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Habs Get a Much Needed Boost

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The Montreal Canadiens have announced that both Alex Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw will be returning to the line-up on time for tonight’s match-up against the New York Rangers. If that’s not a good news for Habs’ fans, players, coaching staff and management, I don’t know what is.

Galchenyuk, who suffered a knee injury back on December 4th in Los Angeles, has missed the last 18 games. At the time, he was leading the Canadiens in scoring with 23 points in 25 games played and while Phillip Danault has done a great job filling in with 12 points in 18 games, the 22 year old Galchenyuk adds to an already potent Canadiens’ offence.

“I feel like it’s my first game of the season!” ~ Alex Galchenyuk, visibly excited to come back in the line-up.

Shaw was playing his best hockey since joining the Canadiens with a production of 12 points in his last 15 games played, suffered a concussion on a questionable hit to the head from Boston Bruins’ defenseman Torrey Krug back on December 12th. He has missed the team’s last 14 games.

In the absence of Brendan Gallagher, who had surgery to repair a broken hand after suffering the effects of a shot from the point from teammate Shea Weber, Shaw will add some quality depth and grit to the line-up.

The team looked flat and out of juice against the Minnesota Wild and this news of two key players coming back to the line-up will serve as a shot in the arm on a Habs’ team that really could use something positive to happen and that, in spite of keeping an excellent record throughout the injuries.

The lines at the morning skate were as follows:

Pacioretty – Galchenyuk – Radulov
Lehkonen – Plekanec – Andrighetto
Byron – Danault – Shaw
Flynn – Mitchell – McCarron

The team announced that Andrei Markov, suffering from what is believed a groin injury, is not skating, having suffered a set back as he was skating not long ago. David Desharnais is skating while Greg Pateryn is still recuperating from a broken foot. Gallagher had surgery on the knuckle of his left ring finger, one of the two damaged in 2015. More pins had to be inserted to augment the original surgery.

One thing is for sure though, the games are bringing a lot more interest for Habs’ fans with a bit healthier team. What this team has accomplished in the absence of such key components is nothing short of amazing and teams around the league have noticed. The Canadiens currently sit in fourth place overall, four points from the Columbus Blue Jackets who occupy first place and three points from the Washington Capitals in second place. Both those teams have been amongst the healthiest in the NHL so far this season.

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Habs’ Struggles Come At a Price

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It wasn’t pretty. As a matter of fact, it was pretty ugly. Losing a game 7-1, no matter the opponent, the schedule or the injuries, is never a good thing. Yet, the Montreal Canadiens see this loss as a rallying point, as an opportunity to improve and to consolidate what everyone around the organisation already knew: you win as a team and you lose as a team. And that’s what makes winners.

Much was said by fans and media members on Twitter during the game against the Minnesota Wild when Carey Price wasn’t pulled, particularly when he came back to his net after the second intermission. As usual, much of the blame was placed on head coach Michel Therrien, the scapegoat of more than a few, for making that decision but once again, the criticism was without knowing the inside scoop as to what occurred in between periods.

The truth however did come out after the game when it was revealed that the decision was none other than Carey Price’s, who insisted in staying in for the entire game, and that Therrien and the coaching staff wanted to relieve him in favour of Al Montoya.

Price was thinking of Montoya, who was left in a game earlier this season, taking the full blow in a 10-0 beating at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He felt it was only fair that he sees this game through. Yet another sign of a great leader, one who respects his teammates.

“We discussed it, but during the second intermission, he stressed that he wanted to stay in the game. I respect his decision, and I appreciate the fact that he wanted to stay in a tough situation to be alongside his teammates. [Carey’s play] is the least of my worries.” – Michel Therrien

Concerns about Price

I will spare you the stats, they have been published all over the place but in spite of Therrien’s lack of worry, it’s a fact that since the injury to Alex Galchenyuk, the team’s back bone has not performed like he can. You see, through his own play, his own performances, Price has not only raised the bar for himself, but for all goaltenders and any slump will raise concerns, particularly throughout the fan base.

Fans from other teams are rejoicing at the All-Star’s struggles and they are voicing it loud and clear on Twitter during and after games. That hurts the Habs’ fans ego, mine included. But why? Why do we refuse to see that this is normal in a season? Why can’t we simply sit back and acknowledge that this is a very tough part of the NHL schedule for the Canadiens? The team just finished a tough seven game road trip in which, in spite of Price not being at his best, their record was 4-1-2, gathering 10 out of a possible 14 points.

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Carey Price

Because of the bye week granted to the NHLPA to allow rest in exchange for the 3 on 3 at the All-Star Game, teams have to cram more games in an already tight schedule, resulting in risk of injuries, fatigue and lack of practice time. The Canadiens are playing four games this week and next week will be the same. Practice time is exactly what this team needs, particularly when your goalie is struggling a bit, but they simply don’t have time.

Price would want nothing more than to get on the ice with Stéphane Waite and work on a few things in order to get his game back not only where we all know it should be, but where he, himself, wants it to be. The guy is not only a hard worker, he’s a competitor who demands nothing less than perfection from himself. And he will get there folks, don’t you worry. The team will be getting a two day break the following week, then a 4 day break soon after. No Stanley Cup has ever been awarded in January.

Getting players back

With the news of Nikita Scherbak and Bobby Farnham being sent back to the St. John’s Ice Caps, we can read that some healthy bodies will be back on time for Saturday’s game against the New York Rangers. While nothing has been confirmed at the time of writing this, we know that Alex Galchenyuk, Andrei Markov and Andrew Shaw have been skating for a while and a couple of them might be ready, and this is great news for a tired team in need of a shot in the arm.

Top players and role players alike have all stepped up during the time the injury bug has been hitting, but they can only do it for so long. This team had to go pedal to the metal while those key players were out, and getting back into more familiar roles will do a world of wonder to those who have stepped up their game. As we have seen though, it did serve as a great gauge for fans, but mostly for the organisation to see who had what to offer.

Phillip Danault is ready to take on more responsibilities with a bigger role. Michael McCarron has proven that he does belong to the NHL now. Other young players called up have gained in maturity and are closer to earning a role on the big club. Scherbak has had a taste of the NHL, even scoring his first goal, and while he was sent back down, he knows where he is in his development and what he needs to perfect in order to earn a spot permanently.

On display

Let’s get something clear: this is not a rumour, but only speculations on my part. There are a couple of players being showcased right now on the Canadiens’ roster. Nick Kypreos stated that Tomas Plekanec is on the market, news confirmed by Elliott Friedman in his “30 thoughts” on Sportsnet. If that’s the case, Plekanec is doing the Habs a favour, having scored a goal in three consecutive games.

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Tomas Plekanec

It is also my belief that Nathan Beaulieu is being dangled as trade bait. I do believe that the organisation has given up on him and that GM Marc Bergevin is trying to get the most out of him while he still has some good value. He has been playing anywhere between 22 to 28 minutes per game since late December and while it’s true that Markov has been injured, there is little doubt that something is up.

On the Sportsnet broadcast for the game against the Winnipeg Jets this week, they showed Marc Bergevin in conversation with Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff before the game in one of the suites. Two or three times after that, they showed Bergevin on his phone and one time, he was turned sideways, covering his face (and his mouth) to prevent cameras from snooping on what he could be talking about.

Bergevin is working on something and he wants it now. He wants a top-6 impact player and a Top-4 defenseman. Don’t be surprised if he pulls not one, but a couple of trades before the end of the month. He doesn’t like waiting to the deadline, unless he can get a deal like he did for Thomas Vanek or Jeff Petry. Stay tuned…

NHL Player Safety Dropping the Ball

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Claude Lemieux, Sean Avery, Bobby Clarke, Matt Cooke, Dale Hunter, Ulf Samuelsson, Raffi Torres, Steve Downie, Bryan Marchment, Ken Liseman… When reading that list of names, what immediately comes to mind if you are a fan of the NHL? Yes, those players were all dirty, weaselly and underhanded and they have made a reputation with the way they played the game.

But also, all of those guys did, at one point or another, receive lengthily suspensions for their actions and many of them were not protected the way today’s players are, both by the rules and by the NHL itself. Since the new implementation of the Instigator Rule, rats are running free and in spite of a promise from the league to better reprimand the guilty, the powers at be are simply dropping the ball instead. Players have never been as vulnerable to a new race of players: the Rats under the NHL Players’ Safety protection program!

And none is benefiting more from that protection than the biggest rat of all in today’s hockey: Brad Marchand. You don’t believe me? Look for yourself!

So why is the NHL protecting that guy so much? Just before the All-Star break, Marchand was issued a $10,000 fine for his cheap shot on Niklas Kronwall. A week or so later, he shows that he hasn’t learned his lessons and does the same to Tampa Bay Lightning’s defenseman Anton Stralman. And what does the NHL Player Safety do? Nothing. That’s right, no fine, no suspension, nothing!

There has to be something going on here. There have to be Governors around the league wondering why this guy is allowed to do what he does, and players from their own teams are being suspended for what sometimes appear to be much less, and without being repeat offenders! I mean fans, coaches, reporters (other than the Bruins’) are all outraged of what certainly appears to be a huge case of injustice and even favouritism. Does Bruins’ owner Jeremy Jacobs have some compromising pictures of league commissioner Gary Bettman? We know that they are good friends but how can everyone around the NHL not raise a fuss about this?

In the meantime, players can’t defend themselves without putting their team in a very difficult position, in a league where a win or a loss is worth so much due to the parity. And yet, the league itself refuses to protect them! It’s a lose, lose situation… unless you are the Boston Bruins that is.

Habs Silence The Mass

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For about a year now, they were many who predicted and hoped that, by early this season, they would be able to continue on their campaign in hoping that the moves made by the Montreal Canadiens would flop, and ultimately resulting in head coach Michel Therrien being fired. You see, there is a mass waiting in the weeds for the right occasion to say: “I told you so.” And fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, they are still waiting as the team is performing beyond expectations… theirs, that is.

You know why? Because in spite of their anger, Shea Weber is a candidate for the Norris Trophy. Because bringing in Kirk Muller has paid dividends. Because signing Alexander Radulov is proving to be a great move. And because the dressing room is now all pulling in one direction, regardless of the injuries the team has suffered in the first half of the season. The Montreal Canadiens are a team and they, as a team, are proving the nay-sayers wrong.

Oh everything is far from perfect, even the most loyal fan will tell you, and so will the Habs’ brass. There are things that are going well, very well as a matter of fact, and other areas needing a bit more attention. I mean, who in their right mind would have predicted that the Canadiens’ powerplay would be second in the NHL by the All-Star break, and that the team would sit seventh in the NHL in goals for per game, let alone being the fifth best team in the overall standings at this point?

Just how good are the Canadiens?

Here is a look at what the Canadiens have accomplished up until now:

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Let’s now analyse this a bit closer. The powerplay, while inconsistent, is just fine. It’s the penalty kill that needs some major improvement. Not only isn’t it performing the way it had in the past few years, but the team is taking way too many minor penalties. More penalties equals more penalty kills, combined with a low success rate killing penalties means more goals against. The solution to work on? Focus on staying out of the box, particularly cutting on unnecessary penalties, and work on strategies with the players killing penalties.

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Michel Therrien

The team is doing excellent at five on five, amongst the best in the NHL. Not only are their possession numbers good, but their shots attempts are up with the top teams and so is their goaltenders’ saves percentage at even strength. However, they are turning the puck over too much and that, along with the penalties they take, is a huge contributor to the shots allowed per game while impeding their time spent on offense.

If I’m the coaching staff, those are the areas I’m focusing on the most. The rest will take care of itself. Oh and to those wanting Therrien fired after every single team loss, you are not only embarrassing yourselves, but you are making all Habs’ fans look bad. Therrien is being rewarded for his work as he will be representing the Canadiens at the All-Star game, coaching the Atlantic Division’s team.

Habs acquire defenseman Nikita Nesterov

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Nikita Nesterov

Nesterov, a 23 year-old left-handed puck moving defenseman, is joining the team while Ryan Johnston is heading back to St. John’s. The Canadiens gave up prospect Jonathan Racine and a sixth round pick in 2017 for the 5’11, 191 lbs young Russian who has 3 goals, 12 points in 35 games this season with the Lightning. He earns $750,000 this season and is a pending RFA, with arbitration rights, this summer.

This move puts the Canadiens against the salary cap and many are those who believe that this move hides another one coming within the next few days or weeks. We have been speculating on this blog that Nathan Beaulieu could be dangled to fill other holes in the line-up and that move just adds fuel to those speculations. Stay tuned.