Bergevin has Canadiens back on right track

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Although it’s not official just yet, it looks like the Montreal Canadiens will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row. But this time, there will be more of a positive feeling heading into the offseason.

Coming into last season, expectations were high for this Canadiens team. They had been bounced in the first of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers and fans were expecting the team to take the next step. Unfortunately, Carey Price was injured and the team completely fell apart.

General manager Marc Bergevin’s seat appeared to be incredibly hot going into last summer. The pressure was on. With lowered expectations, the Habs found a way to compete for a playoff spot until the very end of the season. What’s even more impressive, is that captain Shea Weber missed the first two months of the season and franchise goalie Carey Price had a rocky start to the season.

How did they manage to stay in the race? Well, their GM bounced back in a big way.

Bergevin had a very strong off-season.

It started with selecting Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall in the NHL Entry Draft. No one expected him to stick with the team all year, but he proved that he was ready. Even though he’s faded down the stretch, he showed that he has the potential to be a special player for years.

The Max Domi for Alex Galchenyuk trade wasn’t well received by most Canadiens fans and media at first, but those doubts quickly faded as it became clear that Domi was made for a hockey market like Montreal. Heading into the final game of the season, the 24-year-old has 28 goals and 71 points in 81 games. As of this moment, it looks like the Habs won that deal.

On June 30th, Bergervin decided to eat Steve Mason’s cap hit (he was bought out by the Habs) in order to acquire Joel Armia from the Winnipeg Jets. Armia proved to be a useful bottom-six player with size (the Canadiens don’t have many big bodies, especially up front).

A day before training camp, they shipped Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki, and Columbus’ second-round pick in 2019. Although things didn’t work out for Tatar in Vegas, he fit in like a glove in Montreal, as he spent most of the year on the team’s top line with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. Tatar has 25 goals and 58 points in 79 games. On the flip side, Pacioretty has 22 goals and 40 points in 65 games with the Golden Knights. Again, that’s a win for Bergevin.

On Oct. 1, the Canadiens and Calgary Flames made a minor swap involving three defensemen. Montreal sent Rinat Valiev and Matt Taormina to Calgary in exchange for Brett Kulak. Both players acquired by the Flames failed to play in an NHL game this season. As for Kulak, he started the year in the minors, but quickly emerged as a top-four defender for the Candaiens this season. The pending restricted free agent will surely get a raise (he made less than a million dollars this year) going into next season.

Even at this year’s trade deadline, Bergevin sent Michael Chaput to Arizona for Jordan Weal, who fit in nicely with his new team. Weal played on the power play and he added more depth offense to a team that relies on all four of its lines to chip in. The 26-year-old has picked up a respectable eight points in 15 games since joining the Canadiens.

Whether the Canadiens get into the playoffs are not, they’re miles ahead of where they were at the end of the 2017-18 campaign. Yes, their past struggles were created by Bergevin, but he’s found a way to get the organization back on the rails. Now, the challenge will be to built upon the season they just had.

They have cap space and plenty of needs. And this time, not making the playoffs won’t be an option. Bergevin has to find a way to improve the left side of the defense and he has to add some more scoring punch to this group. He deserves the benefit of the doubt based on his body of work in 2018-19, but this is another huge year for him and his legacy in Montreal.

So as crushing as the loss to the Washington Capitals was last night, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this organization is heading in the right direction again.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Canadiens on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Montreal scored a huge win on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning. The Habs rebounded from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits before outscoring Tampa 2-0 in the third. Their previous win came against the Central-leading Jets. They face their third straight division leader tonight.

The Canadiens enter Thursday one point behind the Hurricanes for the first Wild Card and tied with the Blue Jackets in points for the second Wild Card, but still on the outside looking in due to the ROW tiebreaker. After their game against Washington, they’ll end the season at home against Toronto.

With two games to play, the Capitals lead the Metro by three points over the Islanders. Washington is vying for its fourth consecutive division title.

Three-time MVP and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin is aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (7x) to become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. Ovechkin (33 years old) can also become the first player since Phil Esposito in 1975 to lead the league in goals at age 33 or older.

On Saturday against Tampa, Ovechkin found the net twice, registering his 50th and 51st goals of the season. Those 51 goals are the most in the league, four ahead of Toronto’s John Tavares and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who both have 47. Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players to record eight or more 50-plus goal seasons.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Thursday, April 4, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip Danault –  Brendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiAndrew Shaw
Jonathan DrouinJordan WealJoel Armia
Jesperi KotkaniemiNate ThompsonPaul Byron

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Jordie BennChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

John CarlsonNick Jensen
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Walton (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

The Buzzer: Moves like Bobby Orr

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Clinching playoffs

  • The Jets clinched a playoff spot, and in doing so, greatly improved their chances of winning the Central Division.
  • The Bruins became the second team in the East to stamp their ticket, and it sure looks like they’ll have home-ice advantage against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Saturday was very kind to the Bruins.

The latest Hurricanes celebration

For people with no sense of humor, this is just madness.

Three Stars

1. Kyle Connor, and the Jets, really

You could probably give three stars to three different Winnipeg Jets and call it a night, but that would be a disservice to a busy day in the NHL. So let’s consolidate their great performances into the number category, starting with Connor.

The soon-to-be-rich winger generated a hat trick and an assist on Saturday, helping Winnipeg dominate the Predators. Connor hit a new career-high with 32 goals thanks to this game, while his 61 points also represent a career-high. He’s now a two-time 30+ goal scorer, and pretty much two-for-two in that regard, as he only played 20 games in 2016-17.

Kevin Hayes was the other Jets player who generated four points during this game, in his case getting there with one goal and three assists. Hayes now has 52 points in 2018-19, the first time he’s crossed the 50-point barrier during his already-solid NHL career. He now has 10 points in 13 games with Winnipeg, and while he’s different stylistically from Paul Stastny, it’s possible – and scary for the rest of the NHL – that the Jets once again made a big upgrade at 2C via the trade deadline.

Hayes would jostle with Connor Hellebuyck for second star consideration, if I hadn’t copped out made the decision to consolidate the Jets into one star position.

Hellebuyck pitched a 33-save shutout against the Predators on Saturday. If you exclude a relief appearance on March 21 (where he allowed two goals on 20 shots on goal, and didn’t get a win or loss), he’s won four games in a row, and has two shutouts in consecutive starts. This hasn’t been the easiest season for Hellebuyck, yet with a .932 save percentage in March, it seems like he’s heating up at the perfect time.

2. Brendan Gallagher

Of course, by opening things up, it now means splitting hairs between other players who enjoyed great nights.

Gallagher feels like a nice catch-all, Kyle Connor-style, for the Canadiens who scored seven goals to help them earn a big win against the Minnesota Wild. Gallagher generated two goals and one assist, while both Tomas Tatar and Max Domi enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights.

Another player who generated a noteworthy one-goal, two-assist night was Teuvo Teravainen, who helped the Hurricanes win against the Wild. thus opening up the opportunity for Carolina to roll out its “March Madness” victory celebration.

Gallagher gets the edge against those other three-pointers by managing such a volume of hard work (nine SOG) and getting the game-winning goal.

3. Alexandar Georgiev

For the second time this season, Georgiev won against the Maple Leafs while making at least 40 saves. On Feb. 10, he stopped 55 shots and only allowed one goal to beat Toronto. On Saturday. Georgiev turned aside 44 of 45 shots as the Rangers beat Toronto in overtime.

With tensions high for many regarding the Maple Leafs, losing to the Rangers will only add to the strain. But, really, the Maple Leafs played well enough. Sometimes you run into a goalie who has your number, which is maybe the case with Georgiev and the Buds.

Highlights

There were a lot of great moments during Saturday’s games, even by the standards of what is typically the busiest night of the hockey week. For the sake of your browsers, here are three that stood out, whether by being great clips or just plain fun.

To start, a fun one: Blake Coleman did something of a Bobby Orr “impression” in scoring in a shootout. The stakes were obviously monumentally lower than a Stanley Cup-deciding goal, but hey, the Coyotes would argue that it was significant, as this deals a blow to Arizona’s playoff hopes.

(Artturi Lehkonen scored a great diving goal, too.)

From a great Connor goal (the one where he faked-out P.K. Subban and beat Pekka Rinne) to some fantastic saves by Rinne, Jets versus Predators provided enough highlights to be worthy of plunking the whole thing down.

With apologies to this great dish from Dylan Larkin to Anthony Mantha for an overtime-winner, this Jared McCann goal was the most unusual of the going-backward and/or no-look moments from Saturday, and it actually had more competition from Brayden Schenn.

Ugh, both the Schenn and Mantha goals were so good, it’s tough not to have second thoughts.

Factoids

Scores

NJD 2 – ARI 1 (SO)
NYI 4 – PHI 2
COL 4 – CHI 2
OTT 4 – EDM 3 (OT)
NYR 2 – TOR 1 (OT)
MTL 7 – BUF 4
BOS 7 – FLA 3
CAR 5 – MIN 1
WPG 5 – NSH 0
STL 4 – TBL 3
PIT – DAL 2
CGY 3 – VAN 1
DET 3 – VGK 2 (OT)
LAK 4 – ANA 3 (SO)

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.

Putrid power play might doom Canadiens’ playoff dreams

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Most times, when an NHL team is struggling, players will try to explain things away with buzzwords.

You’ll hear the sort of phrases that will get a lot of heads nodding – probably that of the head coach, in particular – which Andrew Shaw deployed in pondering the Montreal Canadiens’ struggles in trying to cement a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’ve had bad starts, we’ve had bad periods, we’ve had bad shifts,” Shaw said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders, according to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “That hunger, that bite, it’s not there. It’s not where we need to be. We need to be a playoff team right now, and it looks like we’re just going out there and playing.”

Most signs point toward success

Talking about “that hunger, that bite” works, and probably gets some stomachs rumbling around dinner time. But effort (or a lack thereof) isn’t really a useful explanation for why the Canadiens have gone 6-9-0 in their last 15 games, placing them in what looks to be a really tight battle with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the East’s final playoff spot.

[More: The Push for the Playoffs details where the Habs rank.]

Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to look at numbers and tell the story of effort, but some of the telltale signs are there that Montreal’s still playing hard.

Since Feb. 9, Montreal’s been a high-end possession stat team by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, just like they have overall the long haul of the season. While they “only” rank 11th since Feb. 9 at controlling the percentage of high-danger chances in a game, generating 52.05 percent is still very healthy.

What’s been going wrong, then?

If you’re wondering about goaltending, it’s not the biggest problem. Carey Price hasn’t been at his peak lately (.911 save percentage since Feb. 9), but he hasn’t been totally letting the Canadiens down.

The glaring problem

Instead, it’s pretty simple: Montreal’s power play has been abysmal.

During this slump, the Canadiens have gone 3-for-41 on the power play, which ends up being a putrid 7.3 percent success rate. That’s the worst mark in the NHL during that span since Feb. 9, with the Vancouver Canucks (8.3 percent) ranking as the only other team below double digits.

While Shaw can bring up elbow grease and sticktoitiveness, Claude Julien should be exploring answers to the power play question. To be specific, what’s been going wrong?

  • To some extent, this is just bad luck. Even the league’s most predictable, skill-low power plays should operate at much higher than 7.3 percent over the long haul.
  • That said, maybe there’s something systemic.

Personally, when I see that a team’s power play is ice cold, I usually check to see who’s shooting. Chances are, a power play might struggle because too many shots are coming from defensemen firing on low-quality opportunities.

That seems to be the case with Montreal, leading to a hypothesis: Shea Weber‘s booming shot is probably a curse disguised as a blessing.

During the 16 games since Feb. 9, Weber has 16 PP SOG, double that of the second-highest total (Jonathan Drouin‘s eight in 15 GP).

In the 54 games before this slump, Drouin leads with 33 SOG on the power play, followed by Tomas Tatar‘s 31. Weber’s numbers are more limited because of his lengthy bout with injuries, yet it’s interesting see that he generated 14 in 31 games. That’s less than one every two games, versus the one-per-night Weber has averaged during these tough 16 games.

None of this is to say that the Canadiens should stop Weber from shooting on the power play altogether. He really does boast a pretty unique weapon. Despite missing all of those games, he still has 11 goals in 2018-19, and actually just scored the 200th of his fantastic career.

But maybe the Canadiens are telegraphing their attempts to Weber too much.

Things were more effective when shots were dispersed more communally, with the highest-end scorers like Drouin, Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Domi leading the way. Maybe the Canadiens would be best served pretending that Weber is just another PP QB, and use him a lot like they did with Jeff Petry?

***

Since Feb. 9, the Canadiens’ 43 goals ranks 12th-worst in the NHL, but if you zero in to even-strength, Montreal’s 39 goals comes in at 13th-best.

So, the comforting part of all of this is that the Canadiens have generally been playing well, only that their power play’s been a disaster. The less-comforting part is that, if they don’t figure things out soon, that man advantage might be enough of a disadvantage to derail their playoff hopes.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.