Down Goes Brown: Why Avalanche-Blues is a gift from the hockey gods

St.-Louis-Blues-forward-Ivan-Barbashev-reaches-for-the-puck-during-an-NHL-hockey-game-on-Jan.-25,-2018

St. Louis Blues' Ivan Barbashev, of Russia, reaches for the puck as Colorado Avalanche's Samuel Girard, center, and Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko, right, of Russia, watch during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Welcome to what was supposed to be the final night of the NHL regular season. Tomorrow’s makeup game between the Panthers and Bruins threw a wrench in things, but never mind that — the league is hitting us with everything they have tonight, with the maximum 15 games on the schedule and everyone other than the Penguins in action.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canucks at Oilers

As far as the standings go, this one barely matters. The only meaningful stakes are a few percentage points worth of lottery odds, and maybe Connor McDavid‘s final push for Hart Trophy votes.

But some things are more important than wins or losses or individual honours. And to fans across the country looking at the big picture, tonight represents something much more: Their last chance to see the Sedin twins in action.

It’s been a whirlwind week since the Sedins dropped the Monday bombshell that they wouldn’t be returning for an 18th season. The announcement led to an emotional Tuesday night against the Golden Knights, one that saw each twin take a rare turn in the shootout in front of the Vancouver crowd. That was followed by Thursday’s final home game, one that ended just about perfectly.

Through it all, tributes have poured in from around the hockey world, with fans, media, teammates, opponents and community leaders lining up to sing the twins’ praises. In a league where it’s relatively rare to see players make it through long careers without being turned into villains by at least some segment of the fan base, the Sedins are going out with near-universal respect and admiration.

The only negative has been the schedule, which inconveniently serves up a road game for the Canucks’ season finale. But if the Sedins’ final bow couldn’t be in Vancouver, Edmonton isn’t a bad second choice. There’s even a little symmetry in play – longtime Oiler Ryan Smyth had his final game against the Canucks four years ago, one that even saw his opponents return to the ice to show their respect.

We can expect something similar from the Oilers and their fans tonight, much like the moment that Jarome Iginla and the Flames once provided for another beloved Canuck. And if history is any guide, the Sedins will take it all in stride, without much in the way of fanfare or drama.

Vancouver fans, maybe not so much. It would be hard to blame them, and you can bet that more than a few fans of other teams will be cheering along with them.

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Key subplot: Bye week

While the Sedins will get most of the attention, and rightly so, the season’s final weekend is always an opportunity to look over the non-playoff rosters and wonder who we may be seeing for the final time, or at least for the final time with a particular team.

For example, tonight could be our last chance to see John Tavares in a New York Islanders uniform. He’ll be in Detroit, as the Islanders wrap up a difficult year with an eye towards what could be an even more disastrous off-season. While there’s still plenty of time to get a deal done before July 1, Tavares sure sounds like a guy who’s willing to hit the open market. The entire situation has been a mess, so much so that if Tavares does end up abandoning ship, you wonder if he indirectly takes Garth Snow with him.

We won’t get a last look at the other big name that figures to dominate the off-season, as Erik Karlsson won’t be suiting up when Ottawa takes on Boston. He didn’t accompany the team on its season-ending road trip, opting to spend some much-needed time with his family instead. His year ended with Ottawa’s 6–5 loss to the Jets on Monday, and he raised a few eyebrows by stopping to collect the puck at the end of the game. We’ll see if Tavares borrows that move tonight.

Other non-playoff names who could be hitting the market through trade or free agency include Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan O’Reilly, Max Pacioretty, Cam Ward and Mike Green. Then there are some of the veterans who could be playing their last game, period, including guys like Patrick Sharp, Kari Lehtonen and Radim Vrbata.

Many of those players will no doubt stay put, and the summer always throws us a few curveballs we weren’t expecting. For half the league, those days are still a long way away, and there will be time to worry about them after the playoffs. But for fans of the 15 teams who’ll be cleaning out their lockers after this weekend, the time to think about goodbyes has arrived. After all, the off-season is hours away.

Marquee matchup: Blues vs. Avalanche

That’s it. No fancy themes or attempted narrative. Just two teams facing each other for the right to go to the playoffs.

As busy as it is, tonight’s schedule doesn’t serve up all that much in the way of meaningful games, which is why we’re spending so much time on who’s leaving instead of who’s winning and losing. You’ve got the Panthers still technically alive in their chase of the Flyers, who need just a single point against the fading Rangers to slam the door shut. You’ve got some Metro and Pacific seeding still to work out and the Atlantic title still up for grabs, and then the usual bunch of games that don’t really matter.

And then you’ve got the Blues and Avalanche. This one matters. A lot.

St. Louis comes in a point ahead thanks to Friday’s win in Chicago, and also hold the regulation/overtime win (ROW) tie-breaker by a 41-40 edge as well as the head-to-head. That leaves the Avalanche needing a win Saturday, and it will have to come in regulation.

Falling out of the playoff hunt in the season’s final game would be crushing for anyone, although you have to figure the Avalanche season will be viewed as a success no matter what; nearly doubling the previous year’s point total will do that for a team. The Blues are a little more complicated, especially after Doug Armstrong went into seller mode at the deadline. Would Paul Stastny have helped the team earn an extra point or two down the stretch? We’ll never know, but if that ends up being the margin that keeps them out of the post-season, Blues fans will be asking the question.

But that’s for after the game. For now, it’s two teams, one spot, and two fanbases chewing through their fingernails until it’s all figured out. For the rest of us, consider this a gift from the hockey gods. It’s an early playoff game to get us warmed up for the real thing. You can’t ask for much more on a final weekend.

(Just please, no shootout.)

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Hot-seat watch: Everyone

The NFL has its Black Monday, the day after the end of the regular season when teams around the league pull the trigger on coaching changes one after the other. The NHL doesn’t really do that, since firings tend to be spread out over the course of the year.

Or at least, that’s how most seasons go. This time, unless some malicious owner gets jumpy over the next 24 hours or so, we’ve made it through the entire year without a single coach losing his job, not to mention just a single GM being fired. (Er, promoted.)

We know that kind of stability can’t last, especially with so many teams around the league finishing up disappointing seasons. It’s bad enough to think you’re a playoff contender and then end up missing out. It’s even worse to do it in a year where a team full of expansion castoffs ran laps around you. Surely, “stay the course” won’t be a popular option around the league.

That doesn’t mean all the changes will come out over the next few days, although you’d figure at least a few will. Other teams will take the patient approach, assuring fans that they’re busy with an “internal evaluation” of the club’s performance (while no doubt also watching to see whether any better options shake loose from other teams).

One of the biggest coaching names on the hot seat is already safe, thanks to the Blackhawks announcement that both Joe Quenneville and GM Stan Bowman will be back. That qualifies as a minor surprise, and probably a disappointment to any teams hoping the second-winningest coach in NHL history would hit the open market. But other well-travelled bench bosses could be available, including Alain Vigneault, Todd McLellan, Glen Gulutzan and Guy Boucher. A few GMs figure to be in trouble, too, although maybe not as many as you might think. And we usually get a surprise or two along the way, especially once the first round is over and a few contenders have made early exits.

Again, that doesn’t mean we’ll get an NFL-style parade to the unemployment line over the next few days. But at the very least, plenty of coaches and GMs around the league will be getting nervous when the phone rings.

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From the archives

One of the running themes from this season was ongoing frustration over replay review. Whether it was goals being wiped out by the skate-in-air offside calls or the never-ending debate over goaltender interference, replays didn’t seem to be delivering the sort of black-and-white results we’d been expecting. By now, some fans are no doubt wondering whether replays are even worth it, and whether this is as bad as they can get.

Well, as today’s Jets/Blackhawks matchup gives us a chance to remember, replay screwups can always get worse. A lot worse.

First, some context. It’s early in the 1993-94 season, and the Blackhawks are in Winnipeg to face the original Jets. We’re only into mid-October, but the Hawks are off to a rough start, winning jut one of their first five, so they’re a little on edge. The good news for Chicago is that Ed Belfour stands on his head, shutting out the Jets through 60 minutes. The bad news is that Winnipeg’s Bob Essensa does the same, and we go into overtime tied 0-0.

Then, less than a minute into sudden death, this happens:

That’s Nelson Emerson catching Belfour’s clearing attempt and taking three steps, which counts as a football move so he has possession. Belfour goes for the tackle, there’s a collision at the side of the net, and suddenly the Jets are celebrating, the Blackhawks are furious, and the announcers are trying to figure out what’s going on.

Luckily, the NHL had recently introduced instant replay for just such a scenario. This was well before reviews for interference or offside, but replay could be used to determine whether the puck had entered the net, so referee Denis Morel will be able to get to the bottom of whatever just happened.

The first replay doesn’t shed much light, but the second one does, and it’s honestly pretty hilarious. Emerson grabs the puck out of the air and then just reaches around and throws it into the net. It’s not even subtle – if anything, this looks like a player who’s frustrated over a scoreless game and annoyed at getting hip-checked by a goaltender and temporarily loses his mind.

Morel calls upstairs, and things calm down because this is obviously going to be overturned in roughly three seconds. But the review drags on for a suspiciously long time, during which we’re reminded that reviews were way more fun when all the players could stand a few feet away from the referee and try to eavesdrop. Then the twist: Morel turns to explain the call, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s counting the goal. The Jets celebrate again, and the Blackhawks are furious again, this time with the added wrinkle of a young Darryl Sutter charging across the ice.

As it turns out, there was a flaw in the NHL’s replay system back then, and you may have caught it in the description up above. Replay could be used to determine whether the puck had entered the net, but only whether it had entered the net, not how it got there. Emerson’s free throw had indeed gone into the net, and since Morel had apparently missed the rest of the play, the goal stood. (Side note: You kind of have to admire the sheer guts of Emerson to actually celebrate when the puck went in, even though I’m 90-percent sure he was just trying to troll Belfour.)

You can read a news article about the play here; the highlight is Emerson still somehow claiming the goal should have counted. Almost 25 years later, the NHL still doesn’t quite have the hang of the whole replay thing, and fans are still wondering whether we’ll ever get some clarity on which goals should count.

But yes, it could be worse. Much worse. Thank the Jets and Blackhawks for reminding us of that.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Oddly specific prediction

I was going to say “The Blues/Avalanche game is determined by an interference review,” but that seems too obvious. So let’s go with: The Rangers go into Philadelphia and score the winner in the final three minutes of regulation to keep things interesting in the East.

Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-24, although the Oilers and Flames got most of the way there last week.

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