Down Goes Brown Saturday Storylines: ‘Must not lose’ game for Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) reacts after letting in a goal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

It’s another busy Saturday night on the NHL schedule, one highlighted by some big stars out west and some big-time desperation in the east. We’ll also take an early look ahead to the deadline and draft lottery, and a look back to a time in the distant past when the Penguins had the best player in the world and won two straight Cups. The more things change…

HNIC Game of the Night: Capitals at Oilers

It’s been a week of marquee matchups for the slumping Oilers. After visiting Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Tuesday and beating Jamie Benn and the Stars on Thursday, they welcome the Capitals tonight in what will be the fourth head-to-head matchup between Connor McDavid and Alexander Ovechkin.

(I mean, it’s a centre and a winger, so it’s not really a head-to-head matchup. But the NHL has enough trouble with the whole marketing-its-stars thing, and McDavid vs. Backstrom doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, so let’s go with it.)

Seeing Crosby and Ovechkin in the same week is an interesting glimpse into what the future could hold for McDavid. On the one hand, you have Crosby, the can’t-miss prospect who went out and won just about everything a player could possibly win, including three Stanley Cups (and counting). That might not be McDavid’s best-case scenario, since he’s one of the few players who seems like he has a shot at actually surpassing Crosby’s accomplishments, but it’s close.

Then there’s Ovechkin, the can’t-miss prospect who went out and won just about everything a player could possibly win… except for those Stanley Cups. That’s hardly his fault alone, and it’s hard to blame a guy who may go down in history as the greatest era-adjusted goal scorer ever. But if you’re an Oilers fan, seeing Ovechkin and the Capitals show up can serve as an uneasy reminder that lucking into a generational star – even one who lives up to all the hype – doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a championship.

When the schedule first came out, we may have also circled this matchup as a possible Stanley Cup preview, although it doesn’t look much like one right now. The Capitals have just two regulation wins on the year, and one of those came against the Canadiens so it barely counts. The Oilers have been about as bad; Thursday’s win was their first in regulation since opening night. The two teams have come at their slow start from opposite angles; the Caps can score but can’t keep the puck out of their net, while the Oilers have had decent goaltending from Cam Talbot but are shooting under six per cent as a team.

There is good news buried in those numbers for both teams. The Oilers have too much offensive talent to keep struggling like this for long, so the puck should start going in soon enough. And even with a depleted blue line, the Caps aren’t likely to go from the Jennings Trophy to a 3.00+ goals-against in one year. Braden Holtby had been fine until the Canucks game; it’s backup Philipp Grubauer who’s dragging down the numbers, so one way or another this is unlikely to be a long-term problem. Both teams should be OK. It’s just a question of when, and how much ground they’ll have to make up.

Maybe the rebound comes tonight for one of them. Either way, it should be a fun game between two teams with plenty of talent, lousy penalty killing, and just enough notches in the early-season loss column to create a sense of urgency.

Speaking of which…

Key subplot: Desperate times

Is it too early to have a must-win game? It has to be. It’s not even November yet, and we’ve got 70+ games left to go. There’s no such thing as a must-win in October.

So instead, let’s call tonight’s Rangers/Canadiens game a “must not lose.” Because man, whichever team loses this game is going to be in rough shape.

We’ve covered both teams’ struggles in recent days, including Alain Vigneault’s shaky job security and Montreal’s vaguely encouraging underlying numbers. Both teams picked up a win this week, with the Canadiens beating the inconsistent Panthers on Tuesday and the Rangers topping the flat-lining Coyotes on Thursday. One win in a week isn’t much to get excited about, but when your season is slipping away you take what you can get. And one of these two teams is going to get a second win tonight.

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It’s the second meeting on the year between the two teams. When they met on the season’s first Sunday, the Rangers earned a 2-0 decision on the strength of 34 saves by Henrik Lundqvist. When that game ended, both teams were sitting a 1-2-0. It was a simpler, happier time. Both teams immediately went on five-game losing streaks.

The Rangers at least come into tonight with a little bit of momentum, having won two of three and posting at least a point in four of five. The Canadiens are coming off another shutout loss, this one to the Kings, and were booed off the ice by the Montreal crowd on Thursday. They’ll be in front of those same fans tonight, and you can imagine what the reception will sound like if they can’t put at least a few pucks past Lundqvist. Oh, and they’re embroiled in another off-ice controversy, because this is Montreal.

Both teams enter tonight’s game sitting in last place in their division, and the Canadiens are guaranteed to stay there, even with a win. But a season-long comeback has to start somewhere, and two points are two points. Even if you have to take advantage of a last-place team to get them.

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Marquee matchup: Nico Hischier vs. the Coyotes

It’s fair to say that the season is going pretty well for Hischier and the Devils. Written off by almost everyone before the season even started, New Jersey is off to a 7-2-0 start that has them nipping at the heels of the Penguins for top spot in the Metro. And Hischier’s been a big part of that success, putting up seven points in the first nine games of his NHL career. The Devils won’t keep up this pace all season long, but there’s a sense of optimism around the team that hasn’t been there in years. Clearly, they’re headed in the right direction, with Hischier playing a key role.

Gee, it’s amazing what getting the No. 1–overall pick can do for a franchise.

That, of course, brings us to the Coyotes. With apologies to the Rangers and Canadiens, the Coyotes have been the season’s biggest train wreck. After making a series of off-season moves that seemed to signal a desire to climb out of the basement and start winning right now, the Coyotes aren’t winning at all. Literally. They’ve opened the season with 10 straight losses, and are all but out of the playoff race already. It’s enough to make a fan lose all hope.

And that’s why tonight’s meeting with the Devils might be coming at a good time for the Coyotes. Granted, New Jersey never hit rock bottom quite like this, and they needed some help from the lottery to land the top pick. But they headed into this year having lost more games than they won for five straight seasons, and they were tied for the league’s third-worst record just last year.

The team they were tied with? The Arizona Coyotes. So far, it looks like one team got worse and the other got a whole lot better. And in a way, that can offer up some hope for the Coyotes and their fans. These days, a bad team can turn things around relatively quickly. The Devils have shown that. So have this year’s Maple Leafs and last year’s Oilers.

But it sure helps if you can luck into a first-overall pick like all three of those teams did. Nobody wants to be thinking about the lottery this early, but Coyotes fans may not have much choice. After all, these days it would be nice to be able to picture the team winning something.

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Player in the spotlight: Evander Kane

This section is about something positive that’s happening in Buffalo this season, so it’s going to be short.

The Sabres are shaping up as another Eastern Conference disappointment story. With just three wins in 11 games, they’re off to yet another slow start in a year that was supposed to represent the start of their long-awaited return to respectability. There have been recent signs of progress, including two straight wins before Wednesday’s loss to the Blue Jackets. But for the most part, the year already looks like a write-off, and there hasn’t been much to get optimistic about.

Kane is an exception, leading the team in goals and tied for the lead in points. It’s early yet, but he’s on pace to surpass the numbers he put up during his breakout season as a 20-year-old with the Jets in 2011–12, but hasn’t matched since.

That makes for an interesting plot twist on the Sabres season. It’s a mild surprise that Kane’s even still on the team; his less-than-stellar reputation has been well-documented, and it seemed like the team was done with him last summer. But they either changed their mind or couldn’t find a taker, and rumours linking him to the Canucks this summer haven’t amounted to anything yet. So he’s still in Buffalo, and he’s putting up numbers.

That could help the Sabres turn their season around. But it could also turn into a season-long subplot, because Kane is in the last year of his contract and would hit unrestricted free agency in the summer. If the team continues to struggle while Kane continues to thrive, we could be looking at one of the season’s biggest deadline-rental dramas.

Or we could be getting ahead of ourselves. The Sabres could always turn things around, and Kane could always cool off. He may be cooling off already, with just one point in his last four games. But in a league where big-name mid-season trades are a rarity, Kane could be a candidate. That makes him worth keeping an eye on.

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From the archives

The Penguins are in Minnesota tonight, which technically isn’t a rematch of the 1991 Stanley Cup final. That was the North Stars, after all, and they’re in Dallas now. But it’s close enough for us to spend a few minutes looking back on what still stands as one of the stranger Cup-final matchups we’ve ever seen.

The Penguins went into the 1991 playoffs with an absolutely stacked roster, one that featured the sport’s best player in Mario Lemieux, six other current Hall of Famers including Ron Francis and Paul Coffey, and a cocky teenaged rookie with great hair named Jaromir Jagr. But as ridiculous as that lineup looks today, the team was coming off a pedestrian 88-point season. They’d never even had a 90-point season in franchise history, and had won just a single playoff series in the past decade. Today, we think of those early-’90s Penguins teams as among the greatest ever. But at the time, they were viewed as chronic underachievers.

But they still went into the final as heavy favourites, because it’s almost impossible to express how stunning it was to see the North Stars there waiting for them. There’s really no nice way to put this: The 1990-91 North Stars were not a good team. They finished the season with just 68 points, and only made the playoffs because the Norris had to send four of its five teams every year, and the Maple Leafs were even worse.

Then the North Stars went on what probably stands as the most unlikely playoff run ever. They beat the league’s best regular-season team, the 106-point Blackhawks. Then they beat its second-best team, the 105-point Blues. Then they knocked off the defending champions, Mark Messier and the Oilers. And they did it without ever even facing elimination along the way.

To make the whole thing even more amazing, the North Stars did all that while facing an off-season dispersal draft, as part of the complicated quasi-expansion that would welcome the Sharks to the league. That draft was held less than a week after the end of the final.

The North Stars put up a good fight, all things considered, even winning two of the final’s first three games. But that’s when Mario and the Penguins took over, scoring 19 goals in three games to take the series, including an 8–0 win in the clinching game six.

Today, the Pittsburgh/Minnesota matchup is best remembered for delivering one of the greatest goals in NHL history, and rightly so.

But it’s worth remembering how bizarre it was that the matchup ever happened in the first place.

Oddly specific prediction

Ah, why not, let’s give the Coyotes their first win of the season. They beat the Devils in overtime to snap the streak.

Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-3

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