AP Images

The Buzzer: Tatar’s three-point night; Matthews makes more history

4 Comments

Three Stars

1. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. Two big wins in a row for the Canadiens. Two big nights for Tatar, who now has six points in his last two games. During a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar scored a goal and assisted on two others. Last season, Tatar had only two multi-point games the entire year.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs. Kapanen continued his red-hot start with a pair of goals during the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He now has four goals and eight points through seven games this season, really making most of this opportunity in William Nylander‘s absence.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. A 37-save effort from Anderson helped the Senators dispatch the Dallas Stars 4-1. It was Anderson’s second win in a row and over his last two games he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots faced.

Highlights of the Night

• During their game Monday night, the Senators remembered the late Ray Emery:

• Maxime Lajoie can’t stop scoring. The Senators defensman potted his fourth of the season and now has seven points on the season.

• In his 1,000th NHL game, Tomas Plekanec scored:

• One of Kapanen’s goals was this bank shot:

• Good luck trying to stop this Matt Dumba rocket:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1

Senators 4, Stars 1
Canadiens 7, Red Wings 3
Predators 4, Wild 2

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Penguins’ Schultz leaves game after falling awkwardly on leg

Sportsnet
2 Comments

This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz needed to be helped off the ice after getting hit by Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec.

It wasn’t the hit, per se, that caused the issue, but rather Schultz falling backward awkwardly with his ankle twisted underneath him.

The result wasn’t pretty.

Schultz had four assists in three games coming into Saturday’s action and is a fixture in the Pens’ top four on the blue line, logging 17:34 per game so far this year.

It goes without saying, but the loss of Schultz for any length of time would be a major blow to the Penguins.

UPDATE:


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

How Canadiens can exceed expectations this year

Getty Images
5 Comments

PITTSBURGH — Maybe you looked at the Montreal Canadiens roster at the start of the season and had the same thoughts that I did. Among them: This just isn’t a very good team. Who is going to score the goals out of that group of forwards? What exactly is the long-term plan here? And that defense without Shea Weber to open the year … woof. 

But if there is one thing we should have learned by now when watching the NHL it’s that if there is one sport where seemingly improbable and unthinkable results can happen, this might be the one. Given where this team is coming from a year ago and the roster it is putting on the ice to start this season the Canadiens being a seriously competitive team would probably be a pretty big surprise.

It is important to point out that we are still in the first week of the NHL season, right in the thick of that time period on the schedule where it’s easy to jump to bad conclusions that can make you look like a doofus a few months later when we look back on it. But it’s still better to start the season with some success than it is to start the season without it, and through their first two games it would be fair to say that the Canadiens have done that.

Opening the year with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the best and most talented offensive teams in the league and a couple of Stanley Cup contenders, the Canadiens have managed to collect three out of a possible four points. They turned in their most impressive outing of the two on Saturday night in Pittsburgh when they absolutely demolished the Penguins by a 5-1 margin, leaving Mike Sullivan in a little disbelief as to where his team is in the early stages of the season.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performance on Saturday is that the Canadiens entered the third period with a 4-1 lead, and instead of sitting back on their heels and nursing the lead, they took it to the Penguins, added another goal, and outshot them by a 14-3 margin over the final 20 minutes. It was exactly the way a team should want to close out a game on the road — and you almost never see it happen to that degree and executed with such perfection.

“Well that’s what I wanted from our team,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It was important we didn’t play on our heels and let them come at us.”

So here we are, after two games, and the Canadiens sitting 1-0-1 and looking pretty decent in the process. What would it take for this team to build off of this start and actually exceed their expectations this season?

There are a few things that can help.

The simplest and easiest answer is simply, Carey Price.

We have seen the impact Price can make on the Canadiens when he is at his best and it can be season-altering. But his potential is obvious. It still has to be more than him.

The Canadiens raised some eyebrows early in the season by scratching veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner for the first two games. The result has been a younger, faster team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi being one of the most intriguing young players. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft has been thrown right into the deep end of the pool and he has not yet looked out of place, even if he has been sheltered a bit (which he should be as an 18-year-old rookie). For a team that has been in desperate need of a big-time center, a promising rookie season from him would be a big development no matter what happens for the team in the standings.

They also need big seasons from the veteran forwards they have up front, including Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar. Pretty much all of them have something to prove this season.

Drouin, after being one of the team’s big acquisitions a year ago, had an okay debut season in Montreal but was not really the breakthrough season that many expected.

Domi came to Montreal in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, a trade that at the time seemed to be one-sided in Montreal’s favor given how much of a down year Domi had in Arizona, and how much has goal-scoring has dropped off the past two years.

Then there is Tatar, the main NHL asset acquired in this summer’s Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar has been a consistent 20-goal, 45-point player throughout his career and still has several years of term left on his contract. He is a better player than he showed during his brief time in Vegas, and could be one of the Canadiens’ best players.

But the veteran player that might do the most to help the Canadiens’ form some sort of an identity this season is Paul Byron, recently signed to a long-term contract extension to remain in Montreal after posting back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He was brilliant for the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a pair of goals and setting up Joel Armias’ shorthanded goal late in the second period that was probably the knockout punch for the night.

He was one of the most talked about players in their locker room on Saturday night.

“He’s kind of like the coyote and the roadrunner, right?” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s a guy that disappears pretty quickly. He’s been a good player for quite a while. As I said a few weeks ago am so happy we got him re-signed, he’s a great addition to our team, and not only that he’s wearing a letter because he’s such a great leader. He’s an important part of our team.”

“He’s just consistent,” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “You watch Paul, he’s going to be that way every game. He creates chances with his speed. You talk to anyone that plays with him, plays against him, you have to be aware of him. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and he definitely uses it. Game after game he’s an effective player for us.”

Again, this is just two games — the first two games of the season, no less — and we don’t want to make more out of this than it is at this point.

But you have to start someplace, and even though we don’t quite know what this team is yet the Canadiens probably couldn’t have had two tougher tests to open the year. So far they have passed them with flying colors.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Karl Alzner’s ironman streak will end with healthy scratch

Getty
5 Comments

The big free agent addition for the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2017 was the signing of veteran defenseman Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.125 million contract. Given Alzner’s style of play, the way he seemed to dramatically decline toward the end of his time in Washington, and the direction the NHL is moving in terms of style of play from the blue line it was, to say the least, a curious move.

Just one year in things are not going as the Canadiens may have planned.

After a difficult debut season in Montreal, Canadiens coach Claude Julien announced on Wednesday that Alzner will be a healthy scratch for the team’s season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“They’re never easy decisions,” Julien said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s two things happening there to those players, but I think at the end of the day we’re all mandated to do what’s best for the team first. That doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with certain things, but at the end of the day that’s what we’re all here for, including those players.”

This is a significant move because it will be the first time since the 2009-10 season that Alzner has missed a regular season game, putting an end to his 622-game ironman streak that is currently the 11th longest in NHL history.

It also has to be concerning for the Canadiens that Alzner — who still has four years and more than $19 million remaining on his contract — isn’t viewed as one of the six best defenders for the opening night lineup on a team that not only isn’t particularly good or deep defensively, but is already playing without its best defender in Shea Weber.

[Related: Shea Weber named 30th captain in Canadiens’ history]

Alzner isn’t the only veteran that will be a healthy scratch for the opener.

Long-time center Tomas Plekanec, who returned to Montreal on a one-year contract this summer after being traded to Toronto at the deadline, will also be a healthy scratch.

The Canadiens are going with Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Matthew Peca, and 2018 first-round pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle.

General manager Marc Bergevin refuses to utter the word “rebuild” when it comes to the 2018-19 team, but the opening night roster certainly seems to indicate the team might favor youth this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi making case to stick with Habs

AP Images
4 Comments

The Montreal Canadiens have been dying for a number one center for over two decades. Many centers have come through Montreal, but very few have been able to stick. Sure, there was Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Tomas Plekanec and a few others, but the Habs have been one of the weakest teams in the league when it comes to depth down the middle. That might not be the case for much longer.

Enter Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The one good thing about the Canadiens’ miserable 2017-18 season, is that they ended up with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. They used that selection to draft the Finnish product, who is a center. As excited as fans were about adding a center to the pipeline, many expected Kotkaniemi to head back to Finland after this year’s training camp.

After he struggled in his his first Rookie Showdown game against the Ottawa Senators at the beginning of the month, everyone was quick to point out that he was at least a year away from being a contributor at the NHL level. But once the preseason began and Kotkaniemi got to play with better players, he was able to elevate his game.

In his first exhibition game, the 18-year-old did this:

Even though he’s had success throughout the preseason, people were still split about keeping him in the NHL this season. So, when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they were coming to town with their A-lineup last night, everyone pointed to this game as a kind of measuring stick for Kotkaniemi’s ability to play in North America.

With Max Domi still out because of a suspension, Kotkaniemi got to center the top line with Jonathan Drouin on his left and Artturi Lehkonen on his right. Going up against Auston Matthews for most of the night, the kid did alright. It’s abundantly clear that he needs to get stronger, but it’s also obvious that he has the hockey sense to play in the NHL right now. He’s capable of playing effective hockey with and without the puck, which is pretty impressive for a player that just turned 18.

He also helped set up this Brendan Gallagher goal by making a nice pass to Victor Mete:

After the game, it was obvious that head coach Claude Julien was impressed with the way the rookie performed.

“In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster the way he’s played, the way he’s handled himself and all of that stuff,” Julien said after the game against Toronto, per Sportsnet. “I’m the coach, and we have management, and we’ll all sit together and make that decision obviously after Saturday’s game. But he’s showing us a lot of good things and it’s pretty hard not to see him with our group.”

The Canadiens have one preseason game remaining before they have to decide whether or not they’ll have Kotkaniemi on the opening-night roster. Even if they do keep him around, it’s just one of the hurdles he’ll have to climb to stick around all season. Once the campaign kicks off, he’ll have to show that he’s able to play at a high level on a nightly basis.

One thing is for sure, Julien, Marc Bergevin and the rest of the organization have an interesting decision to make in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.