With two days until the deadline, fans have one eye on the transaction wire and one on the scoreboard. We’ve got 12 games on the schedule to look forward to today. As for the number of trades, we’ll have to wait and see.
HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Stars
We’re starting to get a little bit of separation in the Central. With the Blackhawks falling out of the race and the Jets and Predators pulling away up top, that leaves four teams fighting for what could be anywhere from one to three spots.
The Stars are right in the thick of that group, thanks to a five-game win streak to start the month that finally boosted them from fringe wild-card team into something closer to the contender some of us thought they’d be. They’ve wobbled since then, including bad losses to the Canucks and Sharks, so they’re still well within “need every point they can get” territory, but they kick off a five-game homestand tonight.
For their part, the Jets had a four-game win streak ended on Tuesday by Los Angeles, and followed that up with last night’s win in St. Louis. The Blues’ recent struggles have turned what was shaping up as a three-way race for the division title into a showdown between the Jets and Predators, and those two teams will face each other three times in the next month, including on Tuesday night in Winnipeg.
That might make tonight’s matchup with the Stars a bit of a trap game if the Jets take it lightly. They shouldn’t — the Stars have been neck-and-neck with them since New Year’s and are looming as a potential first-round matchup. Winnipeg has already beaten the Stars twice, but those games both came in November and Dallas seems like a different team now.
Of course, with the deadline looming, lots of teams are about to look different. It remains to be seen whether these two teams are among them. Jim Nill and Kevin Cheveldayoff occupy opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to trading philosophy, with Nill being fairly aggressive and Cheveldayoff typically staying away from major moves.
With David Poile, Doug Armstrong, Joe Sakic and a presumably desperate Chuck Fletcher all still in the Central mix, it’s possible that neither Cheveldayoff or Nill can afford to be cautious. If so, they’ll both have some time to get to work after this one; neither team plays again until after Monday’s deadline.
Player in the spotlight: Mikhail Sergachev
Poor Marc Bergevin. I have no idea who or what he was in a previous life, but it apparently involved doing something terrible to the guy who makes the NHL’s Saturday schedule.
Two weeks ago, it was the return of P.K. Subban and the ghost of blockbusters past. Last week, it was the Golden Knights arriving just in time to remind everyone of how quickly a winner can be built in today’s NHL. This week, it’s Sergachev, the team’s once-untouchable prospect who turned out to be touchable after all.
The jury is still out on last summer’s deal that sent Sergachev and a second to Tampa for Jonathan Drouin. So far, it’s been advantage Lightning; Drouin is having a disappointing season while Sergachev was looking like a Calder candidate in the early going. He’s cooled off lately, and was even a healthy scratch at one point, so we can probably hold off on putting his bust alongside Patrick Roy, Chris Chelios and Subban in the terrible Habs trades hall of fame.
Still, it will be hard to watch him tonight in Montreal without wondering about the deal, which leads to wondering about Bergevin’s trading track record, which leads to wondering about what the next few days might hold for the Canadiens. They’ll go into the deadline as sellers, although it remains to be seen whether that translates into a full-on rebuild or something less. And when you’re selling, you dream of somehow prying loose a blue-chip prospect like, say, Mikhail Sergachev.
But even if you’re not a Canadiens fan reliving past decisions, there’s good reason to watch Sergachev tonight: There’s a slim but non-zero chance he could be traded again this week. That would have seemed unthinkable a week ago, but if Erik Karlsson is really in play, you have to think the Lightning are among the favourites to land him. They might even be able to do it without moving Sergachev; Steve Yzerman says he doesn’t want to move anyone off the current roster, although the betting here is that could change quickly with Karlsson in play. With the Senators looking for young talent in any deal, you’d have to imagine Sergachev will be at the top of their list. That’s a good reason for Ottawa fans to keep an eye on him, and for fans of any other team that would have to get past an unbeatable combo of Karlsson and the Lightning to cover their eyes.
We often hear about all the ghosts in Montreal. Tonight, for fans of the Habs, Lightning and Senators, Sergachev is basically the ghost of prospects past, present and (maybe) future. Whether that’s scary or not will depend on your perspective.
Key subplot: Wait, where’s he going?
Even two days away from the deadline, we still haven’t seen that many deals. Everyone is on edge. This is the part where I’m supposed to remind you to stay calm.
Well, forget that. You’re a hockey fan, and it’s trade-deadline time. Let’s get crazy.
At some point during tonight’s action, it’s going to happen. A player is going to disappear from his team’s bench and not return. There won’t have been any obvious injury. Eventually, the absence will be too long to be a simple equipment problem. Nobody will be quite sure where the player went, or why. Eventually, everyone will jump to the conclusion that he’s been traded. And by eventually, we mean immediately.
We’ve already seen the whole act play out a few times in recent weeks. We saw Jake Gardiner leave a game against the Blue Jackets, which set off all sorts of speculation that he’d been dealt. Never mind that his name has rarely been mentioned in any rumours, and it’s almost impossible to come up with a realistic scenario in which the team would move him. In October, that would mean it was clearly a false alarm. In February, it meant Lou Lamoriello had pulled off a blockbuster and Drew Doughty was on the way.
Or not. It turns out Gardiner just had a muscle spasm. Oops.
So maybe we all looked ridiculous for even speculating. Except that the day before, Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf had vanished from a game against the Penguins under similar circumstances. And of course, in Phaneuf’s case he really had been dealt. So sometimes, the trade speculation is true. And for this weekend only, that means we’re justified in assuming it’s always true.
The NHL hasn’t yet reached the MLB level, where players find out they’re traded during a game and get to perform elaborate goodbyes hugs and handshakes with teammates — or occasionally just stay in the game and start crying. But we’ll get there. For now, fans can keep a close eye on those benches, and any reports of unexplained absences. It’s probably nothing. But as Phaneuf could remind you, you just never know.
(And if you’re a star player and want to have some fun, head to the dressing room in the middle of a period. Shake a few hands on the way out. Hug the backup goalie. Then get a skate sharpened and come back in time for the next shift. Most of your fans will have already keeled over from cardiac arrest, but the ones that are left will get a good laugh out of it.)
Marquee matchup: Leafs/Bruins tonight vs. Leafs/Bruins in April
Now that we’re well into the second half of the season, we’re nearing the point where we can start cross-referencing the schedule to the standings to pick out meetings that look like they could represent a first-round matchup.
OK, yes, we’ve already been doing that, pretty much all season long if we’re being honest. But now it starts to feel like something more than wishful thinking. And that’s especially true in the weird Atlantic Division, where the presence of only three good teams has killed any suspense over who’s making the playoffs.
To be clear, a first-round meeting between the Leafs and Bruins isn’t remotely locked up, and Boston still has a decent shot at catching the Lightning. Still, according to the math folks, there’s a better-than-50-percent chance that these two teams are going to meet in the first round. That’s not a sure thing, but it’s far closer to it than we’re used to given how much of the season is left to play out.
So while tonight’s game is important in its own right, it’s going to be hard to watch it without thinking ahead a few months. Just about everything that happens tonight can be viewed through the lens of what we should expect if and when these two teams collide in April. How hard do the Bruins work to get Patrice Bergeron out against Toronto’s top line? Who do they even view as the top line, with Auston Matthews out? Do the Leafs’ small and speedy forwards make Zdeno Chara look big and terrifying or old and slow? Which goaltender has the edge? And will Nazem Kadri be able to make the Bruins and their fans feel the way everyone else feels about Brad Marchand?
Tonight’s game will be the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between the two teams. The Maple Leafs won the first two, but those were back in November before Boston emerged as a superpower. The most recent meeting came three weeks ago, and saw the Bruins dominate on their way to a 4–1 win. That was Toronto’s only loss in a ten-game stretch that saw them reestablish their contender credentials, but it still stood out as a wakeup call that planted a few doubts about whether the young Leafs could handle the Bruins in a seven-game series. No doubt, Toronto would love to return the favour and send a message of their own. But they’ll need to bring a much better game to make it happen.
From the archives
This week serves up a matchup between the Flyers and Senators, so yes, we pretty much have to do The Brawl.
Or maybe that should The Brawls, plural. After all, the March 5, 2004, meeting between the Senators and Flyers involved several line brawls and individual fights, each one roughly half as violent as the last. It was basically the Zeno’s Paradox of hockey fights. But it resulted in an NHL single-game record of a combined 419 penalty minutes.
A few thoughts on all of this:
• Hands up if every time you watch this clip, you find yourself going “Wait, Rob Ray once played for the Senators?” Everyone? Cool, was hoping it wasn’t just me.
• While things get silly fairly quickly, that first line brawl is not messing around. It features Ray, Donald Brashear, a recently acquired Todd Simpson and (eventually) a goalie fight. It also makes the normally placid Jacques Martin mad enough to send out his big guns on the next shift, and they seem pretty clear on what they’re out there to do.
• Let’s take a moment to feel sorry for Mattias Timander, who somehow gets paired off with Chara. I’m an old-school guy at heart who believes that The Code means no turtling, but if an angry and in-his-prime Chara wants to go I think it’s perfectly reasonably to hop over the glass, sprint down the nearest aisle and pull the fire alarm on your way out of the building. Chara goes relatively easy on him, Vincent Lecavalier-style, but that couldn’t have been a fun experience.
• We get a third line brawl, a little bit of hockey, a few more fights, and then the main event: Patrick Sharp vs. Jason Spezza. I’ve made this point before, but Spezza alone was assessed more PIM for this three-second fight than were handed out in the entire Red Wings/Avalanche brawl. I’m not saying the 419 PIM from this game were inflated by misconducts, but I’m pretty sure I just got 10 minutes for thinking it.
• This game came exactly one month after another infamous night in Senators’ history that ended with the bench almost empty: the Flu Game against the Maple Leafs that ended with Owen Nolan’s “boo hoo” soundbite. Between that gastrointestinal outbreak and this Chara/Timander fight, that makes two Senators games in one season that involved somebody nearly soiling their pants on the ice.
As for the epilogue, the game only resulted in one suspension, an automatic one-game ban to Danny Markov for getting his third game misconduct of the year. But it’s indirectly responsible for the current rule that makes instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game an automatic suspension.
Three days after the game, the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident happened and changed views on fighting significantly. It’s safe to say the 419-PIM record will never be matched; there’s only been one game with even half as many in the nearly 14 years since.
Oddly specific prediction
The Sens and Flyers renew hostilities with a modern-day version of the 2004 brawl… which is to say that there will be two fights in the game.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-18