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Canadiens changes to watch for under interim coach Dominique Ducharme – Sportsnet.ca

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Will the real Montreal Canadiens please stand up?

The Canadiens’ first 10 games of the season, they were the best team in the NHL. Their last nine games: 29th.

Montreal’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday was a microcosm of their season to date. A solid first half followed by a disastrous second half. The Canadiens led 3-1 halfway through Thursday’s game and then fell apart. Winnipeg scored five unanswered goals en route to a 6-3 win.

“We cracked,” said the Canadiens newly appointed interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. “We cracked mentally. We cracked physically.”

It all started well enough. In the first period the Canadiens looked like the early-season team that torched their opponents with quick puck movement and speed. Joel Armia scored twice on quick-ups that caught the Jets defence off guard.

That’s the Canadiens team we saw in their first 10 games. A team that played on its toes, not its heels.

When Montreal is attacking as they did in the first 30 minutes of Thursday night’s game, they are a tough team to handle. Montreal led the NHL in rush chances and goals through its first 10 games of the season. It’s no coincidence that when the offence dried up, so too did the wins.

While the Canadiens excelled at creating and capitalizing off the rush early in the season, those chances faded away as their opponents adapted. The Canadiens adapted as well and more or less made up the difference in scoring chances/expected goals by creating offence in different ways. In the final eight games of Claude Julien’s tenure, Montreal ranked third in cycle scoring chances and first in chances off the forecheck and off rebounds. In-zone offence as opposed to the high-volume off the rush opportunities.

The plan to score goals once set up in the offensive zone under Julien was fairly straightforward. Move pucks low-to-high and shoot from the point with traffic in front of the net. Deflections, rebound chances, screens and recovering loose pucks was the name of the game.

While this strategy did produce a fair amount of quality shots due to the sheer volume of shots the Canadiens produced, Montreal struggled to score goals once defending teams were set up in the defensive zone. The Canadiens simply could not convert these chance types at even a league-average rate. It was rush or bust and the rush was gone. Entering Thursday’s game, the Canadiens had scored 39 per cent of their goals this season off the rush. No team relied more on rush offence than Montreal.

Ducharme hinted that the Canadiens’ strategy in the offensive zone would be tweaked, emphasizing more puck support to give the puck carrier more options. We saw examples of this Thursday night. Midway through the first period Jonathan Drouin had a chance to move the puck to the point, but instead tried to pass it into the slot. Moments later, he worked a give-and-go with Nick Suzuki that created a scoring chance.

Late in the second period, Joel Armia has the puck behind the net and looks for Drouin in the slot, but he’s covered. So, Armia works the puck to the blue line, but instead of a point shot from Shea Weber, Drouin makes himself available in the middle of the ice where Weber hits him with a pass. After fumbling the puck, Drouin stick-handles himself out of trouble for a scoring chance.

These are the type of plays Canadiens fans can expect to see more of under Ducharme.

Whether this in-zone adjustment will prove more effective than the low-to-high, volume-shooting approach Julien favoured remains to be seen. One game is a small sample but sure enough, all three of Montreal’s goals against Winnipeg came off the rush.

That said, how Montreal creates its offence may not matter much if the Canadiens can’t do a better job of keeping the puck out of their own net. Defensive breakdowns and an inability to get a timely save cost the Canadiens more than anything in their loss to the Jets. While Carey Price wasn’t the reason Montreal lost the game, the goal he allowed to Nate Thompson that proved to be the game-winner was the type of deflating goal that can sink a team.

“I just think maybe I’m overthinking things,” Price said after the loss.

Perhaps taking some time to recapture his game is what will serve Price and the Canadiens best right now. When he’s on his game, there are few goalies better in the world. So far this season, Price’s performance has been below average, though.

GM Marc Bergevin acquired Jake Allen to give Price something he has not had in recent years: A competent back-up capable of easing Price’s workload when needed. This might be the time for that. Allen has not only outperformed Price in the seven games he’s played this season, he’s been one of the best goalies in the goalie graveyard that is the North Division.

The last stat on the graphic above — goals saved above expected — shows that Allen is saving his team approximately one goal every three games beyond expected, based on the shot quality and quantity he faces. Price is costing the Canadiens roughly a goal every two games. Among 47 qualified goalies, Allen ranks ninth overall in that statistic, while Price ranks 43rd.

It will take more than one game for the Canadiens to familiarize themselves with how Ducharme wants them to play. Certainly more than one game for the team to start executing with a high degree of consistency. A few more saves at key times might be the difference between a win or a loss in the coming games, which is significant for a team that looks as fragile as the Canadiens do right now.

The Canadiens get another crack at the Jets Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. We’ll see which Habs team shows up. The first half team that plays on its toes or the second half version that plays on its heels.

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Clippers look to clean up the little things vs. Knicks

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Taking care of the little things has become a point of emphasis for Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue as his club enters the final week of the regular season.

 

And it will certainly be watched closely during Sunday’s home contest against the New York Knicks.

 

“We’ve been messing around too much,” Lue said. “We have to be a more disciplined, solid team, which we have been all season. But lately we’ve been messing around, playing around with the game a little too much for me right now.”

 

Over the last five games, the Clippers have averaged 16 turnovers a contest, tied for third worst in the NBA. Los Angeles is 3-2 in those contests.

 

The Clippers (45-22) are currently the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with five games left in the regular season. After the Clippers finish a four-game homestand against the Knicks, they will finish the regular season with four games on the road.

 

Los Angeles is 2-1 so far during the homestand. The Clippers defeated the Knicks earlier this season on the road in New York, 129-115 on Jan. 31.

 

The Clippers recently completed a three-game season sweep over their crosstown rivals, rolling the Los Angeles Lakers 118-94 on Thursday.

 

“We’re working on ourselves every day,” Clipper big man DeMarcus Cousins said. “We’re preparing for the long haul, with the playoffs right around the corner. We’re just trying to tune up everything, fix the small mistakes we make on a nightly basis and try to get as close to perfect as we can before this playoff run happens.”

 

New York (37-30) is currently the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks are 2-2 on a six-game road trip that finishes with games against the Clippers on Sunday and the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

 

“These games are just testing us,” Knicks forward Taj Gibson said. “Every game is a test. You can’t just sneak into the playoffs. We’re playing some really good teams right now, and it’s only going to make us better.”

 

The Knicks are only a half-game ahead of the Atlanta Hawks (37-31), the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. New York is looking to hold them off, along with the Miami Heat (36-31) and Boston Celtics (35-32) to maintain home-court advantage in the postseason.

 

All five of New York’s remaining games are against teams headed to the playoffs. With the Knicks in the postseason for the first time in eight years, it’s up to head coach Tom Thibodeau to get his team mentally prepared for the playoffs.

 

“I like these games for our team,” Thibodeau said. “I think it shows us where we are, and what we need to work on. That old saying, ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ And so hopefully we can improve and it will help us down the road.”

 

Thibodeau will continue to be a little shorthanded on the bench, with injured guards Immanuel Quickley (ankle) and Alec Burks (knee) sidelined, along with center Mitchell Robinson (foot).

 

Quickley suffered a sprained ankle earlier this week against the Denver Nuggets. Burks missed eight games earlier due to the league’s health and safety protocols and then suffered a minor knee injury on his return to the floor on Monday that leaves his availability in question. Robinson is out indefinitely after having surgery on his right foot in late March.

 

–Field Level Media

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NHL roundup: Predators clinch playoff berth

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Luke Kunin scored two goals and the host Nashville Predators sealed a playoff spot with a 3-1 win over the Central Division champion Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.

 

Predators goaltender Juuse Saros made 21 saves and held a shutout into the third period in what was a preview of a first-round postseason series. The teams conclude the regular season with a rematch Monday night in Nashville.

 

Kunin scored in the second and third periods for a 2-0 Predators lead. Mikael Granlund assisted on both goals.

 

Carolina’s goal came from Morgan Geekie less than 1 1/2 minutes after Kunin’s second goal, but Erik Haula sealed the outcome with an empty-net tally. Carolina goalie Alex Nedeljkovic made 27 saves while taking a loss in regulation for the first time in his past nine outings.

 

Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 2

 

Toronto overcame a 2-0 deficit with three straight second-period goals to defeat visiting Montreal and clinch the North Division title.

 

The Maple Leafs won the final two regular-season games between the teams to take the season series 7-2-1. Jack Campbell made 21 saves for the victory.

 

Pierre Engvall, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner scored for the Maple Leafs. Brett Kulak and Nick Suzuki scored for the Canadiens, who got 23 saves from Jake Allen.

 

Penguins 1, Sabres 0

 

Jeff Carter scored and goaltender Maxime Lagace stopped all 29 shots he faced to lead Pittsburgh past visiting Buffalo as both teams concluded the regular season.

 

Several hours later, Pittsburgh clinched the East Division and home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins secured first place after they won and the Washington Capitals failed to record a regulation-time victory against the Philadelphia Flyers.

 

The Sabres finished last not only in the East but also overall in the NHL. Buffalo rookie goalie Michael Houser, pressed into the No. 1 role because of a series of injuries, made 22 saves in his fourth career start.

 

Panthers 5, Lightning 1

 

Alex Wennberg scored three goals to lead Florida past Tampa Bay in Sunrise, Fla., and into a two-point lead on the Lightning in the race for home-ice advantage in their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series.

 

The two teams conclude the regular season on Monday. Florida needs one point to clinch home ice; Tampa Bay needs a regulation win. Sam Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau also scored for Florida, and each added an assist. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots.

 

The teams amassed a combined 156 minutes of penalty time and nine misconduct penalties. Luke Schenn scored for the Lightning, and Andrei Vasilevskiy took the loss with 30 saves.

 

Capitals 2, Flyers 1 (OT)

 

Conor Sheary scored with 59.4 seconds left in overtime as Washington defeated visiting Philadelphia.

 

Lars Eller scored with 40 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. On the game-winner, Sheary took a quick pass from Nic Dowd and fired a shot that trickled between goalie Alex Lyon’s pads.

 

The injury-depleted Capitals were even more short-handed in this contest. T.J. Oshie appeared to hurt his knee late in the second period and was ruled out with a lower-body injury, leaving Washington with only 10 forwards during the third period and overtime.

 

Rangers 5, Bruins 4

 

Mika Zibanejad, Alexis Lafreniere and Vitali Kravtsov scored in a span of less than five minutes during a four-goal third period, and New York completed its season with a victory at Boston.

 

Zibanejad scored again late, K’Andre Miller also had a goal and Pavel Buchnevich had three assists as the Rangers snapped a five-game losing streak. Keith Kinkaid had 28 saves before exiting during the third with an injury. Igor Shesterkin stopped seven shots the rest of the way for New York.

 

Nick Ritchie, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron scored for the Bruins, whose six-game points streak came to an end. Charlie McAvoy had two assists and Tuukka Rask stopped 18 shots.

 

Islanders 5, Devils 1

 

Brock Nelson scored twice in a span of 3:40 in the second period as New York scored four unanswered goals in a rout of visiting New Jersey in the final regular-season game at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.

 

Jordan Eberle scored late in the first period, and Nelson struck twice by swatting in a pair of rebounds after New Jersey’s Andreas Johnsson tied the game less than five minutes into the second. Former Devil Kyle Palmieri and Mathew Barzal scored in a span of 37 seconds early in the third as the Islanders halted a three-game losing streak.

 

The Islanders moved within two points of the third-place Bruins. The Islanders visit Boston on Monday night for their final regular-season game, but the Bruins also visit the Capitals on Tuesday night.

 

Senators 4, Jets 2

 

Tim Stutzle posted his first career hat trick to pace visiting Ottawa to a victory over Winnipeg, handing the Jets their sixth consecutive home defeat.

 

Connor Brown also scored and added two assists, Shane Pinto collected two assists and Filip Gustavsson made 27 saves for the Senators. Ottawa, which has long been eliminated from playoff contention, is on an 8-1-1 run.

 

Mason Appleton and Mark Scheifele scored for the Jets, who have lost eight of nine games but remain in third place in the North Division. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck stopped 19 shots.

 

Blue Jackets 5, Red Wings 4 (OT)

 

Max Domi scored with 20.4 seconds remaining in overtime and Columbus won its season finale over visiting Detroit.

 

Domi scored from the slot off a feed from Oliver Bjorkstrand. Cam Atkinson, Bjorkstrand, Eric Robinson and Jack Roslovic scored in regulation for Columbus.

 

Jakub Vrana, Danny DeKeyser, Sam Gagner and Valtteri Filppula scored for Detroit.

 

Wild 4, Ducks 3 (OT)

 

Victor Rask scored with 2:14 left in the extra session to lift Minnesota past Anaheim in St. Paul, Minn.

 

Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Hartman and Nick Bonino also scored, and Cam Talbot made 19 saves for the Wild, who finished 7-1-0 against the Ducks this season. Kirill Kaprizov had two assists for his 13th multi-point game, adding to his franchise rookie records.

 

Rickard Rakell and Max Comtois each had a goal and an assist for the Ducks. Ryan Miller made 21 saves in the final game of his 18-year NHL career.

 

–Field Level Media

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Canada to skip Olympic qualifier due to COVID-19

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Gymnastics Canada said on Friday they have decided not to enter teams in the Pan American Championships being held in Brazil due to health and safety concerns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The June 4-13 event in Rio de Janeiro was Canada‘s last chance qualifier event for the Tokyo Olympics in men’s artistic, women’s artistic, and rhythmic gymnastics.

“We realize the impact these decisions have on our athletes, especially those senior athletes that have dedicated so many years to their ambition of competing at the Olympic Games,” Gymnastics Canada Chief Executive Ian Moss said in a statement.

“We will do everything we can not only to support all athletes and coaches impacted by this decision through this difficult period, but to also provide hope and opportunity moving forward towards their international goals in the future.”

Canada had the opportunity to qualify one more athlete in men’s and women’s artistic, respectively, and one individual and one group in rhythmic gymnastics at the competition.

The event was also a qualifier for trampoline gymnastics, but there is one more chance to qualify for that discipline at a World Cup competition to be held in Italy in the coming weeks.

Athletes and coaches had the opportunity to appeal the decision and Gymnastics Canada said it went through the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada arbitration process with these individuals to show transparency around the decision.

The result of the appeal, which ruled in Gymnastics Canada‘s favour, was delivered to all parties on Thursday.

 

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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