Brett Kulak

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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins host Canadiens on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This will be the 746th regular season game between the Canadiens and Bruins. Montreal has won 361 times to Boston’s 281, while there have been 103 ties. These two teams have played more than any other teams in the NHL.

Both teams enter Monday’s matchup playing well. The Bruins have won six of their last seven games, including a 3-2 win at Toronto on Saturday night. Trailing 2-1, Boston scored two straight goals near the end of the secnd period and held off the Maple Leafs in the third to secure the win. The Canadiens kicked off a run of three games in four days on Saturday night with a 3-0 win vs the Avalanche. Carey Price stopped 28 shots to earn his third shutout of the season. It was just the secnd time Colorado has been shut out all season (first time since Oct.).

One of the biggest reasons for the Bruins’ recent success has been the play of goalie Tuukka Rask, who has emerged as the clear top choice between the pipes. Rask is 5-0-0, with a 1.38 goals against average, .955 save percentage and a shutout in his last five starts. His next win will tie him with Tiny Thompson for most wins by a goalie in franchise history.

The Canadiens power play continued to struggle in the 3-0 win vs. the Avalanche. Montreal went 0-for-3 with the man advantage to bring their total to 1-for-20 in the last seven games. They rank last in the NHL in power play percentage, converting on just 12.5 percent of their chances. Head coach Claude Julien also switched up the power-play units hoping to find a solution for the team’s struggles.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins
Where: TD Garden
When: Monday, Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Jonathan DrouinPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJoel Armia
Tomas TatarJesperi KotkaniemiPaul Byron
Kenny AgostinoMichael ChaputNicolas Deslauriers

Victor MeteShea Weber
Mike ReillyJeff Petry
Brett KulakJordie Benn

Starting goalie: Carey Price

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Backes
Sean KuralyNoel AcciariChris Wagner
Danton HeinenJakob Forsbacka KarlssonRyan Donato

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

John Forslund (play-by-play), AJ Mleczko (analyst) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

Sabres slip out of playoff position behind Habs, Isles

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Back in late November, the Buffalo Sabres lead the entire NHL in points. Now they wouldn’t even have a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began as of late Saturday night.

Things can change with 37+ games left in the season for these teams, but it’s increasingly looking like there will be a three-team race for two East wild-card spots between the Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Islanders.

(Again, the Bruins, Penguins, and Blue Jackets rank among teams in the top three spots of their divisions who could conceivably slip, while perhaps the Panthers or Hurricanes could go on a wild run.)

Here’s how the bubble wrapped on a busy Saturday:

Montreal Canadiens climb to first wild-card spot: 24-17-5, 53 points, 46 games played, 22 regulation/overtime wins.

After losing three of their last four games, the Habs shut down the struggling Avalanche 3-0 on Saturday.

All three of Montreal’s goals came in the third period of that tight contest, with the last being an empty-netter. Brett Kulak‘s shorthanded goal ended up being the game-winner, while Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored an emphatic 2-0 tally.

Carey Price pitched a 28-save shutout at home in this one.

Schedule note: Over the next three games, Montreal will rotate home and away contests. After that, they’ll have a great opportunity to solidify their place as a playoff contender, as they’ll enjoy a seven-game homestand from Jan. 19 – Feb. 9.

New York Islanders lose, stay in second WC: 24-15-4, 52 points, 43 GP, 22 ROW.

Islanders fans probably aren’t happy today, as their team lost in regulation to the hated Rangers.

The bigger picture looks quite sunny, though. In fact, considering their games in hand, it’s quite possible that the Islanders could finish in the Metro’s top three, and maybe even grab home-ice for the first round. To sweeten the deal, consider that they’ve played 20 home games versus 23 on the road, so it’s mostly coming up Trotz-house.

Schedule note: This loss starts a four-game homestand on a tough note, but they’ll get a chance – and a challenge – in closing off a back-to-back by hosting the Lightning on Sunday.

Buffalo Sabres fall to ninth place: 23-16-6, 52 points, 45 GP, 20 ROW

Uh oh.

Buffalo’s lost three of four and only won three times in their last 10 games (3-6-1 during that stretch). While they have the same 52 standings points as Montreal, the Canadiens hold two more games in hand and two ROW.

It’s not time to panic, especially since Buffalo has a game in hand on Montreal. That said, with Montreal nearing a slate of home games fairly soon, Buffalo’s readying for quite the opposite, in the short term.

Schedule note: The Sabres are going to need to dig deep, as they’re set to being a five-game road trip on Monday.

The key will be to keep their heads high, even if that does go badly, because they’ll begin February with a seven-game homestand. Considering how all-or-nothing their schedule is, don’t be surprised if Buffalo’s streaky for the next month.

***

Again, there are other changes that could come to these East playoff races, but if it comes down to the Sabres, Islanders, and Canadiens jockeying for two spots, it could be very interesting to watch. The see-saw effect could be especially profound for Montreal and Buffalo, but we’ll see.

Overall, the Sabres have to hope that things go differently than they did on Saturday, but the Habs certainly wouldn’t mind.

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.

How Shea Weber helped stabilize Canadiens

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The 2018-19 edition of the Montreal Canadiens were buried before the regular season even started. Coming off a terrible year, they were going to be without number one defenseman Shea Weber for at least two months. Somehow, this team managed to keep themselves in the middle of the playoff picture, but they were starting to fade in the month of November.

Jeff Petry was playing like a rock star while Weber was out, but the rest of the defense was struggling at times and it’s easy to see why. The group was made up of Petry, Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, Mike Reilly, Karl Alzner, and youngsters Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen. That group could only hold on for so long.

Even franchise goalie Carey Price looked human in November, as he posted a 3-5-2 record with a 3.81 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage. Yeah, it was getting ugly.

But that’s when Weber showed up to save the day.

Initially, the Canadiens believed their captain would be able to come back sometime in mid-to-late December. Instead, he returned on Nov. 27 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Keep in mind that the Canadiens had dropped four games in a row leading up to Weber’s return. They gave up 16 goals during that losing skid.

In his first game back, not only did the Canadiens win, they held the ‘Canes to just one goal. What makes his return even more impressive, is that the Habs didn’t ease him back in. The 33-year-old has played at least 23:59 in every game.

In his second game of the season, he managed to score two goals in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. Overall, he’s put up five goals and 11 points in 17 games. Weber’s CF% is at 55.37, his FF% is at 54.24 and his high-danger CF% is at 53.98. Those are some impressive numbers for a guy that didn’t get to go through training camp. Keep in mind that he hasn’t been playing with a true top-pairing defenseman, either. he’s spent time playing with Brett Kulak, Victor Mete and Jordie Benn.

Not only has he been played well from an individual standpoint, he’s also helped make his teammates better. The fact that he can eat up big minutes means that Petry, Benn and the rest of the defenseman on the team can slide back into their true roles.

And do you think Price is happy to see him back?

Price posted a shutout in last night’s win against the Canucks, which was his first game of 2019. In December, the veteran netminder an 8-3-0 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .916 save percentage. Those are radically different then the numbers he posted in November. It’s hard to argue that that’s just a coincidence. It’s not to say that Price has only been dominant because of Weber, but there’s no denying that the captain’s return has impacted his goalie in a positive way.

We’ll find out whether or not he’s going to hit a wall at some point. Sure, he got the first two months of the season off, but he’s not young and as we mentioned before, he’s playing a ton of minutes.

The biggest challenge for the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin, is finding a puck-moving, left-shooting defenseman to play on the top pairing. They’re getting by with the players they have now, but there’s no doubt that they’d like to add another blueliner. They almost got Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings in the summer, so maybe they’ll decide to revisit that now that the Kings are way out of the playoff picture.

But no matter who the veteran plays with, he finds a way to remain effective.

“You see him, as soon as he sees somebody open he moves the puck,” head coach Claude Julien said last month, per the Montreal Gazette. “It may look simple, it may look boring to the player himself, but to everybody’s eyes it’s effective and it’s what keeps players the kind of players that they are through their whole career. I think that’s where you go back to Lidstrom and Chara, that was one of his idols. Those are guys that you can use as good examples and that’s what Shea does. He can play lots of minutes because he doesn’t put himself in positions where he’s got to exhaust himself. He keeps the game simple.”

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.