Monday, February 20, 2017

Weekend wrap: Big changes in Montreal, strange times in St. Louis, high prices in Colorado

This feature runs just about every Monday during the season, maybe about 25 times in all, and one of the things we try to do is spread the attention around. Nobody wants to read about the same teams over and over, so we try to make sure that just about everybody gets some time in the spotlight. If we focus on a given team one week, we try not to come back to it again for another month or two at least. Fair’s fair, and all that.

But sometimes, as we’ll see today, that just doesn’t work. One week ago, we spent a section diving into the slumping Montreal Canadiens and their tenuous hold on the Atlantic Division, so in theory we wouldn’t circle back to them for a while. But after the week they just had, there’s really no way to avoid it, even if it breaks the “don’t focus on the same team” rule.

Then again, maybe that rule doesn’t apply here, because you could argue that the Canadiens are no longer the same team they were a week ago. Tuesday’s decision to fire coach Michel Therrien wasn’t exactly a shock – he was on indisputably shaky ground heading into the bye. But his replacement raised eyebrows. The Canadiens didn’t promote from within or go the interim route, like every other team to fire its coach this year has done. Nope, Marc Bergevin went big, bringing in Claude Julien on what’s rumoured to be a massive contract.

And just like that, there was hope again in Montreal. In a season that seemed to be spiraling into a demoralizing repeat off 2015-16 – unbeatable in October, mediocre beyond, outright free-fall down the stretch – the team had yanked hard on the wheel and skidded into a new direction. Bergevin had delivered a clear message that nothing, be it friendship, loyalty or the bottom line, was more important in Montreal than winning.

Not a bad week for a team that was supposed to be on vacation.

On Friday, it all led to the sight of a practice feeling like a bigger deal than most regular season games. Hundreds of fans showed up to watch the team run through drills. Julien mixed up the lines, answering the prayers of Habs fans by moving Alex Galchenyuk back to centering the top line. And afterwards, key players like Carey Price were talking about the coaching change being a wakeup call.

Add it all up, and you may have expected the Canadiens to come out for Saturday afternoon's game against the Winnipeg Jets looking like the 1977 version. Instead, after a decent start, they fell flat on their way to a 3-1 loss. It was their third straight defeat and seventh in their last eight, and they've scored two or less in all seven of those losses. Combined with Ottawa splitting a pair of weekend games, it left Montreal's lead on top of the Atlantic at just two points.

It wasn't all bad, with Price in particular looking as sharp as he has in weeks. And the Canadiens certainly aren't the first team to look sloppy coming out of the bye. But any hopes that a coaching change would provide the sort of instant turnaround that teams like the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues have seen took at least a temporary blow on Saturday. And the Canadiens are looking more and more like a team that needs exactly that sort of reversal to regain their status as Cup contenders.

Montreal returns to action Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, kicking off a busy stretch that sees them play five times in eight nights. That takes the Canadiens right up to the trade deadline (which Bergevin is suggesting could be quiet) and then it's on to P.K. Subban's homecoming with the Nashville Predators on March 2.

It won't be boring. And when it's all over, we'll know a lot more about this team than we do right now.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.

5. New York Rangers (38-19-1, +43 true goals differential*): They had their six-game winning streak snapped, then responded by knocking off the Caps. They're gaining ground on third spot in the Metro. But based on the playoff format, is that really a good thing?

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (37-16-5, +43): They're off this week, returning to action on Saturday against the Islanders.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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