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.
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.”
But the defensive issues are starting to become too much to overcome.
In fairness to Petry, he’s put together a solid season thus far (he’s averaging a shade under 25 minutes per game), but having Benn on the top pairing is less than ideal at this point. The good news, is that they’re about to get some reinforcements in Weber, who is expected to be back in the lineup ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Since the start of November, the Canadiens have given up three goals or more in 11 of 13 games. Sure, Carey Price has had his share of struggles, but the in-zone coverage has left a lot to be desired. The Habs have tightened up a little bit over the last two games, but they need Weber back.
Example: Taylor Hall probably shouldn’t be this alone in the slot:
These types of breakdowns have been happening a lot of the last few weeks.
Getting the 33-year-old in the lineup will allow everyone else to be slotted into roles that are more appropriate for their skillsets. Petry won’t have to play 25-plus minutes per game anymore, Benn won’t have to be on the top pairing, Schlemko can go back to being a third-pairing defender, and so on.
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before the Canadiens lock down a playoff spot, but they’ll have a better chance of doing that with Weber than without him.
“There’s no doubt guys are getting excited to see his presence getting closer and closer,” head coach Claude Julien said last week, per the Montreal Gazette. “He’s the captain of this hockey team. He’s the leader on and off the ice. Whenever you miss a guy like that, it makes a difference. He’s not going to be our saviour, but he’s certainly going to be a big answer to some of the things we’re trying to solve right now. We’re looking forward to getting him back, but we have a few games before that becomes a possibility.”
As Julien points out, Weber can’t fix everything. He’s a special talent, but getting him up to speed is going to take some time. Weber hasn’t played since mid-December, so he won’t be able to log huge minutes right off the hop. They’ll have to ease him back. At this point, they’ll take that.
The Montreal Canadiens were expected to be one of the bottom-dwellers in the Eastern Conference this season. Instead, they’ve proven everybody wrong by getting off to an 8-5-3 start. Nothing to complain about in Montreal then, right? Guess again!
After they traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, the expectation was that they’d have a hard time putting the puck in the net. That hasn’t been an issue. The Shea Weber injury was also supposed to derail their season, but the defense has sort of held up until now. So what’s the big issue that has fans up in arms? Apparently, it’s Carey Price.
Let’s make one thing clear: Price hasn’t been good enough this season. That has never been more evident than over the last few days, as he gave up bad goals in the third period against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.
And he also gave up a couple of stinkers in Thursday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice:
Canadiens fans everywhere are starting to get nervous about Price’s play because he struggled mightily last year and because this is the first year of an eight-year contract that will see him earn an AAV of $10.5 million. That’s a lot of Price-y years (sorry).
After Thursday night’s loss to Buffalo, Price confirmed what we already knew when he admitted that the issues were all inside his head. He also said that the way the defense is playing in front of him hasn’t changed since the start of the year, but that’s not true.
It’s evident that Montreal’s defensive group has come back down to earth with a thud over the last little while. Jeff Petry, who’s been pretty good this year, and Jordie Benn have played way too many minutes. Youngsters like Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen are starting to go through all the ups and downs that young defensemen typically go through, and Xavier Ouellet and Karl Alzner are nothing more than depth defensemen at this point of their careers. This group really misses Weber. Give them credit because they’ve been able to hang in there until this point, but they might not be able to hold up much longer.
Through 12 games, he has a 5-4-3 record with a 3.07 goals-against-average and a .892 save percentage this season. Clearly, that’s not good enough. There’s no excuse anyone can make to defend him, but it’s impossible to to turn a blind eye toward the way the rest of the team has played lately (especially this week). Does a $10.5 million goalie have to bail them out once in a while? He sure does. But we’re into November. There’s still plenty of time for him and for them to get themselves back on the rails.
John Tortorella has always been interesting. Even so, his story has gotten more layered during the Columbus Blue Jackets phase of his turbulent, lengthy head coaching career.
To be more specific, we’ve seen a “dinosaur” (his words) trying to evolve (our words) in a game that’s increasingly dependent upon speed and skill, and less about grit and hitting.
Credit Torts for frequently deploying more progressive tactics, sometimes in contrast with his persona of being anti-analytics. This isn’t the emotionally drained, locker-room-storming Tortorella from his dark days with the Canucks, and Torts is smart enough to realize that the old way that worked so well in New York (and, to an extent, Tampa Bay) doesn’t fly so well these days.
Also, while Torts is an absolute gold mine of great quotes – seriously, can we just get him to an open mic and ask him to riff on his hatred of the Penguins? – his anger feels more like a controlled, homic missile after all those years of being a loose cannon.
With grandfatherly glasses and more gray in his hair, it’s impossible not to feel like Torts has mellowed out a bit.
That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.
When asked about his team, Tortorella made it clear that he wanted them to play a “harder” game, rather than relying so much upon skill. Really, though, Torts wishes the league would bring back some of that sandpaper.
“It’s a little frustrating, quite honestly,” Tortorella said to Darren Pang during a press conference. “[The] game’s changed, and for some dinosaurs in it, it’s very frustrating … Conversations on the ice amongst opponents on a faceoff, it’s like a big hugfest sometimes. I don’t know if they have so many meetings with this NHLPA and all that stuff that goes on but there’s no hate and I miss that. It frustrates the (expletive) out of me.”
This really might be a personal thing rather than a league-wide thing, though. Deep down, Torts might bristle at how lightly physical his team has been; through nine games, Columbus’ 120 hits easily rank as the least in the NHL. The second-lowest is New Jersey, and the Devils’ 140 hits happened in two fewer games.
Apologies to old-school types and/or dinosaurs, but … that’s not really a bad thing.
There are situations where hitting can bring about good things on the ice, particularly regarding forechecking. Still, more often than not, if you’re delivering a ton of hits, it’s probably because you don’t have the puck very often. If you ask me, this great Kent Wilson tweet about block shots also applies to racking up too many hits.
Blocking shots is like killing rats. Doing it is preferable to not, but if you’re doing it all the time it suggests you have bigger problems
There’s ample evidence that the Blue Jackets are doing a good-to-great job of limiting the chances they’re giving up, and possessing the puck more than chasing it, so Tortorella should douse at least some of that fire in his belly (or at least turn the heat to other areas).
And, let’s be honest: the NHL doesn’t change anywhere near as rapidly as many of the other major sports leagues.
People grumble about ticky-tacky roughing the passer calls, policing hits to the head, and the many other ruling obstacles in the way of defense in the NFL, yet plenty of people would argue that the dazzling offense is easily worth it. (Deadspin’s Drew Magary profanely and convincingly argued as much recently.)
And not just because of the way social media can connect people, allowing different players to giggle over silly memes and Halloween costumes. It’s also not just about having the same agents, or being members of the NHLPA.
Player development and international team play feed into the fostering of friendships. Can hockey people really ask players to suit up for their country right after a season concludes and not expect bonds to be formed? It’s pretty silly to ask players to grimace and growl at each other during an 82-game season, especially since NHL teams never hesitate to trade players to teams they once feuded with.
Here’s a thought that should comfort those who are gritting their teeth at friendliness, even after hearing my argument: speed, elusiveness, and very justifiable concerns for head injuries explain a drop in aggression more than any concerns of “hugfests.”
There was plenty of grit, hostility, and hitting during “The Dead Puck Era.” We can’t get in a time machine and relive those times, and frankly, I’m glad, because obstruction-era hockey was agonizingly boring.
So, Torts, just roll with it. That’s my friendly suggestion.