Shea Weber knows the Montreal Canadiens were given new life when the NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26.
The Canadiens (31-31-9) had a .500 points percentage in the regular season, the lowest of the 24 teams participating in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. They were 10 points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff position with three teams ahead of them and 11 games remaining when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Montreal will play the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-5 series, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
“Obviously there is a format in place, and everyone knows that there’s still a lot of work to be done and so much uncertainty still,” Weber, the Canadiens captain, said Tuesday. “But whatever happens here … it was a tough season for us. If it turns out we’re going to be playing here, it’s obviously a huge opportunity for us, a second chance or opportunity that we wouldn’t have had.”
The Canadiens were 1-1-1 against the Penguins this season. Pittsburgh went 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage) despite playing much of the season without forward Jake Guentzel after he had shoulder surgery Dec. 31 and missing forwards Sidney Crosby (28 games), Evgeni Malkin (14) and Patric Hornqvist (17). Guentzel is expected to be ready when play resumes.
Much of the core remains from Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup championship teams in 2016 and 2017. Weber, forwards Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen, defenseman Jeff Petry and goalie Carey Price are the holdovers from the last time Montreal made the playoffs, a six-game loss to the New York Rangers in the 2017 Eastern Conference First Round.
“It’ll be a test for our group, for sure, especially with a lot of guys that haven’t been given that playoff experience,” Gallagher said May 28. “We’ll see how we stack up. To say we go in there without confidence or without belief wouldn’t be true. If there’s one thing I know about our group, it’s that if we are given that opportunity, it’s something that we’d welcome.”
Weber has been home in Kelowna, British Columbia, since the pause. The defenseman has kept up with his training program by using a home gym and has skated at a local rink. The Canadiens have yet to open their practice facility in Brossard, Quebec, and most of the players have stayed in their local areas to train because of the quarantine rules in effect in Canada.
Training camps could open no earlier than July 10 as part of Phase 3 of the Return to Play Plan. Phase 2, which allows for limited workouts at team facilities, began Monday.
“Honestly, I don’t think we feel any pressure,” Weber said. “It’s hard to compare because there’s never been something like this, but everyone’s expected to show up to training camp in shape and ready to go. I think it’s no different now. You talked about guys being together. I think they’re skating in smaller groups. I’m not sure exactly how much you can do together out there to really to get a whole lot out of it. Whatever the case is, guys are going to be ready and no question be ready to go.”
Weber was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually by the Professional Hockey Writers Association to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey, it was announced Tuesday. The three-time finalist in voting for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually the NHL’s best defenseman, led the Canadiens with an average of 24:00 of ice time per game and scored 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in 65 games, missing six with a left ankle injury sustained Feb. 4 that was projected to keep him out 4-6 weeks. A broken left foot limited Weber to 26 games in 2017-18, and he did not return until Nov. 27 the following season.
“I think that in order for me to try and get back to where I was, I had to believe that I could do it and I had beliefs all the time,” Weber said. “It’s mentally hard and it’s draining at points, especially when you think you’re kind of stuck in the mud or not really going anywhere as far as your recovery, but belief never ended. That’s one of the biggest factors I think for a lot of people, just having that belief system and knowing that you’re able to do it.”
The odds are expected to be against the Canadiens, but Weber is determined to help them make the most of their opportunity.
“The two months off has helped everybody, myself included, getting healthy, all the nicks and bruises, especially that one,” Weber said. “It feels good, as close to good as possible.”