Welcome to the NHL’s “Centennial Birthday Weekend,” in which the league celebrates its 100th birthday. It’s not the anniversary of the first ever games, since that’s in December, or of the league officially forming, since that’s next week. It’s just … uh … a centennial birthday. Stop asking questions. Look, do you want some cake or not?
HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens
This is the second time this season that we’ve featured a Leafs-Habs game in this spot, and it probably won’t be the last. There’s just something special about a Saturday night matchup between the two long-time rivals. And since the league is using the meeting as an opportunity to douse us with history, all the better.
It’s worth revisiting what we wrote about these two teams the last time they played, if only to serve as a reminder of how many twists and turns can be packed into five weeks. Back on the season’s second weekend, we were wondering if the Maple Leafs could snap Montreal’s 14-game win streak in head-to-head matchups. They did, earning a 4-3 overtime win on an Auston Matthews goal.
We were also wondering if Montreal was ever going to get the offence going. That happened too, although it took a little longer. The Habs’ inability to score went from a curiosity to problem to an outright crisis over the course of the season’s first few weeks, before the floodgates finally opened and all those stats guys were proven right about percentages and regression and sample sizes. The Canadiens aren’t exactly lighting up scoreboards – they still rank just 24th in total goals – and Thursday’s loss to the Coyotes was the first time they’ve scored more than three in a game since Nov. 4. But at least nobody’s panicking about the offence anymore in Montreal. They’ve got other things to worry about.
Instead, we’re all wondering what’s up with Carey Price, who’s “minor” injury has kept him out for two weeks now. He still says it’s no big deal, assuring fans that they “don’t have to be concerned” and that this isn’t a repeat of 2015. That’s reassuring, and with rookie Charlie Lindgren looking fantastic, the Canadiens haven’t missed their superstar all that much yet. But seeing Price try to play through a second pre-game injury raises some fair questions about the relationship between the team and its expensive star. And you can forgive Montreal fans for being a little nervous about the situation, especially when Antti Niemi suddenly shows up via waivers? If Niemi is ever the answer, the question probably isn’t anything good.
As for the Maple Leafs, the last time they were in Montreal they were riding high and scoring a ton. Since then, we’ve seen them boost their record to 6-1-0, be declared Cup favourites, cool off, hit an outright slump, and then reel off five straight wins even though they were missing Matthews for most of that stretch. It’s been quite a journey. And these days, the Maple Leafs are winning thanks to solid goaltending and team defence instead of by just blowing the doors off whoever’s in the opposing net. They even managed a 1-0 overtime win their last time out. That’s not quite as much fun, but it probably makes Mike Babcock a lot less cranky, and that’s worth something.
Marquee matchup: Sidney Crosby vs. Jonathan Toews
Remember when this would have been a battle for the title of “best player in the world”?
It wasn’t that long ago that Toews was firmly in that conversation, edging ahead of Crosby on some scorecards (but not others). That particular debate has been put on hold, partially because of the emergence of Connor McDavid as the new contender to the throne and partly because both Toews and Crosby are off to slow starts.
In Chicago, Toews has put up 12 points through 19 games, a 52-point pace that would be a career-low for a non-lockout season. He started the year strong, but his goal on Thursday was only his second in his last 14 games. Of course, offence isn’t everything for the four-time Selke finalist, and his defensive numbers have stayed solid. But with the Blackhawks struggling along near .500 and outside of the playoff race, some offensive help from the captain would come in handy.
But while Toews has been slightly disappointing, Crosby’s start has seen him playing some of the worst hockey of his career. It’s not just the numbers, although those aren’t great – six goals and 16 points through 21 contests for a guy who typically averages well over a point-per-game. He finally snapped an 11-game goal drought on Tuesday, and added an assist on Thursday to give him points in back-to-back games for the first time since mid-October. But Crosby has struggled at both ends of the rink, and it’s led to plenty of think pieces about what exactly might be wrong with him. The consensus: Nobody is quite sure, but a deep dive into the numbers suggests this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill slump.
You have to think that both guys still find a way to get back on track at some point, and maybe one of them breaks out tonight. Maybe they both do. Both teams could certainly use it, as what seemed like a possible Stanley Cup preview when the schedule came out now looks a lot like two high-priced also-rans.
Key subplot: Hey, I remember that guy
There isn’t as much player movement around the NHL as there used to be; today’s GMs don’t like to trade much and are shying away from free agency, preferring to lock up their rosters long-term and ride with what they’ve got. But we still get enough moves that most nights, the schedule serves up at least an example or two of somebody facing a former team.
That theme is especially strong tonight, where we’ve got the scenario playing out in various shapes and sizes. Probably the most notable is in Philadelphia, where Brian Elliott could get a start against the Flames. That may bring back some unpleasant memories for Calgary fans, who had high hopes for Elliott after last year’s trade but instead saw him stumble through an up-and-down season that included a disappointingly brief playoff run. He’s been hot lately for the Flyers, giving up two goals or less in five straight. Unfortunately, even if Elliott plays, we won’t get to see him face the man who replaced him in Calgary.
In Nashville, the Predators will face the Avalanche for the first time since the Matt Duchene-Kyle Turris three-way trade, which means Samuel Girard will get his first chance to suit up against his old team. To nobody’s surprise, he’s been getting significantly more playing time since moving from the Predators’ stacked blue line to an Avalanche roster with far more opportunity.
We had another trade this week, and while it wasn’t quite as big as the Duchene deal, it could lead to another player crossing paths with an ex-team. The Oilers added Mike Cammalleri from the Kings in exchange for free-agent disappointment Jussi Jokinen. He’ll be facing the Panthers, the team he spent the previous three seasons with.
If you want to go back a few years, we’ve even got a former coach returning to his former home, as Bruce Boudreau and the Wild head to Washington in a battle of supposed contenders who are off to slow starts.
And if you want to really reach back into the past, Joe Thornton faces the Bruins for what could the final time in his career. The 2005 trade that sent the former first-overall pick from Boston to San Jose remains one of the biggest moves in modern NHL history, and is still the only case of a team trading away a player in the middle of what turned out to be an MVP season (At least until Duchene or Turris heat up over the final five months).
Player in the spotlight: Bobby Ryan
After missing eight games with a broken finger, Ryan returned to the Senators’ lineup on Thursday and was held off the scoresheet in a 3-1 loss to the Penguins. This afternoon, we’ll get to see him in action against the Coyotes.
Ryan’s long been one of Ottawa’s most fascinating players. Acquired in a trade that went down moments after Sens fans found out that Daniel Aldredsson was headed for Detroit, Ryan arrived with a reputation as an up-and-coming 30-goal scorer and plenty of pressure to be the franchise’s next big thing. After a modestly disappointing 23-goal showing in his first season, he signed a seven-year extension that carried a $49-million cap hit. It was the sort of deal that goes to the league’s elite wingers, and Ryan has struggled to live up to it, with just 53 regular season goals in the three seasons since. Over the last few years, Ryan’s name was starting to show up on lists of the league’s worst contracts, which was especially troubling given the Senators’ well-documented financial limitations. Remember, this is a guy who was already on the wrong side of 30.
But then came last year’s playoffs, and suddenly an old Bobby Ryan looked like The Old Bobby Ryan again. He had 15 points in 19 games, including two overtime winners. Suddenly, Senator fans had reason to think that maybe they had a first-liner after all.
The momentum hasn’t continued this year – Ryan hasn’t scored a goal yet – but again, the injury has eaten up half the season so far. With Matt Duchene now on board, the Senators have been playing him and Ryan on a line together. There’s no guarantee that it works, but if it does, last year’s Atlantic Division champion just got a whole lot more interesting.
From the archives
It’s an easy call for this section this week. The Edmonton Oilers are in Dallas today, and that means we get to travel back two decades to revisit a pair of plays that still stand as among the most memorable of the 90s – and that happened a few second apart.
Fans of both teams already know where I’m going with this, but let’s set the stage for any newbies out there. It’s the first round of the 1996-97 playoffs, and the Stars are facing the upstart Oilers. Dallas is the heavy favourite, coming off a 104-point season that left them as runners-up for the Presidents’ Trophy. The Oilers have made the playoffs despite finishing under .500, which was possible back in the days before the loser point. It’s Edmonton’s first post-season appearance in five years, as the franchise has fallen on hard times after the breakup of their 1980s dynasty.
The Stars take the first game of the series, but the Oilers rally to win the next two. Dallas ties the series with a Game 4 road win, but Edmonton shocks them in Game 5 with double-OT win to put the Stars on the rope. Dallas gets a late goal in Game 6, forcing a seventh game that goes into overtime.
And that’s when this happens…
… followed by this:
The sequence is so iconic that a lot of fans have come to remember it as one fluid play, with Curtis Joseph robbing Nieuwendyk Joe at one end and the Oilers immediately going the other way to seal the win. As you can see, that’s not how it happens – Joseph freezes the puck after his save. But Todd Marchant’s goal does come on the very next shift.
Unless you were a Dallas Stars fan, everything about the sequence is just about perfect. The back-to-back highlight-reel plays, the scrappy underdog overcoming the odds, and of course the flawless calls by the legendary Bob Cole.
In hindsight, it was one of the last highlights that Oiler fans would get for a while. They lost to the Avalanche in the second round in a relatively forgettable five games. In a classic case of the hockey gods going into overkill mode on the payback ledger, Edmonton would end up facing the Stars in the playoffs five more times in the next six years, losing each and every one.
Within a year, Joseph would be gone (thanks to a well-timed ice cream run), and the Oilers wouldn’t win another series until their 2006 Cup run, and we know what happened after that. So sure, Edmonton fans of the pre-McDavid era will take their highlights where they can get them. And there weren’t many better than Cujo and Marchant, and the two minutes it took them to shock the powerhouse Stars.
Oddly specific prediction
Montreal gets some payback for that first game, beating the Maple Leafs in overtime on an Alex Galchenyuk winner.
Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-6, after last week’s Kyle Turris/Matt Duchene combo only delivered halfway.