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Canadiens defy low expectations with surprisingly solid first half

Fresh approach, smart trades, healthy Price help Montreal improve following disappointing 2017-18 season

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- "A lot of people expect us to be the worst team on the planet," Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said with a tight grin over an early September lunch, the 2018-19 NHL season still a month away.

Well, a lot of people's expectations then have been proven wrong at the midway point of the schedule. 

After 42 games, Molson and a famously fair-weather fanbase awoke Sunday with the Canadiens not the League's doormat, but one single point out of the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. 

Following a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators at Bell Centre on Saturday, the Canadiens are 22-15-5, fifth in the eight-team Atlantic Division, one point behind the Buffalo Sabres for fourth, three behind the Boston Bruins for third. A year ago at the halfway point of the season, the Canadiens were 18-20-4, heading to a finish of 29-40-13, sixth in the Atlantic and out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It is a long second-half road to the playoffs, but the path back to credibility has thus far been a success, and the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer an oncoming locomotive.

"I liked the first half, I liked the direction we went as a group," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said before the game Saturday. "I liked the attention, the desire to get better from our group of players. We still feel we're a young team, although we've got some good veterans. It's just about sticking together and trying to get better in all areas."

Video: Smith scores twice for Predators in 4-1 win

Five hours later, Julien unhappily addressed his team's loss to the Predators, who were defeated 4-3 in overtime by the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, then came into Montreal to dominate their fresh-legged host.

"We got outplayed from start to finish" Julien said. "They had a tough loss (Friday), they felt they didn't play well, so there was a little bit of anger in their game. They were sharp, they were good, and we didn't seem to have a response. Tonight, I thought we were soft, losing battles, second to the puck everywhere and from start to finish.

"You can't just come in and play, you've got to play with a purpose, play with an edge. You've got to want to be better than the other team and that wasn't the case tonight."

It is worth noting that Saturday's play and effort is more indicative of last year's team than this. In fact, despite an offseason where every talk-show caller in Montreal told them what to do, Julien and his bosses, Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin, have pushed most of the right buttons on their own, so far, this season.

Molson's worst-on-the-planet gallows humor was spoken six days before the Canadiens' annual charity golf tournament would lift the curtain on the 2018-19 season, five days before captain Max Pacioretty would be traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Canadiens fans were still fuming over the June 15 trade that had sent fan favorite Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for fellow forward Max Domi. Enormous question marks were the health of goalie Carey Price and defenseman Shea Weber, who on Oct. 1 would replace Pacioretty and be named the Canadiens' 30th captain.

Yet both trades have worked out well for the Canadiens. Domi, the center on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, is Montreal's leading scorer with 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists). Tatar has 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) and plays wing with Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens' leader with 15 goals, on the first line centered by Philip Danault.

Video: OTT@MTL: Domi nets second goal on wrister from circle

And Price is having a strong rebound season after an uneven start, now at 16-11-4 with a .908 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average. He is the Canadiens' representative at the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game in San Jose on Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Then there's Weber, who returned from offseason foot and knee surgery for Montreal's 25th game and has provided the towering leadership and presence on defense the team expected when it acquired him from the Predators on June 29, 2016 in a trade for fellow defenseman P.K. Subban.

It's no secret the special teams need a stronger second half if the Canadiens are to play beyond the regular season. As of Sunday, their power-play was ranked 30th at 13 percent, ahead of only the Columbus Blue Jackets (12.9 percent). Montreal's penalty-kill ranked 22nd at 77.8 percent.

The better news is that the Canadiens are dramatically improved from last season in scoring. They're ranked 12th in the NHL with 3.07 goals scored per game, up from 29th last season with a 2.52 output. However, their goals against is almost identical, 3.14 this season, 3.15 last.

There have been many bright spots, enough that Julien, supported this season by new assistants Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson, didn't want to get into specifics Saturday lest he not mention someone who deserved praise.

"That's why we're where we are right now," he said. "There's been a lot of pleasant surprises. We're not where we are right now because of one guy but more about a group thing."

Julien could have mentioned that 18-year-old rookie center Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been a revelation with 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) which is tied for third among League rookies, that defenseman Jeff Petry was more than solid while Weber was sidelined and has 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) which is 11th for NHL defensemen, and that Domi and Tatar have delivered in their inaugural season in Montreal.

Video: WSH@MTL: Kotkaniemi beats Holtby for first NHL goal

If expectations were low outside the Canadiens dressing room a few months ago, Weber says that was hardly the case inside.

"We probably expected a little bit better," he said Saturday. "I think we're in a good position going into the second half, but this is really when the good teams come to play. Things really tighten up, defense tightens up, the games are a lot tougher going into the second half of the year."

The path continues this week with four games in six nights, two at home, two on the road.

"We're still adding things to our game that we want to get better at," Julien said. "The second half is going to be about commitment and really trying to battle through a tough schedule with teams that have been through it before that have more experience."

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