Montreal Canadiens first half report: An unexpected playoff push

Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Domi, centre, celebrates with teammates David Schlemko (21) and Paul Byron (41) after scoring against the Ottawa Senators. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The real fun begins now.

But before we get to it, let’s look back on a first half of the season that saw the Montreal Canadiens become one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL.

The team that was shut out 12 times last season has scored four or more goals in 16 of its 41 games and has averaged 3.12 goals per game thus far. Only the Western Conference-leading Calgary Flames have pulled out more wins when trailing after two periods. And the Canadiens have beaten some of the NHL’s best teams along the way to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture for all but a few days since the puck dropped in October.

Now Montreal sits in the second wild card position, on pace for 98 points and well in the thick of a very tight race. Not bad, considering most people thought they’d be a draft-lottery favourite this season.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

THE GOOD: EVENS IS A STRENGTH

Montreal’s even-strength numbers are outstanding. The Canadiens rank fourth in the NHL in shot-attempt differential and also rank fourth in five-on-five scoring.

Then there’s the individual performances from their best players.

Max Domi, who came to the Canadiens in the June 15 trade that sent Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes, has 14 goals and 38 points in 41 games. His linemate, Jonathan Drouin, scored his 13th goal in a 2-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks to match his output from a year ago.

Drouin ranks second in team scoring with 33 points. Behind him Tomas Tatar, who was a throw-in to the Max Pacioretty deal, is on pace to break career highs in goals, assists and points with 14-17-31 totals so far.

Jeff Petry is playing the best hockey of his career. He ranks ninth among NHL defencemen in scoring with eight goals and 29 points and did a remarkable job filling in for Shea Weber, averaging close to 25 minutes per game through Montreal’s first 24 games.

Forward Andrew Shaw is dealing with a neck injury right now, but he’s already surpassed his totals from last season. He had 10 goals and 10 assists 51 games a year ago and now has 11 goals and 13 assists in 36 games.

Brendan Gallagher appears poised for another 30-goal campaign, Paul Byron could hit 20 for a third straight season despite missing 14 games with an injury, and Phillip Danault is having a career year. They are three of eight players on pace for at least 40 points, which is something we haven’t seen on a Canadiens team in 24 years.

Perhaps no one on Montreal has been more impressive than Weber, though. The big man returned from a near year-long absence and, after off-season surgery to both legs, has been dominant through 17 games.

Weber has scored five goals and six assists, is a plus-7, averaging 25:36 per game, and the team is regularly registering 40 or more shots and allowing 30 or less. Oh, and they’ve won 11 of the games he’s played.

There’s been no bigger beneficiary of Weber’s return than goaltender Carey Price, who has a .924 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average since Nov. 27.

THE BAD: SPECIAL TEAMS

The penalty kill hasn’t been that bad. In fact, a three per cent bump up would give the Canadiens the 13th-best penalty kill in the league. But there’s obviously room for improvement at 21st overall in the category.

The power play is another story: we’re not sure the Canadiens have ever had a worse one in their 109-year history.

It’s perplexing, really. A team that has all the components, including two excellent coaching minds to craft strategy in Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme, should be able to figure this out.

But so far, nothing has come together. The Canadiens rank 31st in the category, having converted just 18 of 137 chances.

TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD

Are they buyers? Sellers? A little of each, or will they stand pat? You might not find a team in the NHL that’s harder to get a pulse on than the Canadiens right now.

This season was supposed to be about getting younger and faster and trying to make the playoffs while resetting the roster for a brighter future. Standing pat—keeping the chemistry intact and not sacrificing any of their 10 picks in the upcoming draft or their top prospects in the system—seems in line with that plan.

But…

Considering the Canadiens are in a playoff position and just a few power play goals away from climbing up through the NHL’s most competitive division, you have to think general manager Marc Bergevin might have his eye on adding a player or two who can help in that department. The Canadiens are loaded with cap space and can bring in players at the deadline who have salaries that add up to over $40 million, according to CapFriendly.com. That will make the urge to do something all the more enticing.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Up front Carolina’s Micheal Ferland, who’s a pending unrestricted free agent, comes to mind as a player Bergevin might take a swing at. Charlie Coyle, the right-handed centre with one year left on his deal with the Minnesota Wild, could be an option too.

But Bergevin traditionally angles towards hockey trades and tries to acquire players who can help now and in the future.

Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, who is 26 with three years left on his contract ($5.25 million AAV) could prove appealing. And on defence, Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings has been linked to the Canadiens.

Even if Bergevin elects to add, there’s a strong chance he could subtract as well.

Defenceman Jordie Benn is a pending unrestricted free agent with a $1.1-million cap hit and he’s playing as well as he ever has. He’s a player who could potentially haul in a pick if Bergevin decides to sacrifice one in another deal.

Defenceman David Schlemko, who has one more year at $2.1 million, could be had. Forwards Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca are also on the block.

MOST IMPORTANT STORYLINE OF THE SECOND HALF

Price. Carey Price.

If he continues to play as he has since the beginning of December this Canadiens team is going to defy the odds and make the playoffs. But the key to that is to avoid the injury bug, which has already hit him this season.

Price is in Year 1 of an eight-year, $84-million contract, and he’s starting to look a lot more like the guy who earned that deal than the one who stumbled through a horrific 2017-18 season. It’s up to the training staff—and the hockey gods—to keep him healthy and rested.

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