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What’s going on with Carey Price?

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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 using speed to overwhelm opponents

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Heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, the expectations weren’t very high for the Montreal Canadiens. After all, a team that has struggled to score goals five-on-five traded away Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. But thanks to their newfound identity, they’ve managed to exceed all expectations  and boast a 5-2-2 through nine games.

The Canadiens don’t have a superstar up front or an elite player on defense (Shea Weber is still injured), and Carey Price hasn’t even been dominant yet, but they’ve managed to remain competitive thanks to their ability to move the puck quickly. Also, newcomers like Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Xavier Ouellet have fit in really nicely, and they’ve all contributed to the speed the team is playing with.

Not every player on the roster is fast, but Claude Julien and his staff have found a way to change their approach after a horrendous year in 2017-18. Coaching additions like Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson have also helped with that change.

When things are going well for the Canadiens, you can tell by the little time they spend in their own end. Last season, it seemed like they would get hemmed in the defensive zone all the time. Now, their defenders have found a way to move the puck quicker. The fact that the forwards have made themselves more available to receive those quick passes has helped the team get out of their own end with relative ease. Moving the puck allows the Canadiens to play a quick transition game, which eventually leads to some offensive output.

That’s why a veteran like Karl Alzner hasn’t been able to get into the lineup consistently. The Habs have favored skating defensemen like Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, Mike Reilly and Ouellet, and it’s made all the difference.

The other interesting thing about Montreal, is that they can come at you with four lines. Some nights, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tatar will lead the way. Other times, it will be Jonathan Drouin, Domi and Artturi Lehkonen. The team has also used Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Paul Byron together, and they have fourth-line options that include Andrew Shaw, Matthew Peca, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“I wouldn’t say we’re superstars, but everybody is working hard,” Tatar said. “That’s the key. Without that, you’re not able to win a game. We have four lines rolling and everyone is chipping in. That’s a strength for sure.”

Even though they’re coming off a loss in Buffalo last night, no one predicted that they’d have just two regulation defeats in their first nine games, especially because they went up against Toronto and Pittsburgh (twice).

The biggest question mark surrounding the Canadiens is whether or not they can keep this up. Playing fast and being aggressive on the forecheck every night takes its toll on a team. Keeping that in mind, they’re not an overly big team, either, so they might wear down a little quicker, too.

When they hit the dog days of the season, they’ll need Price to be stellar. For now, they just have to find a way to keep this going for as long as they can.

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.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi making case to stick with Habs

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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.

Following knee injury, have we seen last of Max Pacioretty with Canadiens?

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The Montreal Canadiens’ 6-3 win over the New York Islanders on Friday was a costly one. Both Victor Mete and captain Max Pacioretty suffered injuries during the game and have likely seen their seasons come to a close.

Mete is out six weeks after fracturing a finger while Pacioretty will be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a knee injury.

Considering Montreal’s playoff hopes have been gone for some time, have we seen the last of Pacioretty in a Habs uniform?

The 29-year-old Pacioretty still has a year left on his deal, but there’s no question he was available for the right price before last Monday’s trade deadline. He admitted that the questions about his future in Montreal wore on him, and he was glad that he was still a member of the bleu, blanc et rouge.

[What should potential Pacioretty trade look like for Canadiens?]

“It’s no surprise, my name was out there,” Pacioretty said. “I don’t know what else you guys want me to say other than I’m ready to go home and get a good night’s sleep. It’s been an emotional couple of days here and I’m happy to still be a part of this team. Moving forward, everyone has to hold themselves accountable for where we’re at right now, and I definitely do so.”

The Canadiens are in the midst of a retool and it’s anyone’s guess if Marc Bergevin, who reportedly aimed high while seeking out a Pacioretty trade, will still be the general manager by the off-season; so there will be plenty of questions moving forward about how to turn around the team’s fortunes. Montreal has a possible 10 picks in the opening five rounds of June’s entry draft, including four in the second. Those are assets that can facilitate trades to speed up the process.

But would Pacioretty be served better by a fresh start elsewhere or a clean slate in Montreal? He can sign an extension this summer, which would prevent him from entering next season as a pending unrestricted free agent. Now that he’s staying in Montreal for now, it might be a good thing for both player and management to take a step back and wait until the summer before evaluating the future.

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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.

Slumping Islanders hit new low after home loss to Canadiens

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The New York Islanders had been playing some bad hockey of late, but they had a good opportunity to get back on track this week, as they had a home-and-home date with the Montreal Canadiens. Not only did the Isles fail to sweep a team that has been out of the playoff picture for months, they managed to drop both games.

The Habs went up 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 in the first two periods, but the Islanders managed to tie the game each time. In the third frame, Montreal went up 5-3 thanks to goals by Paul Byron and Noah Juulsen (his first NHL goal). The Canadiens added an empty-netter to bury the Islanders by a score of 6-3. Alex Galchenyuk, who played in his 400th NHL game, finished the night with three goals and an assist.

The Isles now find themselves four points behind Columbus for the final Wild Card spot in the East. They’ve also been passed by Carolina and Florida this week. Since beating the Hurricanes on Feb. 16, New York has dropped five games in a row.

Sure, they were without Jordan Eberle (undisclosed) and Casey Cizikas (attending the birth of his first child) tonight, but that’s no excuse to lose a home game to a horrible road team. To top it all off, the Canadiens lost defenseman Victor Mete to injury in the first period and captain Max Pacioretty (lower body) in the third period, and the Islanders still couldn’t get the better of them.

Check out this note that beat reporter Arthur Staple tweeted out before tonight’s game:

General manager Garth Snow added Chris Wagner and Brandon Davidson before the trade deadline, but those moves clearly didn’t give the players in the locker room added hope.

The Islanders will now hit the road for four games in Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Even though three of those four teams aren’t in the playoffs, they still won’t be easy outs.

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.