Happy St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a special occasion, one that hockey fans typically spend drinking slightly more beer than usual, thinking, “Wait, why is my team wearing green?” and watching old YouTube clips of people punching each other.
Today, fans can also spend it with 10 matchups, including a classic Canadian rivalry.
The Maple Leafs and Canadiens have been back in the same division for nearly two decades now, and they’ve spent most of that time engaged in a strange dance where only one team at a time can be any good. When the Leafs were contending for a Cup under Pat Quinn around the turn of the century, the Habs mostly missed the playoffs. When the Canadiens followed that up by making the post-season in eight of the first 10 post-lockout seasons, the Maple Leafs decidedly did not. And now that Toronto is finally good again, Montreal seems to be on the verge of a rebuild.
But through it all, it’s been a consistent truth that games between the teams always seemed to be good, or at least memorable. Even when one team was awful and had nothing to play for, there was something about the Toronto/Montreal matchup that could be counted on to produce at least a little magic. Whether it was a dramatic goal or some bad blood or a serenade gone wrong, something fun would happen. You can scoff at lame stories about rivalries and history and ghosts all you want, but the Leafs and Habs usually delivered.
Tonight will put that theory to the test. The Canadiens don’t have much of anything left to play for, and come in having lost six of their last seven. With Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty all out of the lineup with long-term injuries, the Habs are clearly in just-get-it-over-with mode down the stretch. Even the usual narrative about playing for next year’s jobs only goes so far, as we’re not even sure whether the current GM will still be around to make those roster calls. You could forgive Montreal fans if they were more interested in making little heart-eyes at John Tavares than in watching what’s left of this roster play out the string.
Meanwhile, the Leafs come into this one riding a franchise-record 11-game home winning streak. It’s been an impressive run, especially with most of it coming without Auston Matthews. But it hasn’t done much to change the standings, where Toronto remains locked into third place in the Atlantic. With 10 games left in the regular season after this one, the Leafs would probably prefer to fast-forward straight to the playoffs, if only to avoid any more injuries like the ones that have claimed Matthews, Frederik Andersen and most recently Leo Komarov.
So two teams, only one of which is any good, and neither with much of anything to play for. And yet… well, it’s still Toronto and Montreal. As eye-rolling as the premise may be, there really is something special about seeing the league’s oldest rivalry play out on a Saturday night. And with the way these things tend to go, would anyone be all that shocked to see a depleted Montreal roster arrive in town and pull off the upset, snapping the Leafs’ record-setting win streak in the process?
If you’ve followed this rivalry over the years, you know to expect the unexpected by now. At the very least, Toronto fans may want to keep the victory songs to themselves until the final buzzer.
Key subplot: Spoiler alert
In theory, playing the spoiler isn’t a bad role to embrace down the stretch. It’s obviously not anybody’s idea of how they want their season to end, and you’d always rather be fighting for a playoff spot. But if that option isn’t on the table, at least the spoiler gets to play for something. You get to take the ice for a game that actually matters, at least to somebody, and you can learn something from the experience. It’s not ideal, the thinking goes, but it’s better than nothing.
That’s in theory. In reality, playing the spoiler sometimes feels like it’s worse than nothing. It’s playing a supporting role in the drama you were supposed to be starring in. Forget about being the bridesmaid instead of the bride; the late-season spoiler is the guy who cleans the washrooms at the reception hall. Everyone else has the fun, and if you had your choice you’d rather not be there at all.
But somebody has to do it. Tonight, three Canadian teams get a shot at playing the spoilers against teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Oilers are up first, as they face the Panthers this afternoon. We covered Florida’s late-season surge two weeks ago, after a red-hot five-week stretch had brought them from 12 points out back into the Eastern wild-card race. They’ve wobbled a bit since then, earning six of 10 points while falling three points back of a wild-card spot. But they still hold multiple games in hand over both the Devils and Blue Jackets, and today they get to face an Oilers team that doesn’t have much to play for beyond pride and maybe a handful of roster spots next year.
The Senators face a similar situation tonight when they visit the Blue Jackets. Columbus is in better shape than Florida, thanks to a six-game win streak that’s moved them into a tie with the Flyers for third in the Atlantic, but they still don’t have much margin for error. To their credit, the Senators have been occasionally feisty this month, booking wins over the division-leading Lightning and Golden Knights as well as the Stars and Panthers. That’s good news if you’re a fan looking for some hope that there’s something on this roster worth salvaging. It’s less positive if you’re watching the lottery odds, and that’s always the catch when you get into the late-season spoiling game – those moral victories can actually end up costing you. (As always, a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.)
The third entry in our sad spoiler hat trick comes in tonight’s late game, as the Canucks host the Sharks. San Jose is stuck in that brutal eight-way crunch of teams fighting for five spots. They’ve got a good shot at capturing the Pacific’s second seed and hosting a first-round playoff matchup; they’re also a short losing streak away from missing out entirely. The Canucks are a short losing streak away from dead last, which again, may not be a bad thing. They haven’t exactly embraced the spoiler role over the last few weeks, winning just one of their last nine, and haven’t even managed a goal in their last three. The Sharks are hoping they don’t see any reason to start now.
Tonight’s contest between the Bruins and Lightning is a good one, featuring two of the five best teams in the league and some genuine stakes. It also has a good chance — earmuffs, Toronto fans — of being a second-round preview. And if that series comes to pass, tonight could determine which team would own home-ice advantage in that series.
On Nov. 15, the Bruins dropped their fourth straight to fall to 6-7-4 on the season. That left them 14 points back of the Lightning, who’d jumped out to a 14-2-2 start. But the Bruins launched a four-game win streak the next night, and ever since the chase has been on.
It’s been a bit of a weird hunt, with the Bruins spending most of the season well back but always seeming to have played far fewer games. Those only matter if you can win the extra games, and the Bruins almost always did. Now they’ve almost closed the gap entirely, pulling to within four points while still holding a game in hand. So with a regulation win tonight, they pull to within two points and will officially be in “control their own destiny” territory.
On the other hand, a Lightning win would knock the Bruins back down to a six-point gap, which seems like too much ground to make up in three weeks. But we would have said that about that 14-point gap back in November, too. And the teams have two more showdowns between now and the end of the season, as per the league’s apparent new policy of picking one or two opponents for every team and cramming all their games into the final few weeks.
So tonight won’t spell the end of the race one way or another. But it will be an important chapter in a season-long story that not many of us would have seen coming four months ago.
Hot-seat watch: Joel Quenneville
Wait, that can’t be right.
Joel Quenneville? The guy with three Cups in the last eight years? The guy with more wins than any coach in history who wasn’t Scotty Bowman? The guy recently voted the coach that players would most want to play for? The guy who wouldn’t even make it out the door before his cell phone blew up from all the other teams calling to hire him?
That guy? In a season where we haven’t had a single coach fired, that’s the guy we’re worried about?
Well, yeah. As strange as it seems, Quenneville looks like a coach on shaky ground right now. He probably shouldn’t be, because again, he’s Joel Quenneville. But here we are. In a season that’s turned into a disaster for Chicago, it suddenly isn’t all that hard to imagine somebody else behind the Blackhawks bench next year.
Well, maybe “suddenly” isn’t the right word, and that’s part of the problem. There have been rumblings about Quenneville’s job security for a few years now, with rumours that he and Stan Bowman don’t see eye-to-eye. There were even suggestions that the axe could fall last year, despite a 109-point season. Instead, Bowman fired Quenneville’s assistant coach and close friend, Mike Kitchen, which felt like a pretty clear message about who’d be next.
Missing the playoffs by a mile probably won’t help Quenneville’s cause. And maybe nothing would have. Sometimes, it’s just best for everyone to move on. Quenneville is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL by nearly five years. Maybe it’s just time.
If so, the result of games like today’s matchup with the last-place Sabres won’t matter. But if there’s any hope of Quenneville sticking around – if he even wants to – then being able to beat the dregs of the league is probably important. Get out there and win one for the coach, and all that.
Honestly, that’s probably overselling an essentially meaningless game. This sure feels like a situation where the decision has already been made, even if we don’t find out until the season ends. Would it make sense? Maybe not, but at this point the only thing stranger than a full season without a single mid-season firing would be having the best of the bunch be the first to go as soon as it ends.
From the archives
We had a goalie goal in the AHL this week. And not the fake kind, where a team scores an own goal and the goalie gets credit because the puck hit him moments before. No, we saw the real thing, as Alex Nedeljkovic of the Charlotte Checkers went deep with his team up 6–3.
Goalie goals are always fun, but they’ve become a lost art in the NHL. So let’s use tonight’s Sharks/Canucks matchup to revisit the golden era of goalies shooting and scoring, by heading back to March 10, 2002.
That night’s game was a big one for the Canucks, who’d fallen four points out of the playoff race and had only won one of their last seven. The Sharks were enjoying a comfortable lead in the Pacific, but with the Kings and Coyotes lurking, every point mattered. The Sharks and Canucks had faced off in San Jose the night before, with young Sharks’ backup Miikka Kiprusoff recording his second career shutout in a relatively uneventful 2-0 win.
The two teams had apparently been saving the goals for the rematch, as the March 10 game went into the second intermission with the Sharks up 5-4. An Adam Graves goal gave them a 6-4 lead, and any serious thought of a Canucks comeback was put to rest by a Jarkko Ruutu elbowing major with just under five minutes left.
Still, the Canucks dutifully pulled their goalie as the clock ticked down. With a minute left, that gave Evgeni Nabokov an opportunity to do this:
It’s neat how Nabokov initially tries to leave the puck for his defenseman, who declines to take it. Goalies who shoot for the open net are usually so eager that they practically straight-arm any nearby teammates out of the way, but Nabokov doesn’t even seem to realize the opportunity is there. He figures it out quickly enough, though, and fires a line drive down the middle. As the replay shows, Nabokov picks the corner with some room to spare, bringing to mind Ron Hextall’s line to the media after his historic first goal: “Before you guys say anything, I was aiming for that corner.”
The celebrations after these goals are always great, since most of the players can’t seem to believe what just happened and the goalie is never quite sure what he’s supposed to do. Nabokov doesn’t get the full bench-emptying treatment that Hextall did, but it’s still pretty good. He even manages something even more rare than a goalie goal: Making Darryl Sutter smile.
At the time, Nabokov was the fourth goalie to shoot and score in just over six years, joining Chris Osgood, Martin Brodeur and Jose Theodore (on the backhand, no less). With goalies getting better and better at stickhandling, we figured there were more on the way. But it would be over a decade until the next goalie goal, and Mike Smith’s buzzer beater in 2014 remains the only one since Nabokov.
Why? It’s tough to say. The trapezoid probably hasn’t helped, and teams are more likely to try to carry the puck into the zone these days rather than dump it in deep where a goaltender could set up with time. Or maybe NHL coaches just realized that fans liked these things and decided to put a stop to it.
Either way, the goalie goal has become an endangered species in today’s league. Here’s hoping somebody brings it back. (But let’s work on the celebrations a little, first.)
Oddly specific prediction
The Canucks can’t score and don’t have any good players left in the lineup, so since this league makes no sense let’s go ahead and pencil them in for five goals or more against the Sharks tonight.
Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-21, after the Sabres narrowly missed out on giving us our first multi-week winning streak of the year.