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WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Canadiens on NBCSN

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.

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.

The Buzzer: Maximum Domi; Night of blowouts

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Three Stars

1. Max Domi

Consider this a collective award for the Canadiens, who throttled the Red Wings 8-1, even though they played the night before.

Domi led the way two goals and three assists for five points, with three shots on goal and a +5 rating in that lopsided win. This pushes his breakthrough 2018-19 campaign to 22 goals and 59 points in 64 games.

By the way, Domi’s the first Canadiens player to score at least five points in a game since some obscure player named Guy Lafleur did so in 1978.

Other Canadiens players could make credible arguments for spots in the top three, too. Jonathan Drouin was among the non-Domi leading scorers of Tuesday, generating four points (all assists). Andrew Shaw wasn’t far behind, generating his first hat trick.

Those three didn’t just tear things up, they also scored with startling efficiency. Looking at goals alone, they combined for five on just seven SOG. By my calculations, that is … very good.

2. Teuvo Teravainen

Teravainen is to the Hurricanes what Domi is to the Canadiens for Tuesday. He had the best game of anyone on a team that dominated the competition, and thus Teravainen’s teammates deserve mentions, too.

Teravainen scored one goal and three assists for four points. Remarkably, the Teravainen – Domi connection continues over the full season view, as Teravainen has 59 points in 2018-19 (in 63 games). The Hurricanes probably already felt good about signing Teuvo to a five-year extension with just a $5.4 million cap hit when they inked it in January, but it only looks better now.

Two of his teammates deserve recognition, as well. Both Dougie Hamilton (two goals, one assist, game misconduct?) and Jordan Staal (three assists) generated three-point nights. Hamilton was especially dangerous, generating nine SOG in Carolina’s impressive 6-1 win against Kings.

3. Brad Marchand

Marchand scored a goal and two assists, with his tally being his 25th career shorthanded goal, tying Rick Middleton for the Bruins’ franchise record.

The 30-year-old now has 25 goals and 74 points in 62 games this season. Marchand’s now 11 points short of his career-high of 85 points, which he generated in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.

A lot happened in this game, even beyond Marchand helping the Bruins dominate the Sharks. Erik Karlsson looked a little slow on Marchand’s goal, maybe because – you know – he might be dealing with an injury that requires rest. There was also a fight between Evander Kane and Zdeno Chara. Yeah, a lot was going on.

Highlights of the Night

Matthew Tkachuk might not suffer from many more slumps when he can score like this.

Vinnie Hinostroza has a lot of moves, which Roberto Luongo unfortunately found out.

Factoids

  • Jordan Binnington only needed to make 19 saves for his fifth shutout, so that wasn’t quite good enough to get him in the three stars on a high-scoring night. He’ll have to settle for being on a pretty lofty list.

Scores

BOS 4 – SJS 1
CGY 3 – NYI 1
PHI 5 – BUF 2
WSH 7 – OTT 2
CAR 6 – LAK 1
PIT 5 – CBJ 2
MTL 8 – DET 1
STL 2 – NSH 0
MIN 3 – WPG 2
ARI 4 – FLA 3 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 1

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.

Another Blue Jackets trade deadline riddle involves Duchene, Wennberg

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The Columbus Blue Jackets face the sort of conundrums that would stump “Good Will Hunting,” and that messy blackboard isn’t just filled with equations about Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although, come to think of it, maybe the Blue Jackets might find a solution for this Panarin proof in an indirect way.

In discussing Columbus possibly going after Matt Duchene in the latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman brought up a name many of us haven’t really pondered in a while: Alexander Wennberg. Specifically, Friedman wrote that he believes “Columbus’s offer for Duchene screams Alexander Wennberg as part of it.”

That’s a fascinating observation. Also fascinating, if frustrating, is the question: “What is going on with Wennberg?”

The 24-year-old is suffering through a downright disastrous 2018-19 season.

Yes, Wennberg’s clearly more of a passer, but two goals (none at even-strength) is still troubling, and totaling 23 points in 58 games is disappointing. After averaging at least 18:08 TOI during the past two seasons, Wennberg’s slipped to third-line center in Columbus, logging just 15:46 minutes per night, the second-worst average of his career.

The telltale sign of a miserable season is seen in his atrocious 3.6 shooting percentage, more than anything else.

It’s becoming almost a rule to wave NHL GMs off with the motto: “Simply don’t move prominent young players when their shooting percentages are way down,” but Wennberg’s situation is especially confounding. Allow me to rummage through the many ins and outs.

  • It’s not just bad puck luck.

For a passer such as Wennberg, it can be helpful to consider on-ice shooting percentage, not just his personal shooting luck. While Wennberg’ 8.3 on-ice shooting percentage is a big drop from last year’s career-high of 10.6, it’s not that far off from his career average of 8.9 percent.

When considering bounces, it’s tougher to let a player off the hook when they’re not creating a ton of them.

Wennberg hasn’t even generated a shot on goal per game this season, only managing 55 in 58 games, marking a career-low of .95 SOG per contest. He’s never been a volume-shooter, yet perhaps opposing defenders are so convinced that he won’t shoot, that it may also affect his ability to set up linemates? On Feb. 3, The Athletic’s Tom Reed wondered how much longer Columbus could wait through Wennberg’s offensive struggles (sub required), featuring this bummer of a quote from Wennberg.

“You gotta create your own luck and right now I don’t have any,” Wennberg said.

  • Opportunities

On one hand, Wennberg’s ice time is down. If John Tortorella has permanently soured on the Swede, then that’s a big concern.

Yet, it’s not as though Wennberg’s totally buried in the lineup. While he’s generally slotting in at 3C, Wennberg’s most frequent even-strength wingers have been Anthony Duclair and Oliver Bjorkstrand, according to Natural Stat Trick. Duclair’s speed and Bjorkstrand’s goal-scoring potential give Wennberg something to work with, if nothing else.

He’s also been on the second power-play unit, and it’s a group with reasonable talent, considering its secondary stature. You could do worse than lining up with the likes of Seth Jones, Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, and Josh Andersen, as Wennberg is currently slated to do.

It’s not a perfect situation, but Wennberg’s also not being healthy scratched and glued to the bench, either.

  • A few other notes

This in-depth breakdown from Jackets Cannon compares Wennberg to some other players like Max Domi, Dylan Larkin, and Jonathan Drouin, pointing to a potential future turnaround. At the same time, that profile also brings into question one area where Wennberg may still shine: his two-way game.

A few days ago, The Athletic’s Alison Lukan did point out ($) that Wennberg does bring decent under-the-radar attributes to the table, such as his ability to initiate an effective forecheck, and his acumen when it comes to exiting the defensive zone.

Columbus has seen better days from Wennberg, after all. He managed 40 points in just 69 games in 2015-16, then rattled off career-highs of 13 goals, 46 assists, and 59 points in 80 games in 2016-17 (the only season he’s exceeded 69 GP so far in an NHL season). There was a time when it seemed like Wennberg was on an upward trajectory, although those feelings have faded.

  • The Matt Duchene solution?

Trading for Duchene becomes immensely fascinating in at least one scenario: what if Columbus moves on from Panarin, but trades and then extends Duchene, instead?

On one hand, Panarin makes a bigger impact than Duchene by various measures, particularly if you zoom out beyond what’s been a fairly hot contract year for Duchene. On the other, it seems clear that Panarin is unlikely to return, so Columbus could avoid losing Panarin for nothing (except $6M in cap space) by pivoting to Duchene. Instead of the giant collapse that would be going from losing Panarin for nothing but that cap space, they could instead take the more palatable step back to Duchene, likely at a substantial increase from that $6M per year.

If Duchene was on board to sign an extension with Columbus, trading away Wennberg and his $4.9M cap hit through 2022-23 would make sense even if Wennberg does bounce back considerably from this slump. The Blue Jackets could also recoup some of the costs in landing Duchene if they decided to move on from Panarin.

Interestingly, there are quite a few ways that could work out. Maybe the Blue Jackets find a way to keep both Panarin and Duchene for a big push in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps they decide that renting Duchene and moving on from Wennberg would be the best move?

***

Consider one other amusing wrinkle to this situation. Reports indicate that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t on board with potential trade partners discussing possible extensions with Artemi Panarin (at least earlier, such as during the offseason, and before the trade deadline heated up). Now, it’s tougher to gauge the value of a potential Duchene-to-Columbus trade without knowing if the speedy center would sign an extension.

Whether a Duchene trade is likely or not, the Blue Jackets need to really dig to find out if Wennberg’s really worth keeping around, or if it’s best for everyone if he has a “change of scenery” — if some other team would even be on board with buying low on the playmaker.

“When or if to move Wennberg?” is not the toughest question Kekalainen faces, but it’s consistent with the Panarin and Bob conundrums in that it’s pretty complicated.

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.

Paul Maurice not impressed with Jets’ effort in Montreal

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The Winnipeg Jets have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the better part of the last two seasons. This year, many expected them to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and they have been, but Thursday’s performance in Montreal left a lot to be desired.

“We don’t have it happen very often,” said head coach Paul Maurice said after the 5-2 loss. “It’s almost in some ways easier to process this and to get ready for Ottawa, because it’s not like a guy let you down or you played your a– off and the goalie let you down. When I said we were no good, the coach is in on that too. We were all horse—t tonight. Big time.

“The coach was no good, the players were no good, the food was no good. We just hope that the plane works.”

That last line is especially terrific.

Maurice’s assessment of the game is very accurate. If netminder Connor Hellebuyck didn’t make five or six outstanding saves, the final score would have been way uglier than what it was. The Jets were simply the second best team on the ice all night.

The Jets bench boss didn’t single anyone out, but there’s two things that jump off the page if you’re a Winnipeg fan.

The top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler was severely outplayed by the Canadiens’ first line, which consists of Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin. The Jets clearly have the more talented line, but they were outworked and hemmed into their own end from the start of the game until the very end.

Each member of the Scheifele line finished with a CF% between 39 percent and 42 percent. They were on the ice for one high-danger scoring chance for and seven against. Like we said, they were totally dominated from top to bottom. Connor managed to score the game’s first goal, but that was partly because of a terrible line changes from Montreal.

They should be able to bounce back in Ottawa on Saturday.

Anyway, moving on.

The other thing that is far too noticeable regarding the Jets, is how invisible Patrik Laine has been.

Here’s how Canadiens play-by-play voice Dan Robertson described Laine’s game last night:

Robertson’s points are all accurate. Nothing Laine did worked and it appears as though this has been the case for a while now. Let’s be clear, nobody should be worried about the way he’s playing, but the Jets have to find a way to get his season back on the rails.

He’s on pace to score 38 goals, which is still awesome. They just need him to step up his production, especially when the first line has an off night.

Sure, the Jets can wait it out with Laine. That will probably work. But they might just have to go out and get him a new linemate via trade. Can they squeeze Matt Duchene or Mark Stone out of Ottawa? Would they be willing to land Artemi Panarin as a pure rental? We’ll find out before the end of the month.

Even though they’re 3-3-1 dating back to Jan. 19, no one in Winnipeg should be panicking about this team. They’re still in top spot in the Central Division and they have the assets to make a significant deal before Feb. 25. They’ll be fine, but they have to move passed Thursday night’s ugly performance as soon as possible.

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.