It’s a bit of a weird weekend this time around, with the NHL taking U.S. Thanksgiving off on Thursday and then jamming the schedule with 14 games last night, the busiest Friday of the year. That means just about everyone will be playing tired tonight, and the combination of fatigue and backup goalies could lead to some high-scoring games.
HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Sharks
Heading into the season, this wouldn’t have been a game you circled as a potential matchup of the night. And sure, there are other matchups around the league that feature more star power or better teams. But this one is intriguing partly because it features two teams we haven’t quite figured out yet.
The Jets are finishing off a tough road swing that’s seen them play four games in six nights, starting in Nashville and then heading through California. So far, it’s yielded mixed results, with two wins in three games. But that still leaves the Jets with one of the better records in the Western Conference at 14-5-3.
We’ve been waiting for this kind of breakout for years in Winnipeg, where a talented young core has played fun-but-inconsistent hockey that’s so far produced more magazine covers declaring them future Cup champions (one) than playoff game victories (still waiting). Last week, we nudged them into our top-five power rankings for the first time, well, ever.
So it’s hard not to get excited about how it’s all coming together this year. But then you look down the list of teams the Jets have actually beaten, and aside from an admittedly impressive 7–1 win over the Penguins you see a mix of struggling contenders, question marks and outright bad teams. Maybe that’s to be expected in a parity league where almost everyone is just kind of OK, but it would be nice to see the Jets make a statement.
The Sharks may not offer that opportunity, since they’ve been up and down all year. We snuck them into the top five on a couple of occasions, too, but they’ve cooled off lately and dropped out of a playoff spot. That’s not a cause for panic quite yet, at least in what’s shaping up to be a weak Pacific Division, and the analytics types still seem to love them. But wins are wins, and right now the Sharks are in danger of moving into that mushy middle of teams nobody pays much attention to. Maybe they should already be there.
If so, then this is exactly the sort of winnable road game that a contender would march in and take. We’re still not sure that the Jets are that team, but they’ve been proving it a game at a time, and they get another chance tonight. At the very least, it may be the biggest Jets-vs.-Sharks matchup in 50 years.
Player in the spotlight: Carey Price
Price will reportedly get the start tonight, as the struggling Canadiens host the Sabres. It will be his first action since Nov. 2, and it would be an understatement to say that he’s rejoining a team that could use a win right about now. The Canadiens have dropped five straight, and they find themselves closer to last place in the East than to a playoff spot.
If this season were a Hollywood script, this would be the part where the heroic star returns from injury just in time to turn the season around. But Price hadn’t been playing well before he got hurt, posting an ugly .877 save percentage on the year. And rookie Charlie Lindgren was actually pretty good in relief, so it’s not as if solid goaltending will somehow solve all of Montreal’s problems.
Still, at this point anything that changes the mix is a good thing. And the chance, slim as it may be, that Price returns in something approaching his 2015 Hart Trophy form offers up at least a little hope to a team that could sure use some. With rumours of a rebuild on the way, this team needs to bank some wins right now. With Price returning on home ice against one of the worst teams in the league, they couldn’t ask for a better chance to get one.
Or, you know, he’ll give up a goal on the first shot he faces and Montreal fans will turn on him. It’s never boring in Montreal, and a star’s big comeback gives us an opportunity to shift the narrative around this team yet again. Price’s play will let us know which direction to head in.
Key subplot: An Eastern Conference final preview?
Yes, it’s still early to be talking about potential playoff matchups. But it’s hard to look at tonight’s Penguins/Lightning game and not start thinking ahead to May. Because man, would that ever be a fun Eastern Conference final.
That’s not even speculation — we’ve seen this matchup once before, back in 2016, and it was a classic. The two teams went seven games back then, with the Lightning coughing up a 3–2 series lead to squander a chance to get back to the Stanley Cup final for a second straight year. Instead, the Penguins punched their ticket through and ended up winning the first of two straight Cups (and counting), while the Lightning haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
A rematch would be fantastic, especially with the way this year’s Lightning are rolling. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos may have passed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the league’s most feared pair of forwards. With Victor Hedman having his typical Norris-worthy season and Andrei Vasilevskiy looking good in his first year as the unquestioned starter, the Lightning are the clear favourite to come out of an uneven Atlantic.
The Penguins aren’t quite holding up their end of the dream-matchup bargain, struggling to get into high gear through the early goings. But they’re still lurking in the hunt for top spot in the Metro, and if anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt it’s the two-time champs. You always worry about fatigue when a team has played as much hockey as the Penguins over the last few years, and their questionable depth leaves them vulnerable to a hangover season. But until they fall apart, or somebody else runs away with the division, the Penguins have earned the right to be called the Metro favourites.
This is the third game of the season between the two teams, with the Lightning winning both previous meetings. Tampa took a 5–4 win on home ice in the season’s second week, then embarrassed the Penguins 7–1 a week later. That one was part of an ongoing theme for Pittsburgh’s season: looking terrible when they have to play on back-to-back nights. They’re 0-for-6 in those games, including some ugly blowouts. And sure enough, tonight’s meeting will present another back-half challenge, coming on the heels of yesterday’s 4-3 loss in Boston.
The Lightning played last night, too (a 3-1 loss in Washington). And Pittsburgh fans can look on the bright side: Playing the best team in the league in a situation you’ve already been embarrassed in more than once might be the perfect chance to send a message that the champs aren’t ready to be written off yet.
In any case, it’s the last meeting of the year between the two teams… at least until the playoffs. Here’s hoping.
Marquee matchup: Auston Matthews vs. Alex Ovechkin
We got to see this matchup play out during last year’s playoffs, when the Leafs and Capitals decided to see if they could go an entire series where every game was decided in sudden death. They almost made it, and although neither Ovechkin or Matthews scored one of the winners, they were still front and centre through most of the series.
It’s not hard to figure out why. In addition to being two of the most exciting players in the league, Ovechkin and Matthews have plenty in common. They were both No. 1–overall picks. Both won the Calder Trophy. And as of last week, they’re both on top of the cap-era list for goals scored in the first 100 games of a career.
We’ll see how far those comparisons carry as Matthews’s career winds on. Maple Leafs fans are hoping they can add items like “multiple-time Hart Trophy winner” and “considered perhaps the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history,” while skipping over the whole “one of the best players to never make a Cup final” thing. But either way, we can expect the two stars to be front and centre at just about every Leafs/Caps matchup from here until the end of Ovechkin’s career.
This will be the second matchup between the two teams since last year’s playoff battle, with the Leafs earning a 2-0 shutout win in Washington on Oct. 17. We didn’t know it at the time, but that game would be one of the final bright spots for the Leafs before they went cold, losing six of their next nine. That was followed with six straight wins before another stumble this week. Now they’ll be looking to shut down Ovechkin and the Caps again, this time on home ice.
As for the Capitals, they still don’t look like the team that won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, hovering around a wild-card spot instead of the top of the standings, and coach Barry Trotz is beginning to sound like a guy who’s getting tired of all this. If the Caps are going to turn their season around, this is a good time to do it — tonight will be their only road game in a stretch that sees them play nine of 10 at home.
From the archives
Tonight serves up a meeting between the Red Wings and Devils, which is a rematch of a 1995 Stanley Cup final that made some history. Coming on the heels of the league’s first-ever lockout-shortened season, that series was New Jersey’s first trip to the final and Detroit’s first since 1966. It resulted in the Devils’ first-ever championship.
But far more importantly, it was the series that gave us the most brutal intermission interview in league history:
That’s what we call a hostile reception.
There’s a myth among fans that Gary Bettman has always been booed by NHL fans. It’s true that most of his Cup-presentation receptions have ranged from unfriendly to outright ugly. But it wasn’t always that way. His first appearance came in 1993 in Montreal, and he got a generally warm welcome — he even tried to win over the crowd by mixing in a little French. And the Madison Square Garden crowd in 1994 was so happy that vintage Roddy Piper wouldn’t have had a chance at drawing a boo out of the building.
No, ground zero for booing Gary Bettman wasn’t in Canada, and it wasn’t in an Original Six market. It was in New Jersey. And it started with this interview.
The context here, as mentioned by James Brown in the clip, is that the Devils were rumoured to be on the verge of moving to Nashville. Owner John McMullen was demanding a better deal on the Meadowlands Arena, and had been threatening to pick up the team and move it to Nashville, where a new arena awaited. And this wasn’t just some empty threat, like we’re seeing in Calgary these days — the deal was widely assumed to be done, to the point where there was already speculation over whether coach Jacques Lemaire would be joining the team when it moved.
Not only did Devils fans think that they were losing their team, but they were convinced that Bettman wasn’t doing anything to stop it. In fact, they suspected, he was happy to see it happen. So when the commissioner made the unfortunate choice to agree to a Game 4 interview on live television in full view of New Jersey fans, they let him have it with both barrels, chanting “Bettman sucks” and later, if my ears are right, asking for egg rolls.
Of course, the move never happened, even though it was reported as basically a done deal once the series was over. The Devils stuck around and eventually got a new arena, while Nashville got their team via expansion a few years later.
Meanwhile, the Devils won the series that night, and Bettman was given another rough ride by the fans when he went to present the Cup. The tradition of booing Bettman during the handoff was born. And Stanley Cup presentations have never been quite the same since.
Oddly specific prediction
Call me a sucker for a comeback story. Price posts the shutout in his big return.
Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-7, after the Canadiens fell just short of getting to overtime in a 6–0 loss.