Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Bad starts can bury you fast

Check out some of the spookiest costumes that NHL fans wear to games, and of course some frightening looks by some players around the league.

(Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Opening faceoff: Revenge of the dead puck
Two weeks ago, we looked at some of the early season trends that probably wouldn’t continue, even though we were all hoping they would.

The top trend on the list was offence; scoring was up across the league by roughly a goal a game, and we seemed to be getting scores like 6-5 and 7-4 on an almost nightly basis.

The cause of the surge was a mystery. The league hadn’t introduced any new rules, and their promised goalie equipment changes hadn’t been ready in time to start the season. Some pointed to the infusion of young stars into the league, while others wondered if the World Cup had given the game’s top players a head start.

More than a few think pieces were written about what exactly was going on and what it all meant. Nobody could figure it out. We all just hoped it would last.

Yeah… about that.

We’re not quite back to the 5.5 goals-per-game zone that the league has settled into over the last five years or so, but we’re getting awfully close, and those pesky goaltenders are starting to dominate the box scores once again.

After making it through the first week without any shutouts, we’re now seeing them on most nights. Over the weekend, we even got the return of our old pal, the 1-0 game; we’ve been treated to three of those since Friday, after not having any at all on the season.

And sure, defence is fun and goaltenders are people too, and maybe you don’t like low-scoring games because you just don’t get it, man. But all those goals sure were fun while they lasted. Maybe the trend will turn around again, and we’ll spend the season watching the offensive stars and the defensive masterminds go back and forth.

History tells us not to get our hopes up, though.

On to the power rankings. Last Monday in this space, we hoped that another week of action would provide some clarity at the top of the league. Spoiler alert: Not so much.

Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.

5. San Jose Sharks (6-3-0, +2 true goals differential*) – They move back onto the list with three straight wins, albeit against three teams that are struggling.

4. New York Rangers (6-3-0, +13) – Sunday’s 6-1 win over the Lightning may have been their most impressive of the season.

3. Minnesota Wild (6-2-1, +13) – Make it three straight shutouts for Devan Dubnyk, a franchise first, and a conference-leading goals differential.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (6-2-1, -3) – After a one-week absence, we welcome the defending champs back to the top five. The goals differential is still ugly, but they’re 3-0-0 since Sidney Crosby’s return to the lineup.

1. Montreal Canadiens (8-0-1, +18) – The offence was held under three goals for the first time all year on Saturday. But when you have the best goaltender in the world, you’re going to be OK with playing the occasional 2-1 game.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

I have a feeling that any reaction to this week’s top five may be more about who’s not on the list than who is. You could make a case for the Capitals and Blues, and maybe even the Red Wings or Blackhawks. This is shaping up to be another one of those seasons where the gap between the league’s fifth or sixth best team and its middle of the pack is a thin one, and early on we’re pretty much in your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine territory.

But while all of those teams are good, they’re not the ones that stand out by their absence. So let’s cut to the chase: Where the heck are the Oilers?

It’s a fair question. Let’s start with the case in their favour. At 7-2-0, they rank second in the league in points, and their +10 goals differential also cracks the top five. They’re seventh in goals scored, and tied for fifth in goals against. They’ve beaten good teams like Washington and St. Louis. Cam Talbot looks fantastic, Adam Larsson is fitting in well, and Connor McDavid may be the league’s best player.

The case against: For the most part, they’ve played a weak schedule, and you can only rack up so much credit by beating the Flames, Hurricanes and Canucks. Talbot’s career numbers suggest that he’s unlikely to maintain this pace, which would be bad news given the team is getting outshot. Their possession numbers are a mess, and they’re winning based on a PDO north of 103, which we know can’t last.

That last bit sounds convincing, but I’m not actually sure that it is. The Oilers’ possession is bad in part because they’ve been leading so often; once you adjust for score factors, they move towards league average, and maybe even a bit better. And if we’re going to point to their PDO, shouldn’t we do the same for teams like the Canadiens and Wild who are even higher?

Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire took a deeper dive into the Oilers’ percentages last week, and concluded that while the current pace isn’t likely to continue, there’s strong evidence that this team really has improved in a meaningful way.

So why the top five snub? Keep in mind, these rankings are meant to project Cup contender status down the line, not to be a snapshot of what’s happening today. If we’re talking about teams you wouldn’t want to face tonight, then sure, the Oilers are going to be high on that sort of list. But would you call them a Cup favourite right now? Maybe you would, given how little separation there is between the league’s good teams right now, but it’s dicey.

In the end, the Wild have at least made the playoffs four years in a row, so I think we can justify giving them a bit more credit for their unsustainably hot start than Edmonton, a team whose track record is well-known. That only goes so far. McDavid and company aren’t responsible for 10 years of failure. But a little bit of skepticism seems appropriate.

But only a little. Right now, the Oilers are sitting just outside our list. This week, they head out on their first long road trip of the season, one that will see them face teams like the Rangers, Penguins and Red Wings. If they can look good on that trip, the case against moving them higher will get a lot tougher to make.

Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft lottery simulations.

5. Vancouver Canucks (4-4-1, -7) – Remember when they were 4-0-0 and Canucks fans were doing victory laps over all those preseason predictions of impending doom? Good times.

4. Nashville Predators (2-5-1, -9) – It’s hard to imagine them staying in the group, but there’s really no way to keep them out right now. They’ve been that bad.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (2-4-3, -8) – The young Maple Leafs continue to be among the league’s most entertaining teams, taking a ton of shots and showing off their speed. They’ve also lost seven out of nine.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (2-4-2, -6) – Their possession numbers suggest that they’re better than their record indicates. But in a league that only seems to have one truly bad team, somebody has to take the second spot.

1. Arizona Coyotes (2-6-0, -9) – Speaking of truly bad teams… yeah, the Coyotes are struggling. All this young talent is going to do some real damage one of these years. But it looks like this isn’t going to the one.

Three years ago, Elliotte Friedman introduced a stunning stat: Since the 2004-05 lockout, only three teams had managed to make the playoffs after being four points or more back on November 1. That sounded impossible. After all, four points is just two wins. Surely making up two wins over the course of 70 or so games couldn’t be all that hard. And yet heading into that 2013-14 season, only three teams out of 32 had managed to pull it off.

Teams fared a little better that season, when out of eight teams, the Flyers and Stars both clawed their way back. But in the years since then, it’s been tough going once again, with just one team out of 11 – last year’s Ducks – pulling off the four-point-or-more comeback.

What does all of this tell us? To put it simply, it’s far harder to gain ground in today’s NHL than you’d think, even if the gap is small and there’s lots of season left. The loser point has been sold to us as a way to keep playoff races close, but just as often it ruins them, making it harder to gain ground on the teams ahead of you even when they’re not winning.

Or, to put it even more succinctly: An underwhelming start can ruin you.

So what about this year? It’s not November yet, but with no games on the schedule tonight, we can figure out who’s already doomed a day early. And as it turns out, there’s good news for fans of tight playoff races: Only two teams in the entire league find themselves four or more points out of a playoff spot today.

Why? Some of it is no doubt the league’s beloved competitive balance, and some is the lack of any teams that headed into this season in a clear burn-it-to-the-ground rebuild mode. But there’s an even simpler explanation: The World Cup pushed opening night back by about a week, and there just hasn’t been enough time to create much separation.

As for those two lonely teams: Sorry, Coyotes and Hurricanes. Both will wake up tomorrow sitting exactly four points back of a wildcard spot. The Predators narrowly missed joining them; a win by the Jets or Kings yesterday would have been enough to push them into the danger zone.

And teams like the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs may have been there too if the season had started on time.

Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league

• We grumbled about low-scoring games in the opening, but it was impossible not to be rooting for Craig Anderson’s shutout last night. The Senators’ goalie was making his first start since returning to the team after his wife Nicholle’s cancer diagnosis.

• One of the best stories of the early season has been Florida’s Jonathan Marchessault. The diminutive journeyman has been one of the NHL’s best bargains, and scored again in yesterday’s 5-2 win over the Red Wings to give him a share of the lead league with six goals.

• The Blackhawks honoured Marian Hossa for his 500th goal on Sunday. His daughter stole the show.

• A fun moment from Friday’s Hurricanes win over the Rangers: On free hat giveaway night, Jeff Skinner appears to score his third goal of the night, and the fans react as you’d expect. (Later, we found out that Bryan Bickell got credit for the goal.)

• Michael Grabner’s hat trick turned out to be the real thing; he had three for the Rangers in yesterday’s blowout win over the Lightning.

• Steve Ott received a fine after spearing Zdeno Chara in the groin. Weird, he always seemed like such a nice guy.

• Speaking of fines and suspensions, Radko Gudas has had more than his share. That makes it easy to forget that he can play a little, as he reminded us with this gem on Saturday night.

• Last year’s John Scott all-star story was so much fun that they’re making a movie out of it. And now, like all movie-worthy stories, it’s apparently getting a sequel that won’t be anywhere near as good, as the league has reportedly decided on “no substantive changes” to the voting format.

• Well, at least something’s going right in Nashville.

• Finally, we may have some controversy on our hands in the Islanders’ crease. After a series of tweets by agent Allan Walsh that questioned the team’s use of three goaltenders, the front office may be looking at moving on from Jaroslav Halak. It remains to be seen whether they pull the trigger, but there would be teams who could be a good fit.