Down Goes Brown Saturday Storylines: Can Leafs end skid in Montreal?

Mike Babcock is embracing the challenge of beating the Canadiens, who the Maple Leafs have lost 14 straight to (10 under his command as head coach).

Welcome to our weekly look ahead to the Saturday slate of games. Last week, we told you all about how unstoppable Connor McDavid was. Since then, he’s had no goals, one assist and is a minus-three and the Oilers haven’t won a game.

Whose career will we curse this week? Read on to find out.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens

Not exactly a tough call here. Any time the Leafs and Habs meet, it’s something special, especially if it’s on a Saturday night. And if the matchup comes at a time when the two teams can offer up some particularly interesting storylines to chew on, all the better.

That’s the case tonight, as we’ll have plenty of subplots to work with. For example: Offence. The Canadiens can’t score, and the Leafs can’t stop scoring. Not counting the shootout, the Canadiens have scored just four goals all year. Through four games, they’ve yet to manage a multi-goal period.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have already scored three or more in a period four times. The Canadiens got shut out by Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers on Sunday; the night before, the Leafs scored more goals against Lundqvist in the first period than the Habs have in their entire season.

So yes, that would seem to tilt things in Toronto’s favour. But then there’s a second subplot: Goaltending. The Canadiens have the best goalie in the world, while the Maple Leafs still aren’t quite sure what they have. Frederik Andersen looked sharp against the Jets in the opener, but he’s been iffy ever since. He’s not getting a ton of help from a young team that still struggles in its own end, but his .871 save percentage has to have Leaf fans worried (and checking up on Calvin Pickard scouting reports).

Carey Price hasn’t exactly been on fire either – he’s clocking in at .899 – but his track record is just slightly better than Andersen’s, and he’s been the least of Montreal’s concerns so far.

These games have always been fun over the years, even when one team (or both) wasn’t very good. We’ve seen bad blood, sudden death and unfortunate singalongs. Mix in the fact that this year’s meeting could be a first-round playoff preview – no it’s not too early to talk about that; we’re just one good Lightning season away from it finally happening – along with what’s sure to be a vocal Montreal crowd, 14 straight wins for the Habs in the rivalry, the ongoing Alex Galchenyuk drama, and all the Maple Leafs’ best players calling Jonathan Drouin “grandpa,” and you’ve got a matchup that should be all sorts of fun.

It’s the first of four Leafs/Habs meetings this year, and all of them come on Saturday night. We’ll try not to put each and every one in the feature spot of this column, but no promises.

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Key subplot: Cleaning house

Not counting Dale Tallon’s weird reemergence in Florida, there were only two teams that fired both their coach and general manager during the off-season. That would be the Kings and Sabres, and they meet tonight in Los Angeles.

While both teams cleaned house, they came at it from very different directions. The Kings were recent two-time champs trying to get back to the top without having to resort to a full rebuild. The Sabres have already been down the rebuild road and then some, and are desperately trying to find some traction and start moving forward. In theory, they’re two teams headed in the opposite direction – the Kings old and fading, the Sabres young and surging – but there hasn’t been much of a surge to be found in Buffalo.

It’s only week two, but it’s fair to say that the returns so far have been mixed. The Kings are off to a decent start, earning five of six points. They still look a lot like the old Kings, despite promises that the offence would open up with John Stevens in charge. But then again a look at the roster says that they pretty much are the old Kings. So far, that’s been good enough.

Meanwhile, the Sabres are spinning their wheels under Phil Housley, sitting with just a single point to show for four games and tied with the Coyotes for dead last in the entire league. Nobody but Evander Kane is scoring, and they’ve somehow already given up four shorthanded goals.

It’s early, of course, and we’ll be reminded of that constantly for the next few weeks. Except that in the grand scale of the Sabres rebuild, it’s not early at all. This thing has been going on forever, and at some point you’d like to see some signs of progress.

The Sabres get a chance to show some this weekend. They’ve got the Kings tonight and the Ducks tomorrow, and if they can come away with a few points then things start to look manageable. The next seven games include meetings with teams like the Golden Knights, Canucks, Red Wings and Coyotes, and while that stretch doesn’t look quite as easy now as it might have heading into the season, it still represents an opportunity to make up some ground.

But if the rest of the California swing goes bad, the Sabres could head home oh-for-six and in trouble. Maybe they already are. This was supposed to be a new beginning, but so far the beginning doesn’t feel very new at all.

Player in the spotlight: Jaromir Jagr

The NHL came perilously close to losing Jagr after an off-season that dragged on without any team signing the league’s second-all-time scorer. But with the season about to begin and KHL rumours swirling, the Flames swooped in with days to spare and got a deal done.

It seems like a perfect fit. The Flames had a top-nine wing spot available, they’re already contenders, and they’ve got a bunch of younger forwards who could no doubt learn a thing or two from playing next to one of the all-time greats. On paper, this can’t miss.

Of course, that’s just on paper. This week we’ve had our first chance to find out how it looks on the ice. Expectations should be modest – players tend to be rusty when they miss all of training camp, especially when they’re 45 years old. No reasonable fan should panic if Jagr is held off the board early on, sees limited ice time, or even looks a step slow. That’s especially true tonight, as he finishes his first set of back-to-back games as a Flame.

So no, this isn’t some sort of make-or-break judgment day for the newest Flame. That can come later. For now, let’s just be thankful that we get at least one more chance to watch one of the all-time greats do his thing.

(And next year, let’s get the whole Jagr signing done a little earlier in the summer.)

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

Hot-seat watch

We’re 10 days into the season, so we’re already passed due for some coaching hot-seat rumours. And right on schedule, this week we got out first look at who the oddsmakers think is in the most danger. Many of the names were the ones you might expect, including Jeff Blashill, Jared Bednar and even Barry Trotz. But the leading candidate is… Peter DeBoer?

That seems strange. DeBoer’s Sharks were off to a slow start (0-2-0 at the time the odds were released), but he’d seemed relatively safe heading into the season. San Jose is still just a season removed from a trip to the final, and they had 99 points last year. So the odds seemed a bit, well, odd.

DeBoer’s opponent behind the bench tonight is apparently in trouble, too, with New York’s Doug Weight tied for second spot on the bookies’ list. Again, that seems unlikely, since he’s only been on the job since January (and only dropped the interim tag in the off-season). The Islanders are a bit of a mess from top to bottom these days so you never say never, but you’d think Weight should be fine. Apparently not, according to the oddsmakers.

In case you’re wondering, the other coach who tied Weight for second spot was Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice. In theory, Maurice should be on super-thin ice based on the Jets’ lack of playoff success, and he dominated our own pre-season hot-seat list even though he signed an extension in the off-season. The Jets have won two straight but still feel like they’re one bad week away from making changes. Tonight they face the Hurricanes and Bill Peters, another coach who may have been on shaky ground heading into the season.

Should we bet on somebody getting fired tonight? Probably not, no. Remember, we didn’t see a coaching change last year until late-November. But the speculation is an unpleasant part of the game these days. And teams might want to have a spare car ready to go, just in case.

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From the archives

Upsets are almost always great fun. Everyone loves an underdog, and seeing David defy the odds and knock off Goliath on a big stage can make for an irresistible story.

We said “almost always.”

Every now and then an upset story comes along that, in hindsight, you kind of wish never happened. Tonight brings a rematch of one of those unfortunate upsets: the 1996 Eastern Conference Final, in which the Panthers knocked off the powerhouse Penguins.

In theory, the 1995–96 Panthers were just about the ideal Cinderella story. It was only the third season of the franchise’s existence, so even making the playoffs was impressive. Then they knocked off the Bruins and Flyers to advance to the conference final. The team was likeable and scrappy, led by guys like Scott Mellanby, Rob Niedermayer and Brian Skrudland, and John Vanbiesbrouck had a career year in net. They even had rats. Thousands and thousands of rats. Trust me, it was weird.

But then they ran into a 362-goal Pittsburgh Penguins juggernaut that featured the league’s top two scorers in Mario Lemieux (161 points) and Jaromir Jagr (149). They also had Ron Francis, although he was hurt and missed the Panthers series. But that hardly seemed to matter. Surely, Mario and friends would run over the upstart Panthers.

Instead, Florida stunned the hockey world by knocking off the Pens in seven games. That included a 3–1 win in Pittsburgh in the deciding game in which the Penguins’ big guns were all but silenced. The three-year-old Panthers were headed to the Stanley Cup final.

It was a nice-enough story. But it cost us what might have been one of the best final matchups in history. The Avalanche were waiting for the winner, having just finished off the Wings in a series that included a minor controversy that was quickly forgotten. That matchup would have featured the top five scorers in the league, all future Hall of Famers (Lemieux, Jagr, Joe Sakic, Francis and Peter Forsberg), not to mention Patrick Roy squaring off against Tom Barasso, maybe literally. They were the league’s two highest-scoring teams, stacked with star power and about as evenly matched as they come.

Instead, we got the Panthers and Avalanche, and it turned out to be one of the very worst Stanley Cup finals ever. The Avs rolled to a four-game sweep that included an 8–1 win in Game 2, and a Game 4 that went into triple-overtime tied 0–0 before defensive defenceman Uwe Krupp scored the Cup-winning goal by throwing a puck at the net through a screen.

It was a valiant effort by the Panthers, but it was impossible for fans not to think about the matchup we just missed. Here’s hoping Florida and Pittsburgh give us an entertaining game tonight. Based on how things went 21 years ago, they kind of owe us.

Oddly specific prediction

Dion Phaneuf gets a goal in his hometown.

Oddly-specific-prediction record: 0-for-1

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