It’s a fair question to ask of any squad that shoots out to a surprisingly strong start, especially on Halloween: Is this team a real contender or simply dressed up like one?
With last night’s scary-good overtime winner from Jack Eichel against the Winnipeg Jets, the Vegas Golden Knights have won four straight and own the second-best points percentage in the league. The top mark belongs to the Boston Bruins, presently riding a five-game winning streak after Friday night’s 4-0 blanking of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Was there a pe-season case to be made these were quality outfits? Certainly. But both squads fired coaches last year and came into this campaign missing major pieces thanks to long-term injuries.
But here they sit, 1-2 in the standings and offering plenty of evidence these hot starts have staying power. Both the Bruins and Knights possess strong underlying numbers and they’re ranked first and second in the league in goal-differential (Boston is the best at plus-18, with Vegas right behind at plus-15).
The Bruins, in particular, have a number of brow raising things going on. Obviously they were playing a little bit of possum with the timeline of Brad Marchand’s recovery from hip surgery, as the left winger has already returned from an injury we thought might have him out until closer to December. And even if Charlie McAvoy returns from shoulder surgery ahead of schedule too (he did practice with the team Monday morning), the bottom line is the club has been without its No. 1 blue-liner all year.
But look at what the guys who are there are doing. David Pastrnak is one point off the league scoring lead after his goal on Friday; Patrice Bergeron has nine points in nine games, with nine more to go for 1,000 on his headed-to-the-Hall career. Meanwhile, the other “Will he come back or not?” guy, David Krejci, is also playing at a point-per-game clip alongside countryman Pastrnak. Relative newcomer Hampus Lindholm has been stellar on the blue line in McAvoy’s absence, while the previously disgruntled Jake DeBrusk is out to an encouraging start this season under new coach Jim Montgomery.
Then there’s the play of Linus Ullmark, who — after Friday’s whitewashing of Columbus — has the fifth-best five-on-five save percentage in the league among goalies with at least 200 minutes in the crease.
Speaking of goalies, the guys in Vegas — and it’s probably worth identifying them as Logan Thompson and Adin Hill — have the top five-on-five save percentage in the league. That has helped make new bench boss Bruce Cassidy — remember him, Bruins fans? — transition smoothly to his new gig despite the fact incumbent starter Robin Lehner is lost for the season due to hip surgery.
For whatever upheaval has happened in the crease, it does seems as though there’s a certain level of calm in Vegas that, due to the organization’s frantic “just get every star we can” approach in the past, is a welcomed change. Eichel looks great in his first full year; Mark Stone is healthy again and playing like his usual stellar self, while some O.G. Knights — William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Shea Theodore — have all been good so far.
Look, both these teams have played home-heavy schedules and haven’t exactly been going up against the cream of the crop every night. The two best teams Vegas has faced — Colorado and Calgary — beat them. Both squads have either just begun or are about to begin lengthy roadies, so we’ll get a fuller picture of where they’re at in the next week or so.
That said, don’t bet on any major Scooby Doo-style unmasking here; what you see is probably pretty close to what you get with Vegas and Boston.
• After losing to the Bruins, things got worse for Columbus on Sunday with a 7-1 drilling by the New Jersey Devils. The Jackets have now been outscored 17-4 in their past three outings and only two teams — Anaheim and San Jose — have worse points percentages than Columbus’ .300 mark right now. The mercury feels like it’s on the rise in Ohio.
Meanwhile, the Jesper Bratt show continues for the Devils, as he put up two more points against Columbus and has been on the scoresheet in all nine of New Jersey’s games this season.
• The once 0-2 Devils are a great example of how to steer out of an early-season skid and, to a lesser extent, so too are the Minnesota Wild. After falling in an 0-3-0 hole, the Wild are 4-4-1 following Sunday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Matt Boldy was the star for Minny with two goals and, man, can this second-year guy play. The quick hands he showed on his first tally demonstrate why such big things are on tap for this 21-year-old.
• Sliding the other way, make it four straight L’s for St. Louis after starting 3-0-0. The Blues coughed up a 3-1 lead to Montreal on Saturday in what turned into a 7-4 loss. St. Louis has been outscored 20-7 during this skid and the Blues have just 10 five-on-five goals in seven outings this season.
• Sadly, the Arizona Coyotes have lost their first two games at Mullett Arena, but this giveaway during Friday’s opening night was a winner and absolute no-brainer.
We just have to highlight a monster game by Brandon Montour versus Ottawa on Saturday. The Cats defenceman already had two assists on the board when he broke a 3-3 tie late in the third with a big blast. In all, he logged 27:49 in a rollicking Florida victory.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Calgary Flames (5-2-0): The Flames have three more home games this week to wrap up a stretch where nine of their first 10 contests are domestic affairs. Probably best to make a little more hay before heading out to play nine of 11 on the road.
2. Edmonton Oilers (6-3-0): Man, does this team ever have Jakob Markstrom’s number. After Saturday’s big 3-2 win in Calgary, Markstom has an .884 save percentage facing the Oilers as a Flame.
3. Winnipeg Jets (5-3-1): They spoiled Arizona’s Mullett debut on Friday, then wasted Connor Hellebuyck’s 46-save performance in Vegas on Sunday by failing to get the extra point in overtime.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-4-1): You don’t want to be reflexively dismissive of early struggles, but the parallels to last season are just too blatant to ignore. Toronto went 1-4-1 in Games 2 through 7 last year and actually trailed Game 8 2-0 to a pretty bad Chicago team before pulling out an overtime win. If it gets worse from here, watch out. But there’s a chance this awful road trip is a distant memory five games from now.
5. Ottawa Senators (4-4-0): Thomas Chabot was 44 seconds shy of playing half the game during the Sens’ 5-3 loss to the Panthers. Recognizing Artem Zub is out of the lineup, some other Ottawa D-men are going to have to help ease Chabot’s load.
6. Montreal Canadiens (5-4-0): To say the least, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Christian Dvorak in Montreal since he arrived there about 13 months ago from Arizona. Saturday’s hat trick in a big win over the Blues had to feel great.
7. Vancouver Canucks (2-5-2): It’s obviously been an incredibly small sample size, but after allowing one goal in a desperately needed 5-1 laugher of a win over Pittsburgh on Friday, Spencer Martin has a .944 save percentage in eight games with Vancouver. He also has not been beaten in regulation time during his brief Canucks career.
The Week Ahead
• If Alex Ovechkin has a heroic Halloween effort Monday night, he could equal Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history in Carolina. After his empty-netter during Saturday’s 3-0 defeat of the Nashville Predators, Ovie has 398 tallies in enemy territory, four shy of Gretzky’s 402. Of course, breaking that record would also mean Ovechkin had the most goals for one team in NHL history, too. Gordie Howe had 786 for the Detroit Red Wings and No. 8 has, of course, scored all 783 of his for the Caps.
• Quinn Hughes is expected to rejoin the Canucks after missing four games with an injury. He’s returning just in time to face his brother, Jack, and the surging Devils when they visit B.C. on Tuesday.
• We’re heading back to Europe! Okay, the Avalanche and Blue Jackets are, but at least the rest of us get some weekday afternoon hockey on Friday. Colorado and Columbus will play on both Friday and Saturday in Finland. It feels like the struggling Jackets could use this time away.