How to watch
Start time: 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PM PDT
In the Canadiens region: TSN2 (English), RDS (French)
In the Hurricanes region: FOX Sports Carolinas
Elsewhere: NHL.tv / NHL Live
Officially, the 2018-19 Montreal Canadiens season ended on April 6, 2019, with the team departing the Bell Centre ice all smiles after a Ryan Poehling hat-trick and game-winning shootout goal in his NHL debut. Unofficially, the end of the Habs’ season might have started on March 24 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. Entering the game two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for 7th, and three points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets for 9th in the conference, the Canadiens succumbed to a withering Hurricanes attack. Dropping a 2-1 decision in overtime, they left Raleigh on level pegging with a hard-charging Columbus team that would overtake them for good four days later.
Tale of the Tape
|1-1-1||H2H Record (18-19)||2-1-0|
|54.1% (4th)||Corsi-for pct.||54.8% (2nd)|
|3.00 (14th)||Goals per game||2.96 (16th)|
|2.88 (13th)||Goals against per game||2.70 (8th)|
|13.2% (30th)||PP%||17.8% (20th)|
|80.9% (13th)||PK%||81.6% (8th)|
It’s somewhat fitting then that the 2019-20 Canadiens campaign begins where the 2018-19 one started to unravel. And while the new season will feature many of the same cast members, it already feels different in both hope and expectation. Can the team build upon an unexpected 96-point season and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017?
Canadiens’ management certainly believes that the answer to the latter question is yes, electing to not make significant changes to last year’s squad. Personnel-wise, the squad that will take the PNC Arena ice tonight only differs by four names. Yet those four represent the Canadiens’ continued commitment to incremental improvement.
Free-agent acquisition Ben Chiarot is regarded as an improvement on the versatile-yet-limited Jordie Benn, and Keith Kinkaid is expected to surpass the very low bar set by Antti Niemi. Christian Folin is still on the 23-man roster, but has been supplanted by a superlative training camp had by rookie Cale Fleury. And most surprisingly, the replacement for top-6 forward Andrew Shaw turned out to be prized prospect Nick Suzuki — and it’s to Suzuki’s credit that his inclusion may be the least debated of the four.
The rest of the team are not devoid of their own individual storylines either, with what feels like half the team coming off career years. Can Jeff Petry, Max Domi, and Phillip Danault repeat or improve upon last season? What does the sophomore slump have in store for a bulked-up Jesperi Kotkaniemi? Will Artturi Lehkonen establish his goal-scoring game? Can Victor Mete finally break his duck? And what will become of Jonathan Drouin?
When the schedule was released on June 25 and the Hurricanes were penciled in as the Canadiens’ first opponent, the schedule-makers could have never predicted what Marc Bergevin would do less than a week later. By tending an offer sheet to Hurricanes star and restricted free agent Sebastian Aho, the Canadiens general manager ignited a rivalry between the two teams that had grown dormant since the 2006 playoffs.
The move transcended mere team-building, and aided by a media firestorm, resulted in the questioning of the viability of the Carolina market, the dedication of the team’s fans, the autonomy of Canes general manager Don Waddell, and the commitment and financial capabilities of Carolina owner Tom Dundon. While the immediate ending of that saga was anticlimatic, with the Hurricanes making good on their declared intention to match Bergevin’s offer, the entire affair likely added a chip to the collective shoulders of a “bunch of jerks” already used to disrespect from north of the border.
Aho aside, this is a Carolina team that, like the Habs, is trying to show that last season was no fluke. However, if they are to improve on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Final, they’ll have to do it without a pair of Justins, captain Williams, and defender Faulk. In their stead, the Hurricanes have added Jake Gardiner, Joel Edmundston, Ryan Dzingel, and Erik Haula to an already potent team. Martin Necas, drafted 12th overall in 2017, is ready to make the jump to the NHL, while Andrei Svechnikov will look to take the next step in his career. Finally, Cale won’t be the only Fleury on the ice on Thursday, as brother Haydn looks to cement a position on the blueline that’s been waiting for him for three years.
For the first time, but not the last this year:
Mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen...
Accueillons vos Canadiens!