How to watch
Start time: 7:30 PM EST / 4:30 PM PST
In the Canadiens region: TSN2 (English), RDS (French)
In the Canucks region: Sportsnet Pacific
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/Rogers NHL Live
On January 1, 2018, the Montreal Canadiens were 16-19-4, having just recorded their fourth loss in a row (a 2-0 decision against the Florida Panthers) and on their way to making it five in a row the next day against the San Jose Sharks. With 36 points, the Habs sat sixth in the Atlantic Division, 12 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the division and eight points behind the New York Islanders for the second wild-card spot.
Tonight, on January 3, 2019, the Canadiens will enter their first game of the new year with a 21-14-5 record and 47 points to their name. Yes, they’re still fifth in the division, but they sit in the second wild-card position, and only a single point behind the third-place Boston Bruins.
Tale of the Tape
|54.3% (4th)||Corsi-for pct.||47.4% (25th)|
|3.15 (11th)||Goals per game||2.95 (16th)|
|3.20 (23rd)||Goals against per game||3.12 (21st)|
|13.4% (29th)||PP%||18.6% (20th)|
|76.6% (27th)||PK%||77.5% (21st)|
It’s no understatement to say that the Habs have exceeded all expectations so far in the 2018-19 season. Realistically, the pundits could hardly be faulted for thinking that a team already lacking in offensive options would struggle further to put the puck in the net after trading their two best pure goal-scorers in the off-season. Yet, fueled by new acquisitions Tomas Tatar (14 goals) and Max Domi (14) alongside a resurgent Jonathan Drouin (12) and stalwart Brendan Gallagher (15), these Habs have a full 28 more goals than last year’s squad.
Defensively, despite the extended absence of new captain Shea Weber and inconsistent play from both Carey Price and Antti Niemi, the Canadiens are roughly on par with last season, allowing only six additional opposition tallies. Jeff Petry has done yeoman’s work in Weber’s absence, but the Canadiens’ blue line is still finding itself, as the likes of Mikey Reilly, Victor Mete, and Brett Kulak gradually fill minutes occupied by the likes of Karl Alzner and Joe Morrow the season prior.
Fresh off a six-game road trip that could have potentially derailed their season, the Habs will open up 2019 against another team rising to the challenge and punching above their perceived weight. After finishing last and second-last in the division in consecutive seasons, the Vancouver Canucks were largely predicted to once again finish in or near the division cellar, with the primary question being whether the Arizona Coyotes had done enough in the off-season to surpass Canada’s west coast team. Canucks fans girded themselves for the prospect of drafting Jack Hughes, but unknownst to them (and to everyone except perhaps Patrik Bexell), they already had a dynamic rookie capable of making a difference by himself.
Elias Pettersson has taken Vancouver and the league by storm in his rookie campaign. With 22 goals and 42 points in only 37 games, the native of Sundsvall is 11 goals ahead of Andrei Svechnikov and 17 points ahead of Colin White in the rookie goal- and point-scoring races, respectively. It’s a superlative start to what will hopefully be an long and thrilling NHL career, one that has landed the 2017 fifth overall draft pick in his first All-Star Game, and has the Canucks sitting a mere two points out of the second wild-card position in the Western Conference with a record of 20-19-4.
It hasn’t been all Pettersson, though. Vancouver has also received stellar seasons from Bo Horvat, only 17 points off a career best with half a season to play, and Brock Boeser, following up a near-point-per-game rookie season with more of the same in his sophomore year.
The Canucks do fall off after that, as could be reasonably expected from a team originally expected to finish in the cellar. Jake Virtanen is the only other member of the team with double-digit goals, but it’s a testament to his ceiling that 18 points in 42 games could be considered a breakout season for the youngster. Beyond Virtanen, Sven Baertschi has chipped in with seven points in 12 games, Loui Eriksson continues to struggle to justify his hefty price tag, and off-season acquisitions Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle, while not exactly known for their offensive prowess, have only a combined five goals.
Vancouver has already shown resilency in this young season, recovering from a November swoon where they won a single game in a 13-game stretch with nine wins in the next 13, including a 4-3 overtime victory (featuring a Pettersson hat-trick) over the Ottawa Senators last night in the first game of their eastern roadswing.
The Canadiens need look no further than their own reflections to understand the risks of underestimating a team with no expectations and no pressure. They’ll need to match and exceed what Vancouver will bring to the Centre Bell if 2019 is to start on a winning note.