Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Canadiens serve notice in Atlantic

Montreal swept the Senators in a home-and-home, the Flames stayed hot and Sidney Crosby brought out the hats.

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

Opening faceoff: Crossing the Atlantic

The playoffs are still three weeks away, but we got a preview this weekend courtesy of the Canadiens, the Senators and the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The latter served up an old-fashioned home-and-home series between the Atlantic’s two top teams, one that didn’t even drop in the now-traditional extra day off. The result was back-to-back games that had a distinctly post-season feel. We had sellout crowds in both cities. We had a scrap or two. We got two goalies being allowed to play on consecutive nights, in defiance of regular-season wisdom. And we even got some mind games during the warm-up.

What we didn't get were a pair of decisive results; Montreal's win in the opener came in a shootout, which kind of mutes the whole playoff-feel thing. But last night's rematch delivered a more conclusive outcome — another Canadiens win, this time in regulation by a 4–1 final.

It all added up to a demoralizing weekend for the Senators, who went in with a chance to take control of the Atlantic and left facing a four-point gap. That's not insurmountable – Ottawa still holds a game in hand – but it's certainly not where they wanted to be. And while both games were close for the most part, the Canadiens looked like the better team as last night's third period wore on, scoring two unanswered and having a third waved off after an offside review.

The win was the Habs' ninth in their last 11 games, and the two losses came against a pair of the league's hottest teams in Calgary and Chicago. They're finally starting to get scoring from both the top and bottom of the lineup, and with Carey Price up to his old tricks, they're firmly back in the Atlantic driver's seat.

The two teams face each other yet again on Saturday in Montreal. The Canadiens will have the easier week leading up to that clash, facing two Eastern Conference also-rans in Detroit and Carolina. The Senators get much tougher matchups with the Bruins and Penguins, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the race could be all but over by this time next week. Then again, given all the ebbs and flows the division has seen this year, we're probably in for at least a few more twists before the season ends.

(And yes, we're choosing to temporarily ignore the fact that winning this division may not actually be much of a victory, leading to a much tougher first-round matchup with the crossover Rangers. Let's not let the reality of the NHL's weird playoff format get in the way of what should be a good division race.)

So, were two tough wins in a playoff atmosphere enough to get the Canadiens back into our weekly top five? Well, no. But they're inching their way back into consideration, and with a few top-five teams looking vulnerable, we might see Montreal back on the list at some point before the season ends. Just not this week.

Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. San Jose Sharks (42-22-7, +30 true goals differential*): They had a chance to all but put away the Pacific on Saturday against the Ducks, but lost 2–1. The Sharks are still the favourites, but the door is open.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6, +63): Well, look who's back. With four straight wins, the Blue Jackets knock the slumping Wild out of the top five for the first time since Christmas, and leave us facing that problem of having too many Metro teams once again.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins (45-17-9, +51): Sidney Crosby's hat trick yesterday gives him 40 goals on the year for the second time in his career. The win left the Penguins with the league's third-best record, but they'd still start the playoffs on the road.

2. Washington Capitals (46-17-8, +73): Their win over the Lightning made them the first team to clinch a playoff spot, and the first to hit the 100-point mark. But it wasn't enough for them to hold onto top spot, snapping a season-high eight-week stretch at No. 1.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (47-20-5, +38): With five straight wins, they've suddenly opened up a comfortable gap over the Wild and Sharks in the West. That's big, since it could translate to some extra rest down the stretch for a team that suddenly seems to have a crystal-clear path back to the Stanley Cup final.

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

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After breaking down the Senators/Canadiens showdown, let's stay in the Atlantic long enough to ask a question that's starting to gain some traction: Is it possible that we're all sleeping on the Bruins?

If so, you couldn't really blame us, since the Bruins haven't exactly been an exciting team to follow this year. In terms of wins and losses, they've been a wholly unremarkable team all season long, never getting more than a few games above or below a .500 winning percentage. They'd string together a few wins but then drop a few more, and in what's been a season of streaks around the league, the Bruins have yet to win or lose more than four straight. They were hovering around the Eastern Conference playoff bubble all year, never good enough to worry about or bad enough to mock. They were just kind of there.

"Just kind of there" isn't the worst place to be in today's NHL; it can get you a ticket to the playoffs. But it apparently wasn't good enough in Boston, where four months of mediocrity cost Claude Julien his job. That coaching change didn't come without controversy, but it's worked so far. The Bruins are 12-4-0 under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, and that's moved them up and out of the post-season bubble. They're not playoff locks yet, but they're getting close. Mix in improved play from Tuukka Rask and the burgeoning Brad Marchand-for-MVP movement, and it's good times in Boston.

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Bruins rejuvenation thanks to a more relaxed coach?
Originally aired March 20 2017

But still, it's one thing to make the playoffs, and another entirely to do any damage once you get there. The Bruins are still a notch back of the Habs and Senators, and at this point they'd be long shots to challenge for first place. And in a year where the Atlantic is already shaping up as the 98-lb. weakling to the Metro's sand-kicking bully, the division's third-best team isn't anyone's idea of a real Cup contender. So enjoy your brief playoff appearance, Boston, then get ready to make an early exit so the real teams can go at it.

Well, hold on. There's a small but growing chorus that says the Bruins have a far better shot at the Cup than you might think.

The Boston Bruins as Stanley Cup quasi-favourites, ahead of teams like Chicago and Columbus? That seems... off. And yet there's a case to be made, and it goes something like this: Right now, the Bruins are very likely headed towards either the second or third seed in the Atlantic. Because of the league's playoff format and the conference's historically lopsided balance of power between the two divisions, that 2/3 matchup in the Atlantic actually represents the best possible landing spot for an Eastern playoff team. It could even represent the easiest path to the final of any spot in the league.

You also have to consider how well the Bruins are playing right now. And remember, their possession numbers – which remain our best predictors of future success – have been among the league's very best all year. Add it all up, the theory goes, and you've got a sneaky-good team that's peaking at just the right time and is heading towards an ideal playoff slot.

Not everyone is as optimistic – other playoff-probability estimates aren't anywhere near as bullish on Boston's title chances. So if you'd prefer to go back to largely ignoring the middling Bruins, feel free. And of course, they're still just one good slump away from dropping into the crossover spot, or even out of the playoffs altogether.

But if you're looking for a playoff long shot that may not be quite as big a long shot as everyone thinks, it could be worth filing the Bruins away as a team to keep an eye on.

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. Detroit Red Wings (28-31-11, -41): They picked up consecutive wins for the first time in a month. Sure, they came against the Coyotes and Avalanche, but let's take our progress where we can find it.

4. New Jersey Devils (26-33-12, -46): Speaking of progress, the Devils won a game this week, their first in almost a month. They've lost both games since.

3. Vancouver Canucks (28-34-9, -48): Make it six straight losses, with a tough road trip through the Central ahead. Since their six-game win streak ended on Jan. 6, they've lost 22 out of 30.

2. Arizona Coyotes (26-36-9, -59): With points in five of their last six, they're gaining ground on the pack and could move out of 29th spot for the first time in ages by the end of the week.

1. Colorado Avalanche (20-48-3, -95): They nearly beat the Blackhawks yesterday, in what would have stood as a massive upset that didn't actually matter in the slightest. But what if it did? See below.

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The Avalanche were the first team eliminated from playoff contention last weekend, a mathematically formality that confirmed what we'd already known since December. And given the big gap between the 30th-place Avalanche and the 29th spot, it's not even like their fans should flip over to cheering for them to lose. There's nothing left for Colorado fans to look forward to at all, apart from 11 more games that simply won't matter.

This is your annual reminder that it doesn't have to be that way.

The NHL continues to insist on rewarding losing by giving the league's worst teams the best odds in the draft lottery. In theory, that's fair – we want to help the teams that need it most, and giving them the best shot at the top prospects accomplishes that. But the practical impact is a miserable stretch run, as teams shamelessly tank down the stretch and fans openly root against their own team.

Most fans have been conditioned to just kind of shrug and accept it, since there doesn't seem to be a better way. But there is, and it's an idea that's been around for a few years now and that regular readers of mine already know well. It's called the Gold Plan, named after Adam Gold, who presented it at the Sloan Analytics conference in 2012. And it's a great concept that the NHL could implement any time it wanted to.

The idea goes like this: Every year, the draft order would be determined by the number of points earned by each team after they'd been officially eliminated from the playoffs. The day you're mathematically out, you start earning points towards your draft pick, and the team with the most points earns the top pick.

The system still favours bad teams like the Avalanche, who are eliminated earlier and get more runway to bank points. In fact, this year's Avs would get such a massive head start that they'd be heavy favourites to earn the top pick.

But that's the key word: Earn. No more ping-pong balls. No more cheering against your own team. And no more meaningless games down the stretch, even for teams that are terrible. You want the top pick, you have to go out there and win your way to it, and every point matters.

We won't break down all the pros and cons of the system here – we did that in detail last season, and you can go and read up on everything in more detail there if you're not sold. If you already know about the plan, then the chances are good that you're already on board, because lots of fans seem to love the idea.

But if you've never heard of the Gold Plan until just now, then consider this a public service. There's a far better system out there. The NHL just needs to make it happen. And if they did, they could give their fans something to cheer about – even in Colorado.

Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• The dispute between the U.S. women's national team and USA Hockey continued through the weekend. The players are threatening to boycott next week's World Championships unless the governing body offers up improved pay and support. So far, USA Hockey has responded by suggesting they'll use replacement players at the tournament. The two sides are scheduled to meet today.

• More milestones for Jaromir Jagr, who played in his 1,700th game yesterday. He also passed Gordie Howe on Saturday for the all-time points lead among players in their 40s. One more record to go.

• Another milestone: Eric Staal played in his 1,000th game yesterday. That's about where the good news ends for the free-falling Wild, who've lost five straight and eight of 10.

• The Leafs held onto the East's final wild-card spot with a semi-controversial overtime loss to the Blackhawks.

They'll face the Bruins tonight and the Blue Jackets on Wednesday before getting three straight against non-playoff teams.

• The Blackhawks poured it on last night, scoring five straight to beat the hapless Avs. But it all started with a goal that was allowed to stand after yet another offside review that left some fans scratching their heads.

• Speaking of plays that may need another look, here's Matthew Tkachuk laying out Drew Doughty with what sure looks like an elbow.

The worse news for the Kings was that they dropped the game 5–2, and now find themselves six points back of a wild-card spot.

Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist teamed up for some spring training batting practice on the goal of the weekend.

• This piece on Micheal Ferland's long road to the Flames' top line is well worth a read.

• Yesterday's Blue Jackets win over the Devils featured a pair of Columbus penalty shot goals, by Lukas Sedlak and Brandon Dubinsky. It's only the third time in NHL history that's happened.

• Finally, we've seen a lot of blood over the years in Red Wings/Avalanche games, but this was a new one.

Luckily, the fan seemed to be OK.