In the words of the immortal Badger Bob Johnson, it’s a great day for hockey. Emphasis on the “day,” as seven of today’s eleven games will start in the afternoon — or even the morning, depending on how far west you are. That includes four 1:00 ET games, making it the day’s busiest start time. But the best matchup of the day is one of the few evening games, and we’ll start there.
This is the third Saturday-night meeting between these two teams, with the last coming just three weeks ago. But plenty has changed on both sides since then.
The trade deadline was part of that, with the Penguins making a big change by bringing in Derick Brassard while the Maple Leafs went the more conservative route by settling for Tomas Plekanec. We’ve also seen a pair of major injuries since that last meeting, with Auston Matthews (shoulder) and Matt Murray (concussion) both sidelined; neither is expected to play tonight, although it sounds like Matthews might be getting close.
But the bigger story, at least in Toronto, is the change in the team’s fortunes since the last matchup. The Leafs went into that one riding a five-game win streak that had them back within range of the Bruins and Lightning in the Atlantic race. That streak had included wins over the Lightning and Predators. Things were good.
They’re no longer good, at least temporarily. The Leafs lost that Penguins game but then rolled off four more wins. But since then it’s been four straight losses, matching a season high, with the nadir coming in Monday’s 5-3 loss to the lowly Sabres. That slump has put an end to any talk of moving up from third spot in the Atlantic, and it’s raised some concerns over Frederik Andersen‘s play. Even when the Leafs were rolling, it was often due to their goaltender’s strong play. Now he’s given up five goals in each of the last two games, and three or more in five straight, and it’s fair to wonder if his workload is catching up to him. If so, the Maple Leafs might be in trouble.
Of course, that’s the nature of goaltending, and if Andersen stands on his head and shuts out the Penguins tonight then we’ll all declare that he’s back and move on to the next narrative. A win tonight would go a long way to calming any jittery Leafs fans out there and keep this four-game mini-slump from turning into something more. We’re still a long way away from any talk of 18-wheelers and cliffs, but it would be nice to nip this streak in the bud before we get there.
As for the Penguins, they come in riding three straight wins and holding down first place in a tight Metro race. After Phil Kessel‘s early heroics carried the team long enough for Sidney Crosby to heat up by mid-season, now it’s Evgeni Malkin who’s looking scary, with eight points in his last four to sneak into the Art Ross conversation. That’s not the guy you want to see when your goalie is slumping.
Hey, speaking of stars riding hot streaks that make Canadian fans sad…
Marquee matchup: New Taylor Hall vs. Old Taylor Hall
As if Oilers fans haven’t been kicked around enough this year.
The team is terrible, again. The coach and GM are under fire, again. The roster looks like it has major holes with no easy fixes in sight, again. They’re going to miss the playoffs by a mile, again.
Oh, and now there are rumours about them trading one of their key young pieces. You know, again.
And in the middle of all that, one of their previous key young pieces is having a breakout season somewhere else. Hall is the talk of the league these days as he leads the Devils on their chase for an unlikely playoff spot. He’s been on fire since New Year’s, recording points in 26 straight games before the streak was finally snapped on Thursday. Given the low-scoring era, that might rank as one of the best streaks ever.
Through it all, Oilers fans have to listen to the rest of us re-litigate the controversial trade that sent Hall the Devils in exchange for Adam Larsson. The critics were not kind to that deal at the time, but last year offered up some hope that the Oilers hadn’t made as much of a mess of things as it appeared. Larsson was a solid piece of a playoff roster, while Hall and the Devils underwhelmed. There were plenty of sighs of relief, and even a few victory laps.
This year, not so much. Luckily for Edmonton fans, they don’t have to see Hall come to town again this year — the Oilers and Devils finished off their season series in early November. But today’s schedule brings a different kind of pain, as Hall and the Devils head to Nashville. The Predators, of course, made a big trade of their own on the same day the Hall/Larsson trade went down, landing P.K. Subban from Montreal as part of the craziest 23 minutes in off-season history. It worked out pretty well for them. And it’s led to more than a few fans and media wondering why an Oilers team that needed blue-line help couldn’t have just done a Hall-for-Subban trade instead.
We’ll probably never know whether that move was ever actually on the table, or why Edmonton decided to take the Devils’ deal instead of holding out for something better. And maybe it all still works out OK in the end — it’s only been two seasons, after all. But for now, Oilers fans can watch the Devils and Predators tonight and wonder about what might have been.
(And then they can settle in later tonight to watch their own team face the Wild, who are led by an all-star goaltender the Oilers once discarded. Hey, what’s one more kick, right?)
Key subplot: The Hart debate
This is the time of year where we normally talk about the Hart Trophy race. But “race” doesn’t seem like the right word this year. It was a race earlier in the year, when Nikita Kucherov was out in front and a handful of guys were trying to chase him down. Right now, it’s more like a pileup.
Kucherov is still right in the middle of it, but his big lead in the scoring race has shrunk to three points. Malkin is right behind him, but doesn’t seem to be getting any Hart buzz at all, which is weird in a league where we still look at the points column as the main criteria for MVP votes. And right behind them is Connor McDavid, which kicks off the whole debate over whether a player can be MVP when his team misses the playoffs. (It’s happened before, most recently with Mario Lemieux in 1988, but the voters clearly don’t like casting ballots for guys who are golfing in mid-April.)
The big push right now is coming from Hall, who seems like the pick if you define “valuable” as “the guy who means the most to his team’s success.” He’s putting up big numbers, he’s the Devils’ leading scorer by a mile, and nobody thought the team was going to be all that good. He won’t end the season with eye-popping stats because he missed a few weeks with an injury, but at the rate he’s going he has a good shot at a top-five scoring finish, which might be good enough.
Then again, there are guys who are outscoring him right now who have a solid case. Claude Giroux would seem to check most of the same boxes as Hall, even though he’s not getting the same buzz. Blake Wheeler got some love in the mid-season polling, but his case seemed to fade a bit when Mark Scheifele came back.
There’s a growing chorus making a pitch for Anze Kopitar if the Kings make it in. Alex Ovechkin should have an argument. And then there’s Nathan MacKinnon, who’s ahead of Hall in the points race even though he missed more games with his injury and has the Avs in the running for an even more unlikely playoff berth.
And those are just the forwards. I’m told that defencemen and goaltenders are eligible for the award, too, although looking back at the list of past winners doesn’t offer much proof.
I’m already dreading this year’s ballot the way a student dreads an end-of-year exam. My only hope is that one of those candidates heats up over the final four weeks and turns the pileup back into a race. Maybe that’s what Hall has been doing for the last few weeks. If so, keep it up Taylor. In the meantime, feel free to try to talk me into your favorite candidate in the comments or on Twitter, because at this point I’m begging for a smart kid’s paper to copy off of.
Player in the spotlight: Patrik Laine
When I first started doing this Saturday post back in October, I figured it would be some sort of unofficial rule that the same player wouldn’t be featured in the spotlight section more than once. Laine has already shown up here once, in early November. But screw it — rules are made to be broken. So are records.
That November mention actually came because Laine was suffering through an early-season slump, one that had him telling reporters things like “I feel like I can’t do many positive things on the ice.” It was a surprising thing to hear from a young player, especially one who’s never seemed to lack for confidence.
Chances are, Laine doesn’t feel that way anymore. He’s been on fire lately, with 14 goals in his last 10 games. He has at least one in nine of those 10, and two or more in four of his last six. That’s moved him to within one goal of Ovechkin in the Rocket Richard race.
It’s also put him in some elite company in terms of goal-scoring teens, where he’s only looking up at a handful of names. Maybe more impressively, he’s not looking up at anyone when it comes to goals scored since he entered the league last year. With 75, he’s got more than anybody — more than Ovechkin, more than Kucherov, more than Brad Marchand or Auston Matthews… everyone.
On his way to the Rocket, Laine will try to set the team record for goals in a season, kind of. The most goals by a Winnipeg Jet is Teemu Selanne’s 76 back in 1992–93, but that was technically a different franchise so it doesn’t count in the eyes of the NHL, even though most Jets fans don’t seem to think of it that way. Laine is technically chasing Ilya Kovalchuk, who never played in Winnipeg but had 43 goals with the Thrashers in 2008–09. It’s confusing, and we should all be rooting for Laine to shatter the record just so we don’t have to do this anymore.
All in all, not bad for a teenager. In case you’re wondering, Laine won’t turn 20 until the third week of April. That’s after the regular season ends, but it’s safe to say the Jets will be busy with the start of what they hope will be a long playoff run. They get a decent test today as their six-game road trip continues in Philadelphia with a 1:00 ET start; after that it’s on to Washington and then a big showdown in Nashville before they return home for six straight.
From the archives
Every good time-travel story has that moment where something seemingly small happens that later turns out to have a massive impact. A butterfly flaps its wings or somebody steps on a cricket, and somehow a century later everyone has been enslaved by three-headed dinosaurs. The lesson, of course, is that you never know what relatively minor events might ruin the future.
If that’s true, then let’s build a time machine and go back and prevent Game 1 of the 2015 playoff series between the Canadiens and Lightning. Or at least prevent Nikita Kucherov from playing in it.
The game itself was a hard-fought contest between two good teams. They were scoreless heading into the third, when Tyler Johnson and Max Pacioretty exchanged goals to send it to overtime. And that’s when everything fell apart.
Two minutes into the second overtime, Kucherov snapped home the winner from between the faceoff circles. At first, it seemed like a typical overtime goal — important like all of them are, sure, but not especially noteworthy beyond that. But shortly after the game, word began to trickle out that something had gone wrong. The Lightning’s zone entry before the goal had been offside.
You could have argued that the missed call wasn’t necessarily a major story, since the goal itself hadn’t been scored off the rush and the Canadiens had regained the puck afterward. But head coach Michel Therien thought otherwise, blaming the missed call for the loss. “Those things are not supposed to happen,” he told the media.
Ask the average hockey fan which play led to the NHL adopting offside review, and they’ll probably point to Matt Duchene‘s ridiculous breakaway goal that wasn’t even close. But as bad as that play was, it happened midway through the 2013 season. The league had plenty of time to react with a new rule if they’d wanted to. But it wasn’t until the Habs got screwed in the 2015 playoffs that the call for replay really got loud, and the review system was in place by the next opening night.
Three years later, the review system is a mess that nobody seems happy with. It’s nit-picky, it’s slow, and it takes goals off the board based on skates being offside by a fraction of an inch over on entries that didn’t even directly lead to the scoring play.
And if that isn’t enough reason to go back in time and duct tape Kucherov in a utility closet before the game, consider this — the offside goal was actually the second time he’d put the puck past Carey Price in overtime that night. But the first time, it was waved off on a controversial call. Yep, goaltender interference. A play that was, as that night’s referee reminded us, not reviewable. At least, not back then.
A few weeks later, the NHL emerged from its board of governor’s meeting with two brand new coach’s challenge rules. And fans (and coaches and players and everyone else) have been trying to figure them out ever since.
And it’s all Kucherov’s fault.
Oddly specific prediction
Since the Sabres are apparently trying to drive their fans insane, let’s pencil them in for an upset win over the Golden Knights in what should be an easy loss towards better lottery odds.