Down Goes Brown: Jets-Leafs a bona fide Stanley Cup Final preview?

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins the Starting Lineup to discuss whether the season will be considered a failure if the Maple Leafs lose in the first round of the playoffs.

Welcome to the penultimate Saturday of the regular season. We’ve got a full day ahead of us, with a dozen games in total. One of those games even features 100 per cent of an entire country’s playoff teams, so let’s start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Maple Leafs

Yes, I know, even mentioning the possibility of any game being a Stanley Cup Final preview is a reach. It’s almost a clichéd way to treat a late-season game between two decent teams from opposing conferences. And we’re almost always wrong, because in the parity era the Cup matchups often end up feeling nearly random, so we’ll inevitably get to June and be presented with a pairing that nobody’s even thinking about right now.

But still… just imagine.

The Leafs and Jets will be Canada’s only two playoff teams this year, which feels like a letdown after last year’s crowded field of five. But while the nation will head into the post-season low on quantity, the quality factor may be better than it’s been in years. When was the last time there were two Canadian teams that ranked as genuine contenders, and maybe even borderline favourites? Based on points percentage, the Leafs and Jets are shaping up to be the best Canadian one-two combo of the cap era; only the Senators and Canucks in 2007 come all that close.

So, futile as it may be, we can be forgiven for looking ahead and hoping. Because, man, a Leafs-Jets final would be something else. Both teams are young and stacked with offensive firepower. Both cities have been waiting years for any kind of a playoff run. Mix in the Patrik LaineAuston Matthews debate and Paul Maurice coming back to haunt the team that fired him, and the stories write themselves.

But that wouldn’t even be the main attraction. This is the time of year when we inevitably start hearing about ‘Canada’s Team,’ and whether the country’s fans should unite behind a common cause. It’s almost always nonsense, because Canadian fans don’t think that way. But as we’ve argued before, this year’s Jets may be the only team that could actually pull it off. Winnipeg fans have had so little to cheer about over the years that the rest of the country hasn’t built up any resentment yet. Mix in how likeable the team is and the whole ‘lost our franchise for 15 years’ thing, and if the entire nation was ever going to come together to cheer a team on, this might be this one.

And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt that they’d be playing Toronto. This year’s Maple Leafs are all sorts of fun to watch, and you could list a dozen reasons why Canadian fans should get behind them too. But they won’t. They never will. That’s just how it works in a country where it seems like half the fans root for the Leafs, and the other half root for whoever just beat the Leafs. Put the Jets’ feel-good story on one side of the ledger and a long-suffering Leafs Nation on the other, and you might just tear this country apart.

It would be awesome.

We just have to get there. That’s where things get a little bit tricky, since both teams are facing a tough road out of their own division, let alone all the way to the Final. The Leafs will probably have to go through both Tampa and Boston, while the Jets will presumably have to get by Minnesota and Nashville. As good as both teams are, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see one or both go home early.

Tonight’s game won’t provide all that much in the way of drama — it doesn’t matter much to a Leafs team that’s locked into third spot in the Atlantic, and the Jets are going to finish second in the Central. But it should still provide a good dose of drama, if only because it’s just the second meeting of the year between the two teams. The first came way back on opening night, when the Leafs arrived in Winnipeg and blew the doors off on the way to a 7-2 win. Plenty has changed since then, and maybe we get the payback game tonight. But another dominating performance from Toronto just might plant a few seeds of doubt in a young Jets team.

Would those seeds would sprout into anything by, say, early June? It’s a long shot, and everyone knows it. But for now, at least, Canadian fans can dare to dream just a little.

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Key subplot: Spoilers aplenty

One weird quirk of today’s schedule: While there are two dozen teams in action, only two games feature a matchup between teams that are both holding down playoff spots. One of those is the Leafs and Jets. The other is the late game between the Sharks and Golden Knights, which will determine whether we end up with anything approaching a race for the Pacific in the season’s final week.

That means we’ve got plenty of chances for bad teams to play spoiler. Of course, that also means several chances for bad teams to roll over and hand an easy two points to a contender, but such is life in the NHL in late March.

The most important games will involve the teams that are right on the playoff bubble. That includes the Devils facing the Islanders in what should be a mismatch; the Islanders have mailed in most of the last month, and they played the Maple Leafs last night while the Devils were resting up. The Blues should have a similar slam dunk against the Coyotes, although Arizona has spent the last few weeks being just respectable enough to mess up what seemed like sure-thing lottery odds. And we should probably mention the Stars, who’ll get another shot at the Wild after Thursday’s loss and are technically still alive.

Beyond that, it’s a few bad teams trying to get moral victories over contenders, as the Canadiens face the Penguins, the Sabres get the Predators and the Canucks take on the Blue Jackets. Then you’ve got the matchups between two also-rans, like the Flames vs. Oilers, Wings vs. Senators and Rangers vs. Hurricanes. Those teams can’t even pretend to be spoiling anything, other than maybe their fans’ appetite to see any more of this season.

But there is one more reasonably important game worth mentioning, and it’s one that’s starting to feel familiar…

Marquee matchup: Boston Bruins vs. the State of Florida

In what stands as one of the weirder scheduling quirks of the season, the Bruins spend most of the last few weeks facing the two Florida teams. Of their final seven games, five are against either the Panthers or Lightning.

For the record, this isn’t all the schedule-maker’s fault — one of the season-ending games is the makeup for the Bruins-Panthers game that was wiped out by a January snowstorm. But it’s still an oddity for Boston, one that started with Thursday’s visit from the Lightning. That one had a playoff atmosphere (and almost a goalie fight), and ended with the Bruins taking over top spot in the Atlantic.

Tonight they host the Panthers in a game that’s no less important. The Panthers need every point they can get as they try to track down the Devils for the last Eastern wild card spot, especially after blowing a point against the Senators on Thursday. That left them three back of the Devils, although they still hold a game in hand.

After tonight’s game, the Bruins travel to Philadelphia tomorrow before heading down to Florida to face the Lightning on Monday and the Panthers on Wednesday. Then it’s back home to face Ottawa, followed by the Panthers yet again.

If Bruins fans are sick of the whole state by then, you could hardly blame them. But they may just be getting warmed up. If the Bruins can hold down first place and the Panthers manage to slip into eighth, that would set up a first-round meeting between the two teams. And assuming the Bruins made it out of that matchup, there’s a good chance the Lightning would be waiting for them in round two.

Player in the spotlight: Casey Mittelstadt

This is always an exciting time of year for Sabres fans. With the season winding down and the playoffs approaching, they get to say things like “This is almost over” and “I wonder how we’ll lose the draft lottery this time” and “Good news, soon we won’t have to watch any more Sabres games.”

But this year, there’s at least some reason for something vaguely approaching optimism in Buffalo, thanks to the arrival of top prospect Casey Mittelstadt. The 19-year-old University of Minnesota star was the eighth pick in last year’s draft, and made his NHL debut on Thursday against the Red Wings. The Sabres blew an early 2-0 lead and lost 6-3, but Mittelstadt picked up his first NHL point, an assist on a third-period goal by Evan Rodrigues.

That’s not much, but it’s a start, and Sabres fans will probably take it. Mittelstadt isn’t the usual late-season debut, where a so-so prospect gets hyped up in an effort to placate a miserable fan base. Mittelstadt won’t singlehandedly turn around the Sabres’ fortunes, but he has some genuine star potential. The Sabres have holes everywhere, but elite talent is what wins in the modern NHL, and this kid might have it.

Tonight, he’ll get to see what he can do against the league’s best team, as the Sabres are in Nashville, and he may get to do it against another late-season prospect. The Predators signed Eeli Tolvanen to an unusual maxed-out rookie contract this week, and he could debut tonight. Unlike Mittelstadt, Tolvanen figures to get more than a few games to show what he can do; he could be a key part of the Predators’ playoff drive. But for now, we’ll get our chance to see what he can do. We might start to find out tonight.

From the archives

The Senators and Red Wings face each other this afternoon in Ottawa in a must-lose battle for lottery odds. The two teams don’t have much of a rivalry, having never met in the playoffs or had any especially memorable regular season run-ins. If anything, the most famous moment between the two teams probably came during the 2013 off-season, when longtime Senators’ captain Daniel Alfredsson made the decision to abandon ship and play out his final season in Detroit.

But while it’s largely been forgotten, the two teams were once rumoured to be closing in on what would have stood as one of the biggest trades in NHL history. And even two decades later, it probably stands as history’s greatest reminder that sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make.

To get there, we have to head back to 1995. The expansion Senators have just wrapped their third season, and they’re terrible, finishing dead-last by 12 points despite the season being cut short by a lockout. The Red Wings are at the other end of the standings, having won the Presidents’ Trophy and gone on to the Stanley Cup final. But their dreams of a championship had ended in a stunning sweep at the hands of the Devils.

It was yet another playoff disappointment for a team developing a reputation for coming up short in big moments, and it had plenty of voices in the hockey world wondering if the Red Wings would ever be champions. On the eve of the 1995-96 season, a rumour began to gain steam. Big changes could be coming to Detroit. The Red Wings knew what they had to do, and they were ready to make it happen.

They had to trade Steve Yzerman.

Yes, believe it or not, there really was a time when lots of hockey fans thought that Yzerman was the problem in Detroit. He could rack up the stats, the thinking went, but where was he when it counted? Much like Joe Thornton and Alex Ovechkin and any number of stars who came after him, there were plenty of fingers pointed at Yzerman as being A Guy You Couldn’t Win With.

And if that sounds strange in hindsight, the rumoured trade seems downright bizarre. The talk had Yzerman heading to Ottawa. And the return, according to the most popular version of the rumour, would be Alexei Yashin.

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Yes, the same Yashin who’d go on to become the poster child for selfish, me-first players. Back in 1995, some people thought the Red Wings would be better off with Yashin than Yzerman. And it wasn’t just wishful thinking from Ottawa fans hoping to see a local boy come home. A trip back through the online archives finds plenty of Red Wing fans who were talking themselves into just such a move.

In one version of the story, the trade had actually been agreed to before Detroit ownership stepped in and squashed it. We’ll probably never know if that’s true or not, but we do know how the story ended up. Yzerman and the Red Wings suffered through one more season of playoff disappointment before winning three Cups in six years. Today, Yzerman is viewed as one of the greatest winners of his generation. Yashin is, um, not viewed that way.

But 23 years ago, there really were people who thought Yzerman-for-Yashin made sense. So the next time someone tries to tell you that a team’s franchise player just isn’t a guy you can win with, imagine the Red Wings trying to win a Cup with Yashin. And then be glad that some rumours don’t come true.

Oddly specific prediction

The Oilers and Flames bring us back to the glory days of the 1980s Battle of Alberta with a game featuring at least three fights and nine goals.

Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-23 after the Red Wings couldn’t hold a third-period lead in Toronto.

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