Weekend Takeaways: Making first overall matter

The Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators are in the hunt for the Presidents' Trophy. (Frederick Breedon/Getty)

If only the scoreboard watching was a little more at the top.

Instead, we focus on the middle of the NHL standings in the final weeks, the race for the final playoff spots, and the bottom, where teams angle for the highest draft picks.

First? It’s barely a footnote when it all over. The Presidents’ Trophy isn’t usually viewed as a strong indicator of who will win in the end – only eight of 28 winners have gone on to capture the Stanley Cup – and there just isn’t enough of a prize for teams that finish first in their division.

So the fact Anaheim has jumped three points clear of Montreal and Nashville for first overall on the weekend is barely newsworthy. Instead, the scoreboard watching was all about Ottawa’s lousy weekend, and the Panthers staying alive, Boston’s win over the Hurricanes as the Senators were losing to Florida, Chicago’s come-from-behind triumph on Hometown Hockey over Winnipeg, and Calgary’s comfortable triumph over the Predators.

That’s just where the focus goes, with the way the NHL formats its post-season. If the Presidents Trophy came with, say, an extra home playoff game in the first two rounds, well, then it would be a much greater prize, wouldn’t it?

Instead, there’s as much or more focus on the battle for places 27-30, with the April 18 draft lottery the next big day for that group.

Tonight, the Tampa-Montreal showdown won’t get nearly the attention as will the games involving playoff desperate teams in Los Angeles, Calgary and Vancouver. Maybe not even as much as Tank Tussle II between Buffalo and Arizona.

Don’t get me wrong – it was a blast watching the scoreboard on the weekend. But you do wonder if it could be even better if the fight for the top was really worth watching.

Other weekend takeaways

Panthers keep clawing: Rather than roll over, it’s been interesting to watch Florida capture five of a possible six points in its last three games, all of them without burgeoning star centre Nick Bjugstad, and the last two after it was announced he would be undergoing season-ending back surgery.

The 22-year-old pivot had seen his production slip severely in March as his back began to bother him more and more. You have to wonder, however, if Florida looked at the Dallas experience with winger Valeri Nichushkin, who waited until November to get hip surgery and is only back now, and decided the best course of action was to arrange surgery so that Bjugstad will be good to go in training camp next fall.

Penguins lose Letang: With the increasing focus on the long-term effects of concussions, it will be fascinating to watch how the Penguins, and the NHL, handle defenceman Kris Letang.

Letang was hit by Shane Doan of the Coyotes on Saturday, went to hospital and, in a rare move by a team, the Pens announced he had a concussion, rather than an upper body injury or flu-like symptoms or some other vague description.

Obviously it’s serious, which should keep Letang out for a significant period of time. Moreover, it’s at least the fourth of his career. At what point is a player putting himself into long-term jeopardy with repeated brain injuries?

Top defenceman go down: Along with Letang’s injury, two other big NHL blueline names, Shea Weber and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, were missing with injuries on the weekend. Vlasic’s could keep him out for a while.

Injured Jets returning to lineup: The Jets got Mathieu Perreault back Sunday night in their loss to Chicago. Another injured forward, Bryan Little, could return tomorrow against the Rangers.

A top prospects showdown?: In an ideal hockey world, we might see a showdown between the two top NHL draft prospects, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, this spring. But there is no cross-over competition between the CHL and NCAA.

So Eichel will take Boston University into the Frozen Four to compete against the other three finalists, North Dakota, Omaha and Providence. McDavid, meanwhile, scored the game-winning goal for Erie in their surprisingly tough first round clash with Sarnia Sunday night.

As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Saturday night, one or both of Eichel and McDavid could be invited to play for their respective countries at the world championships this year in the Czech Republic. Eichel will be available, McDavid might be.

Greatest hits: One of the interesting debates in the analytics world is over the value of hits, and hitting in general, in terms of how they actually contribute to winning or losing.

Sunday night’s Chicago win in Winnipeg was an instructive example. The Jets were the more aggressive team, outhitting the Hawks 36-20, and forcing the visitors to pay a heavy physical price. Yet it was the Hawks that won the game 4-3. It was just one game, always dangerous to measure anything by. Moreover, the Jets also won more faceoffs, had more shots and blocked more shots. But the Hawks decisively won the possession battle at five-on-five, scoring three goals.

Of course, the whole thing might have been decided by Tobias Enstrom getting tangled up with a linesman. Where’s the stat for that? Moreover, of the top 10 NHL teams in hits this season, six would make the playoffs as it stands right now.

Kadri in World Championship limbo: Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, after a nightmarish few weeks, was back in action Saturday night. He played for Canada at the worlds last year and would like to go again, but as a restricted free agent in July, has no contract at this point and probably wouldn’t be comfortable going without one. “It would be tough,” he said.

Size Marners: Mitch Marner isn’t going to make it easy for NHL teams to look past his spectacular numbers and drop him on the draft rankings because he’s not a particularly big fellow. In two playoff games so far against Kitchener, the London centre already has five goals.

The greatest Gamble: That was really quite a thing the Maple Leafs did on Saturday, signing 11-year-old Garrett Gamble to a one-day contract.

The young man is from the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan and has Morquio Syndrome, which causes heart disease, skeletal abnormalities and early death. The Leafs had a “G-Man” nameplate in their dressing room, and head coach Peter Horachek introduced the boy after his post-morning skate remarks on Saturday.

All in all, very touching, and well done.

Motor City net controversy: The Detroit goalie situation is suddenly very uncertain.

Coach Mike Babcock pulled Jimmy Howard last week against the Sharks and started Petr Mrazek twice on the weekend. Mrazek had a 23-save shutout Saturday against Tampa, but then was pulled himself Sunday in a loss to the Islanders.

So what’s next?

Howard, with four more years left on a $31.6 million contract, is still only 31 with lots of experience. But he can’t be a backup at that salary. This is worth watching in the final days of the season and in the playoffs. The Wings were a mediocre 16th in goals-against last season, and have fallen even further to 18th this season.

Third goaltender question rises again: NHL general managers didn’t deal with the emergency third goalie situation at their meetings in Boca Raton earlier this month. So there we were again on Saturday with Boston dressing goalie coach Bob Essensa for the third period against the Rangers after Tuukka Rask left with an apparent case of dehydration.

Essensa is 50 years old and hasn’t played in an NHL game since 2002.

NHLPA leadership set: It appears the NHLPA will send the same group of players to the competition committee meetings in late June this year, a group that includes David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, Mike Cammalleri, Cory Schneider and Ron Hainsey.

The union will first hold meetings in New York city in the first week of June to decide how it will respond to the league’s proposals for three-on-three play in overtime next year. Interesting, only two of six NHL games on the weekend that went to OT resulted in shootouts.

Fucale sits: Zach Fucale, the Montreal Canadiens draft pick and goaltender who backstopped Canada to a world junior title in January, has found himself on the Quebec Remparts bench to start the QMJHL playoffs.

Instead, coach Phillippe Boucher is using draft-eligible Callum Booth, who lost 3-2 to Cape Breton on Friday but then registered a 31-save shutout on Saturday. The Remparts paid a hefty price to get Fucale from Halifax, including first round picks in 2016 and 2018, plus goalie Eric Brassard.

All about the rookies: The NHL’s rookie scoring race, and maybe the race for the Calder Trophy, is going down to the wire.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg today leads Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau by one point, 59 to 58. Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad, of course, will have a say in the Calder battle, as well.