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Carey Price, Claude Julien help Canadiens clinch

Goaltender's superb play, coaching change pivotal in Montreal's return to playoffs

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

The Montreal Canadiens have undergone a drastic transformation after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a season ago.

Defenseman P.K. Subban, center Lars Eller, goaltender Mike Condon and coach Michel Therrien are gone. Defenseman Shea Weber, forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw, goaltender Al Montoya and coach Claude Julien are among the new faces who arrived. Each has made an impact.

General manager Marc Bergevin's intent was to change the culture in the dressing room, and his primary goal in doing so was achieved Thursday when the Canadiens clinched a berth in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 6-2 win against the Florida Panthers.

Related: Canadiens motivated by missing playoffs last season

Weber has bounced back from a difficult season with the Nashville Predators, scoring 17 goals and shutting down the opposition's top forwards on a nightly basis. He's also become a respected voice with an aura of professionalism that's difficult to quantify.

Radulov, signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Kontinental Hockey League, is second on the Canadiens with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists). He's also provided an infectious enthusiasm that has made him popular with his teammates.

Montreal has 97 points with five games remaining and owns the inside track to win the Atlantic Division. The Canadiens have a six-point lead on the Ottawa Senators and an eight-point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who each have six games to play.

That's a far cry from a year ago, when Montreal finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Here are five reasons why the Canadiens were able to turn it around and get back to the playoffs:

 

Carey Price

Many teams would struggle if they lost their best player for most of the season, as the Tampa Bay Lightning learned when center Steven Stamkos was injured on Nov. 15.

Price injured his knee on Nov. 25, 2015, and the Canadiens took a nose dive, or fell flat on their faces, as Bergevin described it. But they have their goalie back now, and Price is the major reason why Montreal is back in to the postseason.

Price is fourth in the NHL in save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23) and fifth in wins (36) after overcoming his worst two-month stretch of hockey since he lost his starter's position with Montreal in 2009-10.

The Canadiens feel different playing in front of Price. He undeniably is their leader and no one would contest that, not even captain Max Pacioretty.

Video: FLA@MTL: Price denies MacKenzie's shorthanded break

 

'The Fixer'

Julien was hired to replace Therrien on Feb. 14; Montreal had a comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division but signs of trouble were evident. The Canadiens had lost six of seven games and had six regulation wins in their previous 26 games when Julien took over. He immediately went to work.

"I don't panic," Julien said recently. "I fix things."

That quote has led to some fans in Montreal calling Julien "The Fixer," because the Canadiens have been a different team under him. After losing two of their first three games under Julien, the Canadiens have gone 12-3-1 since in their next 16.

 

Penalty kill plugs holes

One of the first things Julien fixed was the penalty kill, a unit that was ranked 22nd in the NHL at 79.4 percent. He took a passive system that gave far too much time and space to opposing power plays and revamped it into an aggressive, puck-pressure system that forces foes to make decisions quickly.

It has worked: The penalty kill under Julien is running at 87.2 percent, fifth-best in the NHL during that span.

Most of Price's struggles from mid-December to mid-February could be attributed to that porous penalty kill. His even-strength save percentage at the time of the coaching change was .934, but his save percentage on the penalty kill was .852, 25th in the NHL among goalies who had played at least 25 games through Feb. 14.

Since Julien arrived, Price's even-strength save percentage has improved slightly, to .944, but he is stopping pucks on the penalty kill at a .929 clip, fourth in the NHL among goalies who have played at least 10 games.

 

The captain comes alive

Pacioretty got off to a slow start this season; he had 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in his first 24 games. On Dec. 4, top center Alex Galchenyuk injured his knee in a 5-4 overtime win at the Los Angeles Kings, taking him out of the lineup for six weeks at a time when he was 11th in the League in scoring with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 24 games.

Pacioretty had two goals and an assist in that game to start a run of 22 points (15 goals, seven assists) in 20 games. He scored his 35th goal of the season against the Panthers on Thursday, the third time in four seasons he's reached that mark.

But Pacioretty came through when his team needed him most.

Video: FLA@MTL: Pacioretty rips a one-timer on odd-man rush

 

Positive reinforcement

Though Julien instituted several tactical changes that have proved beneficial, perhaps his biggest impact has been to get the Canadiens to believe in themselves again.

Julien insisted from Day 1 that he was taking over a good team that simply needed a boost in confidence. He did that by making sure each individual player felt good about himself.

Pacioretty recently went through a stretch of six games without scoring a goal, so Julien pulled him aside and told him that he already had 33 goals this season, a number the vast majority of NHL players would dream about, so don't worry about scoring and just go play.

Pacioretty has scored in each of his past two games.

"One thing that I've really liked is he's kind of shown me I'm more important to this team than just offense," Pacioretty said Thursday. "That's a good feeling because you know there's other ways to contribute.

"As long as the coach feels you're helping the team win in other areas, if your teammates feel that way, that's a good feeling. That's why I was able to go six games and not score but feel like I was contributing because he felt I was and he said I was. Having him back me like that allowed me to break through."

That's just one example of the tangible benefits Julien's positivity has had. The Canadiens feel good about the way they are playing heading into the playoffs, and the change in attitude has played a big part in that.

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