Down Goes Brown: Penguins-Leafs showdown a measuring stick in the East

Blues GM Doug Armstrong joins HC at Noon to discuss his club's philosophy heading into this trade deadline, and why he feels it will be a very busy day this year, as opposed to last year.

We’ve got 11 games on tap tonight, including six of the seven Canadian teams in action. With the races tightening and the trade deadline looming, it’s getting tense out there. So let’s try to keep things calm by starting with two teams that are pretty much already in the playoffs…

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Penguins

It’s officially time to be afraid of the Penguins again.

After two straight Stanley Cups, they were kind enough to give us a bit of a break early in the season. The Pens stumbled out of the gate, including an embarrassing 10-1 loss to the Blackhawks during the season’s first week, and never seemed quite right through the first few months. As late as the first week of January, they’d lost more games than they’d won. They were dipping in and out of a wild-card spot, and GM Jim Rutherford was reportedly ready to make major changes to try to save the season.

But while it didn’t seem like it at the time, a 4-0 win over the Islanders on Jan. 5 now looks like a turning point. They followed that by beating a red-hot Bruins team in overtime, then added wins over the Red Wings and Rangers. They’ve stayed hot ever since — they haven’t lost two straight since the end of December. In all, the Penguins are rolling to the tune of a 13-3-1 record during the stretch, blowing by the wild-card traffic jam and putting them within range of the Capitals for the Metro title.

And they’ve looked scary doing it, scoring five or more goals seven times and winning eight games by three goals or more. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are back to their old selves after slow starts, and Phil Kessel continues to rack up the points.

Maybe most frightening of all, they’re still not at their best. Matt Murray has been much better lately, but has still been inconsistent. If he were to heat up, the Penguins might start to look unbeatable. Then again, Murray tends to do his best work in the playoffs, and that’s where he and his team are headed. At this rate, they’ll be back among the favourites once they get there.

The Maple Leafs are headed to the post-season too, although their status as legitimate contenders is still in question. It’s been a weird season for Toronto, who’ve spent much of the year all but locked into the third spot in the Atlantic. The Leafs are trying to make that interesting, taking a run at the Lightning and Bruins in an effort to at least land home-ice advantage in the first round, although that’s still a longshot. But with nine wins in their last ten and two lines filling the net, they’re at least looking more like the team that was briefly considered a Stanley Cup favourite back in October. That stretch has included wins over a couple of legitimate Cup contenders in the Predators and Lightning. Tonight, they get a shot at another one.

It all adds up to a good test for both teams, and a decent measuring stick of where we’re at in an Eastern Conference that suddenly seems wide open. We’ll hold off on any conference final preview hyperbole for now, since the Lightning, Bruins and Capitals will all have something to say about that. But if both of these teams keep rolling the way they have, we make no promises about where the hype machine may be at when they face off again three weeks from now.

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Key subplot: In the Wild(card) West

The NHL is a league of parity, as it loves to remind us. Is that always a good thing? We’ve had that debate before. But even if you could do with a little less coin-flipping in your pro sports product, it’s hard to deny that the modern-day NHL can produce some ridiculously fun playoff races.

Well, “fun” may not be the right word. If your favourite team is already locked into a post-season spot, or was eliminated long ago, you can look at something like the current Western playoff race, shake your head, and grab the popcorn. But if your team is in the middle of it, it’s probably not much fun at all.

That group would include the Flames, who continue their quest to doggy-paddle their way into the post-season. They’ve been a tough team to figure out all season long, but especially since reeling off seven straight wins and then immediately following that with six straight losses. Then came three more wins, and since then it’s been lose one, win one, through Thursday’s win over the Predators. That’s all left them tied with the Wild for the eighth-best record in the West, which isn’t good, but also puts them just two points out of home-ice in the Pacific.

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The good news is that after a tough six-game road trip, the Flames are back home tonight, and they’ve got a reasonably easy matchup waiting for them in the Panthers. Florida’s been better lately, winning six of seven, but it’s not going to make the playoffs. This is the sort of game that a good team has to find a way to win. Are the Flames a good team? Nobody knows, but tonight might make us feel like we do, even if that sense of certainty will probably be fleeting.

Meanwhile, most of the teams the Flames are battling with will already have a result in the books by the time Calgary hits the ice. The Kings play this afternoon. So do the Wild and Ducks, who face each other – every Flames fan can already feel the three-point game coming in that one. The Sharks, Stars and Avs all have the day off, but play tomorrow.

So by Monday, we’ll know more about where the West is at. Not much, but more.

Marquee matchup: Front office change vs. front office stability

On paper, this afternoon’s meeting between the Sabres and Kings doesn’t seem all that interesting. The Kings are flailing around the edges of the playoff race, while the Sabres never even got close to it. It’s an interconference game between two teams without much history. It would be an easy one to ignore.

But it’s also an interesting matchup to come across at this time of year, because it’s a meeting between the league’s two newest GMs. Buffalo’s Jason Botterill and Los Angeles’s Rob Blake both took over last off-season, and both are holding a GM’s job for the first time in the NHL. And while you obviously can’t judge the results of a GM switch based on two-thirds of a season, so far the results have been decidedly mixed.

Botterill’s biggest trade so far came in the off-season, when he shipped Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis to Minnesota for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville, and while that deal has turned out OK, in hindsight his roster clearly needed a bigger overhaul. Blake’s biggest move was probably this week’s Dion Phaneuf trade, which was as much about cap hits and salary as it was about improving the actual roster.

Again, both guys deserve and will get far more time to show what they can do. But with it seeming like half the league’s GMs are under the gun as we head towards the deadline, today’s Sabres/Kings matchup serves as a reminder that quick fixes usually aren’t all that quick.

By contrast, the schedule also brings a meeting between the two longest-serving GMs in the league. Nashville’s David Poile and Detriot’s Ken Holland have both been on the job since July 1997, by far the longest tenures in the league. That’s about where their similarities end. Holland inherited the reigning Stanley Cup champions and went on to win three more championships, but these days he’s feeling the heat in Detroit, with more than a few fans wondering if it isn’t time for a fresh set of eyes.

Meanwhile, Poile took over an expansion team and has had to navigate a long and winding road to contender status. But he’s there now, his recent record in trades is exceptional, and he’s the reigning GM of the Year. There have been times over the last two decades where you wondered if Poile might be on the way out in Nashville, but right now he might be the most respected executive in the game.

In one game, you’ve got two guys with a combined 40+ years of experience at their current roles; in the other, two guys who’ve barely been on the job 40 weeks. It’s a reminder that there are different ways to approach building an NHL contender, and that whichever direction you decide to go, there are never any guarantees.

All of which is a nice way to segue into…

Hot seat watch: Plenty of GMs (but not Jim Benning)

Benning finally got his extension this week, signing on for three more years of rebuilding the Canucks. Well, maybe not three more years of rebuilding, since they could be ready to contend by… [checks roster]… you know what, let’s just say three more years of rebuilding.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The occasional outlier aside, rebuilds are supposed to take time. This is Benning’s fourth season on the job, and while there was some initial stumbling over whether or not the Canucks actually needed a reset, he’s mostly done a decent job. The prospect pipeline isn’t blowing anyone away, but it’s pretty good, especially since the team hasn’t had any lottery luck. And Brock Boeser’s emergence as a legitimate star offers some hope. There’s still a long way to go in Vancouver, and no guarantees that Benning gets them there. But at least now he can attack the trade deadline without wondering if he’s just setting the table for somebody else.

Benning joins Pierre Dorion in the “GMs of bad Canadian teams who still got extended” club, with the Sens boss getting his new deal last weekend. Both of those teams are in action today against former playoff opponents, as the Senators face the Rangers this afternoon and the Canucks get a Stanley Cup final rematch against Benning’s old team when they host the Bruins. That Senators/Rangers series from last year feels very far away now because of the way both teams have drifted off track since. The Bruins/Canucks series from 2011 feels very far away because, well, it was. Time will tell when these teams see their next playoff action, and whether either Dorion or Benning are around to see it, but both men’s odds are looking better than they were at the start of the month.

Of course, that still leaves Marc Bergevin and Peter Chiarelli on the hot seat, and it’s probably fair to say that neither is going to be getting any extension offers anytime soon. Both may well be working to save their jobs over the next few days, which is hardly ideal when you’re guiding a team that needs a long-term vision.

Both teams are in action tonight, and they’ll get a look at the opposite ends of the rebuild spectrum. The Oilers will visit the Coyotes, who followed up years of tanking last summer by shifting into gear, hitting the gas, and them immediately spinning out into a nearby tree. Along with the Sabres, they’re the league’s cautionary example of the dangers of the traditional rebuild. It’s a story the Oilers know well, and part of the reason that Chiarelli is unlikely to want to strip down too much of his roster. It’s one thing to tear it all apart, but rebuilding from scratch is never easy.

Except that apparently sometimes it is, as the Canadiens will be reminded when they face the Golden Knights. Vegas is so new that they weren’t even a rebuild; they’re just a build. And George McPhee managed to pick through the league’s scraps and come up with a Presidents’ Trophy contender. It can’t be fun for any GM of a struggling team to be reminded of what McPhee and the Knights are doing these days. In fact, I’d say they’re the last team that Bergevin would want to see right now, except… well, you know.

Chiarelli and Bergevin aren’t the only GMs on the hot seat, and plenty of front office names around the league will probably be spending more time tonight working the phones than watching the games. We’re down to 10 days left to save a season, or in some cases a job. No pressure, guys.

From the archives

When it comes to the playoffs, the opening round is non-stop adrenaline and the Stanley Cup final is the exclamation mark on the season. But the conference final is where some of hockey’s most enduring memories have been made. From Stephane Matteau’s wraparound, to too-many-men, to Gretzky’s high stick, to Roy’s statue of liberty, to the epic Kings/Blackhawks overtime, to last year’s Pens/Sens classic, the conference final is often fantastic hockey.

This week’s matchup was not one of those times.

Instead, today’s schedule offers up a chance to look back at what was quite possibly the worst conference final in NHL history. Heading into the 2003 playoffs, the Wild and Ducks were both coming off 95-point seasons that were the best in franchise history. That wasn’t much of a shock, given the Wild were only three years old and the Ducks had only been around for a decade. Between them, the two franchises had won just one playoff round – a Ducks win in 1997 – and as the sixth and seventh seeds in the West, neither was expected to be much of a threat.

Instead, the Ducks pulled off a stunning sweep over the Red Wings and then knocked off the top-seeded Stars in six. Meanwhile, the Wild ended Patrick Roy’s career with a Game 7 OT win against the Avs, then beat the Canucks in seven more. That set up an unlikely conference final meeting between two underdogs. But would the matchup deliver an entertaining series?

Uh, no.

Instead, J.S. Giguere and the Ducks shut out the Wild in Game 1. Then they shut out the Wild in Game 2. Then they shut out the Wild in Game 3. But they did not shut out the Wild in Game 4, because Andrew Brunette score a single lonely goal in a 2-1 loss that ended the series.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

The sweep established a new NHL record for the fewest goals scored in a seven-game playoff series. It also gave the victorious Ducks a ridiculous 11 days off before the final, thanks to the Devils and Senators going seven in the East. Anaheim ended up getting shut out by Martin Brodeur in each of the first two games of that series, leading fans to wonder if the Western final was some sort of black hole from which no offence could escape.

It wasn’t, and the Ducks and Devils ended up delivering a pretty fascinating seven-game final that still holds up well, even if its signature moment feels a little uncomfortable today. But that Wild/Ducks series? Woof. We’d never seen anything quite like it. Here’s hoping we never do again.

Oddly specific prediction

The Wild and Ducks take us back to 2003, as Anaheim records a shutout win.

Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-17

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