MONTREAL — When you think of the Montreal Canadiens, the number 24 and the Stanley Cup, this isn’t exactly it.
But here we are. A Canadiens team that cobbled together the 24th-best record in the NHL this season is being given a chance to play summer hockey after failing to earn a right to play it in the spring. A chance to win the Cup.
Do you believe in miracles?
But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the Canadiens were able to steal a three-to-five-game series away from the Pittsburgh Penguins and go on a healthy run from there.
It wouldn’t be the best thing for the reset Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin started in 2018 — cashing in on a 12.5 per cent chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall or picking ninth would, though — but it would hardly be a bad thing. You know, valuable experience for young players gained in a winning environment and all that jazz…
Before the Canadiens travel to Toronto for that opportunity, they have a 12-day training camp scheduled to start in Brossard, Que., this coming Monday. So let’s freshen up on where they left off in March and take an in-depth look at their team.
Regular season record: 31-31-9 (24th in points percentage in NHL)
Goals for: 208 (19th in NHL)
Goals against: 220 (ninth-most in NHL)
Leading goal scorer: Tomas Tatar/Brendan Gallagher (22)
Leading point scorer: Tomas Tatar (61)
Jonathan Drouin: An ankle sprain kept him out of Montreal’s last game, but he’s healthy and fit to play.
Victor Mete: A broken ankle in late February left Mete in a walking boot throughout the first few weeks of quarantine, but he’s healed and ready to go.
Tomas Tatar: Last played on Mar. 3, and was on his way back to being rehabilitated from a minor upper-body injury when the season was paused. He’s been cleared to play.
Shea Weber: Was playing on a serious ankle injury that is now healed. The captain said a few weeks ago that he’s feeling refreshed and prepared.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: A spleen injury suffered in March was expected to end his season, but he’s fully rehabilitated and prepared to fight for a spot on the Canadiens’ roster.
Player to watch:
Ironic, isn’t it? I know there’s a chance Domi might be deemed unfit to play by doctors who might be too concerned about his pre-existing condition of Type 1 diabetes, which means we might not get to watch him at all. But I believe he intends to play and, given how well he manages that condition, I’m sure he’s hopeful doctors will grant him permission.
If they do, they’re giving all of us an opportunity to see what Domi looks like in a playoff-style game for the first time in his NHL career. And that’s most compelling for a couple of reasons.
First off, the 25-year-old is up for a contract and, after following up a 72-point season in 2018-19 with just 44 points over his 71 games in 2019-20, this is a golden opportunity for him to prove his worth.
Second, here’s a player whose feisty attitude and ferocious playing style would lend well to playoff hockey. We know it has in the past, with Domi scoring 60 points in 58 playoff games over his OHL career with the London Knights and notching 10 points in seven games as part of a gold medal run with the Canadian world junior team in 2015. It’s time to see what he can do now, if he’s permitted to show us.
One interesting stat:
A team that had the most shot attempts, the most shots on net and the second-most high-danger scoring chances in the NHL at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com, would have been considerably better had it scored on more than 7.49 per cent of its shots at 5-on-5.
That the Canadiens ranked 25th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shooting percentage wasn’t the only reason they tumbled down the standings — subpar goaltending for parts of the season, and horrifically bad special teams for most of it, were big chunks of the problem — but it’s hard to see anything else as a more relevant factor in their foibles.
This team lost 22 games by a single goal and allowed an empty-net goal in 11 other games that otherwise would have been lost by a single goal. Scoring on just one per cent more of their shots at 5-on-5 likely would have changed that in a significant way.
Of the 12 teams in the NHL that scored on at least 8.49 per cent of their shots at 5-on-5 this season, only the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks were sitting outside of a playoff spot when the season was paused. And by outside a playoff spot, we mean that the Rangers were two points out and surging, the Panthers were three points out with a game in hand on the Columbus Blue Jackets in wildcard spot No. 2, and the Canucks were only out because of a tiebreaker with the Nashville Predators.
Possible line combinations:
Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Joel Armia
Paul Byron-Max Domi-Artturi Lehkonen
Jordan Weal-Jake Evans-Dale Weise
Extra: Charles Hudon, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, Alex Belzile, Laurent Dauphin
Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber
Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry
Victor Mete-Noah Juulsen
Extra: Cale Fleury, Xavier Ouellet, Karl Alzner, Christian Folin
The biggest question facing the team:
Is the Carey Price factor real?
Not that I have any doubts about what Price is capable of — consider me in agreement with the majority of players who, when surveyed by the NHLPA, said they consider him to be the best goaltender in the NHL — but I am curious as to which Price the Canadiens will get when the puck drops.
Will he be the Price who started off the last two seasons with a .915 save percentage? The Price who was sub-.900 over the last two Novembers? Or the Price who is typically dominant in December and January?
What if he’s the Price who put up a 1.40 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage the last time he played hockey in August — as the starting goaltender for the world cup-winning edition of Team Canada in 2016?
Last time Price was in the playoffs, back in 2017, he posted a .933 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against average. If he can do that again — and if the Canadiens can manage to score slightly more than the 1.8 goals per game they managed against the Rangers in that six-game loss — it could propel his team further than anyone assumes it’ll get this summer.
I’m not sure how to interpret the fact that Price hadn’t faced a single shot from an NHL-calibre player in the time between the NHL paused its season and him stepping back on the ice in Brossard earlier this week. On one hand, you really have to wonder if three weeks of practising can undo months of rust.
On the other hand, rest and health have to be considered major benefits — especially for a goaltender who appeared in an NHL-high 58 games this season.
Any way you slice it, Price owns the key to Montreal’s success. He can’t win a series or the Cup on his own, but the team has virtually no chance without being able to depend on him at the height of his abilities.