forwards have made themselves more available to receive those quick passes has helped the team get out of their own end with relative ease. Moving the puck allows the Canadiens to play a quick transition game, which eventually leads to some offensive output.

That’s why a veteran like Karl Alzner hasn’t been able to get into the lineup consistently. The Habs have favored skating defensemen like Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, Mike Reilly and Ouellet, and it’s made all the difference.

The other interesting thing about Montreal, is that they can come at you with four lines. Some nights, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tatar will lead the way. Other times, it will be Jonathan Drouin, Domi and Artturi Lehkonen. The team has also used Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Paul Byron together, and they have fourth-line options that include Andrew Shaw, Matthew Peca, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“I wouldn’t say we’re superstars, but everybody is working hard,” Tatar said. “That’s the key. Without that, you’re not able to win a game. We have four lines rolling and everyone is chipping in. That’s a strength for sure.”

Even though they’re coming off a loss in Buffalo last night, no one predicted that they’d have just two regulation defeats in their first nine games, especially because they went up against Toronto and Pittsburgh (twice).

The biggest question mark surrounding the Canadiens is whether or not they can keep this up. Playing fast and being aggressive on the forecheck every night takes its toll on a team. Keeping that in mind, they’re not an overly big team, either, so they might wear down a little quicker, too.

When they hit the dog days of the season, they’ll need Price to be stellar. For now, they just have to find a way to keep this going for as long as they can.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Habs’ Lehkonen scores first goal of 2018-19 NHL season

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As you can see in the video below, Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen scored the first goal of the 2018-19 NHL season, putting the Habs up 1-0 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This was a very “Lehkonen” goal, as he scored a heady goal on a wraparound. Habs fans would likely be delighted to see that Max Domi helped make the goal happen by creating some havoc in front of Frederik Andersen‘s net.

Check out footage of the goal:

The Canadiens put quite a bit of pressure on the Maple Leafs early on, but Toronto started to settle things down. Auston Matthews ended up tying the game up on what could be a dangerous Maple Leafs power play.

Toronto tends to kick off each NHL season on opening night, and in recent years, the Maple Leafs have been the one scoring that first goal.

Recent season-opening goals:

Update: Matthews may not have scored the first goal of the season this time around, but he nabbed the game-winner in overtime, boosting Toronto to a 3-2 OT win. You can watch highlights of Toronto’s win in the video above this post’s headline.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi making case to stick with Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens have been dying for a number one center for over two decades. Many centers have come through Montreal, but very few have been able to stick. Sure, there was Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Tomas Plekanec and a few others, but the Habs have been one of the weakest teams in the league when it comes to depth down the middle. That might not be the case for much longer.

Enter Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The one good thing about the Canadiens’ miserable 2017-18 season, is that they ended up with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. They used that selection to draft the Finnish product, who is a center. As excited as fans were about adding a center to the pipeline, many expected Kotkaniemi to head back to Finland after this year’s training camp.

After he struggled in his his first Rookie Showdown game against the Ottawa Senators at the beginning of the month, everyone was quick to point out that he was at least a year away from being a contributor at the NHL level. But once the preseason began and Kotkaniemi got to play with better players, he was able to elevate his game.

In his first exhibition game, the 18-year-old did this:

Even though he’s had success throughout the preseason, people were still split about keeping him in the NHL this season. So, when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they were coming to town with their A-lineup last night, everyone pointed to this game as a kind of measuring stick for Kotkaniemi’s ability to play in North America.

With Max Domi still out because of a suspension, Kotkaniemi got to center the top line with Jonathan Drouin on his left and Artturi Lehkonen on his right. Going up against Auston Matthews for most of the night, the kid did alright. It’s abundantly clear that he needs to get stronger, but it’s also obvious that he has the hockey sense to play in the NHL right now. He’s capable of playing effective hockey with and without the puck, which is pretty impressive for a player that just turned 18.

He also helped set up this Brendan Gallagher goal by making a nice pass to Victor Mete:

After the game, it was obvious that head coach Claude Julien was impressed with the way the rookie performed.

“In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster the way he’s played, the way he’s handled himself and all of that stuff,” Julien said after the game against Toronto, per Sportsnet. “I’m the coach, and we have management, and we’ll all sit together and make that decision obviously after Saturday’s game. But he’s showing us a lot of good things and it’s pretty hard not to see him with our group.”

The Canadiens have one preseason game remaining before they have to decide whether or not they’ll have Kotkaniemi on the opening-night roster. Even if they do keep him around, it’s just one of the hurdles he’ll have to climb to stick around all season. Once the campaign kicks off, he’ll have to show that he’s able to play at a high level on a nightly basis.

One thing is for sure, Julien, Marc Bergevin and the rest of the organization have an interesting decision to make in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: How to create more offer sheets; Who will win Hart Trophy?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Andrew Berkshire breaks down the Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi trade that the Canadiens and Coyotes made on Friday night. Their skillsets are different, but both players can become valuable contributors to their new teams. (Sportsnet)

• Also on Friday, the Bruins re-signed defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to a two-year contract extension. (Boston Globe)

• Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen struggled to produce at different times last season, but his advanced metrics show that he’s an incredibly useful player for his team. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Caps forward Devante Smith-Pelly is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but his goal is to re-sign with Washington. “On the ice and off the ice I feel like this is the best situation I’ve been in. Obviously, never know what’s going to happen but I found a place and I want to be back.” (NBC Sports Washington)

• Top 2018 draft prospect Quinn Hughes has been shaped by his relationship with his brother, Jack, who could be the top pick in the 2019 draft. (Sportsnet)

Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar and Nathan MacKinnon are all up for the Hart Trophy this year, so the NHL.com staff debated who they thought should win the award. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Marlies came away with the AHL’s Calder Cup this year, so Pension Plan Puppets break down which players on the Marlies roster they think have a chance of cracking the NHL. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Offer sheets could be a fun way to make the NHL offseason even more fun, but general managers don’t seem to want to go that route very often. Sean McIndoe looks at how he would fix this broken system. (Sportsnet)

• If the 1998 NHL Entry Draft was to be done all over again, Vincent Lecavalier wouldn’t be the top selection. That honor would go to Pavel Datsyuk. (NHL.com)

• Lightning forward Ryan Callahan has been talked about as a buyout candidate, so Raw Charge looks at the difference between buying him out this summer vs. next summer. (Raw Charge)

• In the latest edition of his “Off-season Game Plan” series, TSN.ca’s Scott Cullen breaks down what the Capitals have to address during the upcoming offseason. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL Entry Draft gives struggling teams a chance to turn their fortunes around in the future. Toronto Sun writer Micheal Traikos writes about the potential for turnaround and he answers some of the hot topics surrounding this year’s draft. Will the Sens make a trade or two on Friday night? (Toronto Sun)

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: Hall leads Devils; Jets’ Connor plays OT hero again

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Players of the Night

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Yeah, they lost, but it would have been a much worse outcome for the Anaheim Ducks if not for their goaltender. During a 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Gibson was outstanding in stopping 39 shots while his teammates threw only 18 Connor Hellebuyck‘s way.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: The Devils earned a very important two points during a wild 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. After blowing a 3-1 second period lead, it was Hall (three points) who helped New Jersey claim the extra point with the winning goal 27 seconds into the extra period. He now has a career high 81 points.

Antti Niemi, Montreal Canadiens: Niemi earned his first shutout of the season with 35-save effort as the Habs blanked the Buffalo Sabres 3-0. Artturi Lehkonen opened the scoring and Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher added very late insurance markers as Montreal snapped a four-game losing streak.

Highlight of the Night

Devils forward Blake Coleman gave us this one-handed beauty against the Penguins:

MISC

Patrik Berglund scored twice as the St. Louis Blues stayed in the playoff hunt with a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues have won six of seven and four in a row to put themselves a point behind the Colorado Avalanche for the West’s second wild card. In his return to the lineup, Vladimir Tarasenko gave Anders Nilsson the old change-up for this goal:

• The Jets gave us a pair of pretty goals Friday night during their 3-2 win over the Ducks. First, check out Blake Wheeler’s hands as he set up Mark Scheifele’s 22nd of the season:

Wheeler was also part of this pretty passing play that ended with a Nikolaj Ehlers goal:

In the end, it was Kyle Connor notching the overtime winner for the second straight game:

David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins dealt the Dallas Stars a big blow to their playoff hopes with a 3-2 win. “Pasta” scored the go-ahead goal with 11.1 seconds left in the third period, erasing a 2-0 lead the Stars had entering the final 20 minutes. The Stars are four points out of a wild card spot with seven games left in the regular season.

• No word if she was successful.

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Devils 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Blues 4, Canucks 1
Jets 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Bruins 3, Stars 2

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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.