Weekend Takeaways: East showing its strength, some good news in Buffalo

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates his third goal of the game for a hat trick during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers. (Nick Wass/AP)

The NHL got literal with its conferences nearly 30 years ago, replacing the Campbell and Wales groupings with the Eastern and Western Conferences for the 1993-94 season. For much of the time that followed, the West — whether it was Chicago and Los Angeles going back and forth with Cups at the start of the 2010s or Detroit, Dallas and Colorado forming a Big 3 back in the late-90s and early ’00s — served up super teams and an overall superior product. Just getting to the Cup final through the West meant you had to leave a trail of bodies that seemed fully capable of winning it all themselves.

But, as we pass over the halfway point of this campaign, there’s no debating the East is in beast mode right now and this past weekend — from team results to individual’s having outstanding seasons — offered further evidence of that.

The Colorado Avalanche own the NHL’s best points percentage mark at .756, but if you rank the league by that metric you’ll find eight of the top 11 clubs are situated closer to sunrise than sunset.

On Saturday, Alex Ovechkin scored two more goals to propel his Washington Capitals to an overtime win over the Ottawa Senators. At this point, the Hart Trophy really seems like it’s No. 8’s to lose. While nobody is dismissing the ability of players like Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon to make a most-valuable-player case over the back half of the year, the only person who may truly be in the MVP conversation with ‘Ovie’ right now is fellow east-coaster Igor Shesterkin for his role in keeping a New York Rangers team that gives up more Grade A chances than it creates in or close to the penthouse.

As for the Rocket Richard chase, Ovechkin is in a dead heat with Shesterkin’s teammate, Chris Kreider, after the latter scored one shorty, one power-play marker and one good old fashioned five-on-five tally to register the fifth hat trick of his career on Saturday in a 7-3 whipping of the Arizona Coyotes.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins stormed back in the third period to net a pair of goals against the Winnipeg Jets en route to a 3-2 shootout victory. With Evgeni Malkin back in the mix, the Pens — winners of five straight and the second-best team in the league behind Colorado since mid-November — look every bit the part of a contender. Ovechkin’s Caps, thanks to the Penguins’ surge, have actually been pushed down to a wild card position, alongside the Boston Bruins. Given those are the bottom two clubs in the playoff picture as it stands, would you be comfortable betting your life against any one of the eight East teams definitely NOT making it to the final? On the other side of the ledger, could anyone see the up-and-down Jets, either of Alberta’s teams or any of the likes of Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose — even Minnesota — really winning three rounds?

It’s not as though the East is better top to bottom. The Philadelphia Flyers lost their 11th game in a row on Saturday — 6-3 to the Buffalo Sabres — and have two losing streaks of at least 10 games on the books this year. The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, are in a race to the bottom with a Coyotes team that entered the season aiming to be in the cellar. In fact, just as the top of the league table is peppered with Eastern Conference clubs, so, too is the bottom; eight of the worst 12 squads by points percentage are in the Atlantic or Metropolitan Divisions, so the best East teams have padded their point totals by feasting on the lesser lights.

Regardless, with the top eight all but locked in, we’ve got half a season left to dream about possible East post-season draws — Tampa-Florida Pt. II? Freddy Andersen and a Metro-winning Canes club against a wild-card entry from Toronto? — and speculate about who might emerge from hockey’s current conference of death.

Other Takeaways

• I don’t even want to do this to Buffalo fans after their football team lost one of the all-time NFL playoff games Sunday night to the Kansas City Chiefs (why don’t both teams get the ball in overtime!), but there’s certainly some reason for hope around the Sabres. Tage Thompson — acquired nearly four years ago in the deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues — scored his 13th and 14th goals of the year in the victory over Philly and is starting to look like a real keeper. Speaking of trades, the early returns on the Jack Eichel swap with Vegas look okay, too, as Peyton Krebs netted his first two NHL goals on Saturday, while New York State native Alex Tuch picked up a couple helpers and has a dazzling 3-7-10 line in nine games as a Sabre.

• It’s jarring to see Kreider at 29 goals right now given his previous career high was 28. That said, he offered some glimpse of growth the past two shortened seasons, scoring at a 31-goal clip in 2019-20 and a 33-goal pace last season. Still, I’m not sure anybody had the big man tracking a 57-goal showing this season.

• Speaking of unanticipated big years, Matt Duchene scored two more goals on Saturday as Nashville — sneaky West contender? — downed Detroit 4-1. After two seasons of just seeming stuck in the mud in Tennessee, Duchene could hit 80 points for the first time in his career.

• It sometimes feels like P.K. Subban has disappeared from the every-day NHL spotlight, especially given how huge of a profile he had in Montreal and during Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. This weekend, though, was a reminder of how lucky we are to have P.K. and the entire Subban crew in our hockey lives. Following the god-awful act of racism, Jordan Subban was subjected to in the ECHL on Saturday night, P.K. spoke unflinchingly about the incident itself and the ongoing ugliness of racism in sports. Understanding it falls on non-BIPOC to stand up for what’s right, I’m so appreciative we have this intelligent, fearless man out there telling the world anything he believes it needs to hear.

• When your reputation is that of the ultimate team guy on a club that wins 19 straight playoff series by always being more than the sum of the parts, that’s saying something. Rest in peace, Clark Gillies.

Weekend Warrior

Stick tap to AHLer Yushiroh Hirano for blazing a pro hockey trail.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (25-10-3) I’m not sure a backup could have a more meaningful start than the 27-save showing Petr Mrazek turned in during the Leafs’ 3-1 win versus the Islanders on Saturday. It would be huge if he could reliably spell Jack Campbell the rest of the way.

2. Calgary Flames (18-12-6) Man, up 2-0 after 20 minutes versus their reeling rivals on Saturday, the Flames could have triggered pure panic in Edmonton but blew it over the final 40.

3. Winnipeg Jets (17-14-7) Sunday was shaping up as a good day for the Jets, as captain Blake Wheeler scored in his return from a knee injury and the squad was well positioned to snap a three-game losing skid in Pittsburgh. It all went up in smoke, though, in a nine-second stretch in the final frame.

4. Edmonton Oilers (19-16-2) The win against Calgary alleviates some of the excruciatingly bad vibes, but it won’t mean much if they can’t follow up with a ‘W’ in Vancouver on Tuesday.

5. Vancouver Canucks (18-19-4) Virologists everywhere are thanking the Canucks for discovering goalies are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Spencer Martin made his first NHL start in almost five years on Friday and won the Canucks a point versus the Florida Panthers. One day later he joined Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak in COVID protocol, necessitating the Canucks turn to the last goalie on the org chart, Michael DiPietro, for what turned into a 3-1 loss to St. Louis in Sunday.

6. Ottawa Senators (12-20-3) Full credit to the Senators for a serious Sunday bounce-back, beating the Blue Jackets 2-1 in Columbus after a tough OT loss in Washington 24 hours earlier.

7. Montreal Canadiens (8-25-7) Tyler Toffoli, who picked up an assist during Saturday’s 3-2 extra-time loss to the Avs, has the following statline as a Montreal Canadien: 81 GP, 35G, 30A, 65Pts.

The Week Ahead

• Move over Doug Jarvis, Flyers D-man Keith Yandle is set to tie the NHL ironman mark at 964 games on Monday in Philadelphia and break it on Tuesday versus the Islanders. Now, don’t go celebrating too hard, Keith, cause if you miss a game, Phil Kessel is lurking right behind you at 940 straight contests.

• Thursday is Gerard Gallant Day in the NHL: Gallant’s Rangers will visit the first team he was the head man for, the Columbus Blue Jackets, while his other two former teams square off in a nice tilt as Vegas visits the Panthers.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.