Joel Armia

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens vs. Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

These Atlantic Division foes meet for the first of four times this season as the Canadiens continue with the third game of their four-game homestand. The Lightning, on the other hand, play away from home for the fifth time in six games this season.

One of the biggest questions for Tampa entering this season was when Brayden Point would re-sign. The 23-year-old is coming off a season in which he set career best marks in goals (41), assists (51) and points (92). On September 23, he signed a three-year contract to stay with the Lightning, the only team he’s played for as he begins his fourth season. Point missed the first three games this season while recovering from off-season hip surgery but made an immediate impact in his season debut, scoring twice against Toronto and adding an assist.

While the Canadiens, who are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years (2017), are coming off an encouraging early-season win, the Lightning, after a record-setting regular season, have already lost as many games this season as they did the entire opening month of last season

Jonathan Drouin played a career-high 81 games last season (tied career high with 53 points). The 2013 third overall pick by Tampa has started this season by recording a point in every game for a total of six points in five games. If he adds to that in this game, he’ll be the fourth Canadiens player in the last 32 seasons to open the year with a point streak of six-plus games.

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

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Bell Centre
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven Stamkos – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Ondrej PalatTyler JohnsonYanni Gourde
Patrick Maroon – Carter Verhaeghe – Luke Witkowski

Victor HedmanErik Cernak
Ryan McDonaghKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJordan Weal
Jonathan Drouin – Jesperi KotkaniemiJoel Armia
Paul ByronNate Thompson – Nick Suzuki

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Ben ChiarotChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

MORE: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

How good has Anthony Mantha been for Red Wings?

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When the Detroit Red Wings drafted Anthony Mantha 20th overall in 2013, they were expecting to get a legitimate scoring threat with size. Mantha, who finished his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League career with back-to-back 50-goal seasons, has scored 24 and 25 goals in each of the last two years in the NHL, which is more than respectable. But it looks like he’s starting to take his game to another level.

The 25-year-old is off to a fantastic start this season, as he’s accumulated six goals and eight points in just four games, but his incredible run started well before this year.

Since March 19 no player in the NHL has scored more goals (14) or points (23) than the Red Wings forward (Leon Draisaitl and Steven Stamkos have both collected 22 points since then). Think about that. Not Connor McDavid, not Nikita Kucherov, not Sidney Crosby, not Alex Ovechkin. Nobody.

“I just want to go out and have one of my best years, and that’s really the mentality I’m going into this season,” Mantha said before the start of the season, per The Detroit News. “Just having the same line, that helps with your confidence. You know what to expect from your linemates because you’ve played with them already and the chemistry was there.”

Starting the year with the same linemates definitely hasn’t hurt. Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi have been excellent to start the 2019-20 season. Not only did Mantha score the game-winner on the power play in his home province last night, his line also dominated possession whenever they were on the ice.

Mantha (57.14 CF%), Bertuzzi (60 CF%) and Larkin (60 CF%) were always ready to give their team a spark when they hit the ice. Just 30 seconds after Canadiens forward Joel Armia tied the game, 1-1, at Bell Centre, the Red Wings top line put their team ahead again.

“He progressively got more productive,” Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill said earlier this month. “(We’re) hoping the same rings true in the NHL. Certainly last year would have been his most productive had he stayed healthy.

“He could score a lot of goals in this league. He’s a big power forward who is hard to handle. He can skate. He’s big. He has all the skills.”

Mantha already has three-point and four-goal performances under his belt already this season and two of his goals have proven to be game-winners. It’s safe to say that he’s one of the big reasons why Detroit is off to a solid 3-1-0 start. Can he keep it up? Can they continue to surprise in the East? Those two questions may go hand-in-hand.

Yes, the Wings need their other forwards to continue helping out, but if the top line can keep producing like one of the better trios in hockey, they’ll have a decent chance of grabbing one of the top eight seeds in the conference. Look, there’s still a long way to go before that happens, but it’s not out of the question.

Even though Mantha won’t finish the regular season with the 123 goals he’s currently on pace to score, he can still lead this rebuilding team to new heights. Right now all he has to do is keep firing pucks towards his opponent’s goal and he’ll be fine.

“Just my confidence right now,” said Mantha explained after the win over the Canadiens, per CBC.ca. “My linemates are feeding me properly and right now it’s going in so I just need to keep shooting.”

Marc Bergevin was ’90 percent sure’ Canadiens were getting Sebastian Aho

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Despite what you may believe, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was fairly certain that he was going to land Carolina Hurricanes restricted free agent Sebastian Aho over the summer.

When the Canadiens dropped a five-year, $42.270 front-loaded contract on Aho’s lap, he signed it. At the time, many doubted that the Hurricanes wouldn’t match. Bergervin saw things differently.

“You’re never 100 percent sure of anything,” Bergervin told La Presse (quotes have been translated). “But I had conversations with his agent and he had some with the other general manager. We were 90 percent sure (we were going to get Aho). I didn’t just make an offer for the sake of making an offer. We looked at their organization and the way they manage their dollars, so we decided to front-load the first year of the contract. For us, it was a real possibility. We believed it was going to get done.”

We all know how the situation played out. The Hurricanes ended up matching the offer and the Canadiens didn’t end up making a significant move after that.

Could they opt to go after another one of the restricted free agents that still hasn’t signed with their respective teams?

“Anything is possible,” added Bergevin. “But there’s a reason why we haven’t seen another offer sheet this off-season. The contract (demands), the compensation, the salary cap. But in the league, anything’s possible.”

Landing a player like Aho would’ve changed the game for a team like Canadiens, who need some help offensively. The pressure is always “on” in Montreal, but the management staff have to feeling it a little more heading into this season. Last year, they were coming off a dismal season. This year, they’re coming off a year where they didn’t make the playoffs, but they still finished with 96 points and restored a positive feeling around the group.

You’d have to think that, internally, they’re feeling the heat this year. They can’t not make the playoffs, can they? They’ve missed the postseason in back-to-back years and in three of the last four. The last time they made the playoffs (2017), they were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers.

Since the Canadiens didn’t make a splash this summer, they’ll have to hope that some of their young players improve significantly if they’re going to make the playoffs. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had an impressive season as an 18-year-old, will have to take a big step forward offensively. The Canadiens could also use some added production from depth players like Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Jordan Weal. Jonathan Drouin will have to surpass the 53 points he scored last year, while Max Domi will need to build on his 72-point outburst from one year ago.

Oh, and Carey Price and Shea Weber absolutely need to stay healthy if this team is going to make a dent in the Eastern Conference standings.

It should be an interesting year in Montreal. If they fail to make the playoffs, again, is Bergevin’s job still safe? Would his job security depend on how the team misses the playoffs?

The Habs are never boring.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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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.

It’s Montreal Canadiens Day at PHT

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. 

2018-19
44-30-8, 96 points (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Ben Chiarot
Nick Cousins
Keith Kinkaid

OUT:
Jordie Benn
Andrew Shaw
Nicolas Deslauriers
Antti Niemi

RE-SIGNED:
Christian Folin
Artturi Lehkonen
Joel Armia
Charles Hudon
Jordan Weal
Mike Reilly
Brett Kulak
Nate Thompson

2018-19 Summary

Close but no cigar. Despite putting up 96 points in 2018-19, the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs. It was close, but they were eventually eliminated on the final Friday of the regular season when the Columbus Blue Jackets clinched the last Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Even though they didn’t make the playoffs, last season wasn’t a total failure for an organization that appeared to be in shambles the previous year. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin moved captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick and he also shipped Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi. Both trades couldn’t have worked out any better for Montreal. Tatar gave the Canadiens a 25-goal and 58-point season, Suzuki had a great year in junior and could make the club this year and Domi ended up leaving the team in scoring, while Galchenyuk has already been traded again.

The difference between last season and this season, is that the public’s expectations were in the toilet coming into 2018-19. Those expectations will be much, much higher this year. Missing the playoffs by a hair won’t be good enough.

“I knew we’d have a better team this season [with the changes that were made], but what I really like is the character. We’ve come from behind in a lot games. That didn’t happen last year. I’m proud of that,” Bergevin said last January, per the team’s website. “Hats off to the players and the coaches. We started at zero and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The Canadiens got off to a good start last year, which was surprising considering the fact that Shea Weber missed the first two months of the season. Carey Price, who needs to be on top of his game for this team to have a chance to play meaningful games in the spring, had a rough month of November, but he was terrific when they needed him down the stretch. Those two veterans will obviously be key for the Habs. If they can stay healthy, Montreal will have a chance.

Brenden Gallagher ended up being their only 30-goal scorer last year (he had 33), but they got depth scoring from all over the lineup. Domi and Tatar were the only two Habs to surpass the 20-goal mark, but nine other players hit double figures in goals.

The downside to all that, is that a few of those players had great years by their standards and they still missed the playoffs. Can they do it all over again and then some?

One of the players who surprisingly stuck with the team all year, was 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He finished with 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old in the NHL. He has all the potential in the world and he may become that true number one center the organization has been looking for for years. If he can take a big step forward in his second year, the Habs will be much better for it.

In the end, Bergevin and his staff  got the benefit of the doubt because they seemingly turned this ship around in one year. That won’t be the case if they fail to make it back to the postseason this time around.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.