Phillip Danault

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.

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.

Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive

Raise your hand if you expected the Montreal Canadiens to be sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division after 51 games this season. Anybody? I didn’t think so.

After finishing 28th in 2017-18, expectations for the Habs this year were fairly low. They traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, and they were without Shea Weber for the first two months of the season. So you can understand why no one thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have really helped. Carey Price‘s performances in December and January have also propelled the Habs up the standings and career year’s from Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault and a few others haven’t hurt, either.

But one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens have had so much success, is because head coach Claude Julien has them playing faster than ever. They’re at their best when they’re aggressive on the puck and on the forecheck. Julien has admitted that this edition of the Canadiens isn’t the most talented or skilled, but when they work hard, they know they can go head-to-head against anybody.

“We’re a team that came into this season with the intention of changing the perception of our hockey club and what’s expected of us,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette after his team dropped an ugly home decision to the Boston Bruins in December. “And the only way we could do that was to go out and compete hard and that was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do and that’s the No. 1 thing I think people appreciated from our team. We’re a fun team to watch, we competed hard, and lately it’s just been on and off. We can’t think that all of a sudden we’re a skilled team and we can get away with just half efforts because this is too good of a league. With the parity, you’re not going to survive that way.”

And that consistently aggressive forecheck might not be easy to maintain, but they know that when they’re able to execute on that part of their game, they can force their opponents into making mistakes.

“We put a lot of pressure on teams and when you can close on a player, you force him to make decisions quickly,” Paul Byron said back in October, per the Gazette. “When you have the forwards we have — Max (Domi), myself, Artturi (Lehkonen) — pressuring the other teams it forces them to make mistakes and cough up pucks. We want to get on them fast. The more we can take time and space away from the them the more advantageous it is for us.”

Adding Luke Richardson to the coaching staff has also helped change the identity of the Canadiens. Richardson has found a way to get his group of defensemen into the rush to help create offense.

Here’s an example of Petry not being shy about handling the puck deep in the offensive zone:

The defense has also just played faster in the way they skate with the puck and move the puck, which has led to an increase in puck possession and quality scoring chances.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens are the fourth best possession team in the league behind San Jose, Carolina and Vegas. They’re also fifth in FF%, sixth in SF%, sixth in GF%, and sixth in SCF%. Those are impressive numbers considering they don’t have a superstar forward like a lot of the other teams around them in the standings. Julien has put his team in a position to succeed and he’s done it by using all five skaters on the ice.

Even though there isn’t one specific way to measure this, it’s become increasingly clear that they’ve found a way to shoot from more dangerous areas on the ice. Last season, the Canadiens outshot their opponents fairly regularly, but a lot of those pucks came from the perimeter, where you just won’t score often enough. Now, they aren’t shy about getting to the dirty areas to make life more difficult for the opposing goaltender.

If Julien’s team can continue to hold on to the puck as much as they do, while getting incredible goaltending from Price, the Habs will continue to have success.

Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? No. But they’re way ahead of where many expected them to be at this point in their re-tool project.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Fixing Oilers most difficult NHL task; Datsyuk return?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Fixing the Edmonton Oilers is the most difficult task in the NHL. (TSN.ca)

• Player and puck tracking and today’s NHL. (The Canadian Press)

• He’s 40 and hasn’t played in the NHL for the past three seasons, but Pavel Datsyuk is open to a return to the NHL. (TSN.ca)

• Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice never content to rest as a head coach. (NHL.com)

• A quick look at every general manager in the NHL. (The Hockey News)

Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens MVP? The case is there to be made. (Montreal Gazette)

P.K. Subban — veteran NHLer, rookie television producer. (Forbes)

• Where do the Penguins currently sit among the NHL’s Stanley Cup contenders and pretenders? (Pensburgh)

Ondrej Kase to have season-ending surgery, out five-to-six months. (OC Register)

• When Mario Lemieux had his best-ever NHL season. (CBC)

• Go big or go home: Islanders should be aggressive through the trade deadline. (Lighthouse Hockey)

Brayden Point is going to get paid. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Will anyone hire Peter Chiarelli now? (Edmonton Sun)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck