We’ve got nine games on the schedule tonight, including several teams coming off their bye week and a few more about to head out for theirs. We’ll start our roundup with one of those teams, as they get ready for a break under some interesting circumstances.
HNIC Game of the Night: Oilers at Golden Knights
Happy birthday, Connor McDavid.
Well, OK, you’re an Oiler. “Happy” probably isn’t in your vocabulary these days. All the best on your special day? Wait, “best” doesn’t work either. Look, just have some cake and be done with it.
In one of those scheduling quirks that was either a fun coincidence or somebody at league headquarters with a strange sense of humour, McDavid will be spending his 21st birthday in Las Vegas. And to make matters more interesting, this is the last game before the Oilers’ bye week. If things were going well, this would probably be a great time for the players to decide to stick around town and kick off a well-earned vacation by helping their captain celebrate the milestone.
Things are, as you may have noticed, not going well for the Oilers, which will probably put a bit of a damper on the party. You know that classic image of a sad child in a tilted birthday hat, sitting at an empty table because he invited all his friends and nobody came? That’s McDavid these days, except instead of friends it’s competent wingers.
This is the part where we’d normally start running down some facts and figures to paint a picture of how a team’s season has been going, but at this point that’s starting to just feel cruel. The Oilers season is a write-off. “Thanks for pointing that out,” Edmonton fans are no doubt thinking — nobody else had mentioned it except for literally every hockey writer on Earth.
So we’ll skip the autopsy and just head straight to the burial. The Oilers are basically done heading into the second half, and they get to head into their bye against one of the league’s best teams, in the league’s toughest building. The Knights are fun, fast and good, kind of like what we all expected the Oilers to be. At the very least, they might serve as a reminder that there should be brighter days ahead in Edmonton. If you can build a Cup contender out of spare parts you found scattered around in one off-season, surely you can do it with the best player in the world.
Somebody will. Whether it’s Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan or some other combination remains to be seen. How the Oilers perform over the second half will have a lot to do with how that turns out, which makes this game worth watching. Even if it won’t be the sort of going-away party the Oilers were probably expecting when they first saw the schedule.
Marquee matchup: Nolan Patrick vs. Nico Hischier
There’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned matchup between the first and second overall pick in a draft. Last year’s Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine showdown was just about as fun as they come, and McDavid and Jack Eichel had put on a similar show the year before. And if there was legitimate debate over who should have gone first, all the better.
That was the case in last year’s draft, when the Devils were left with a tough choice between Hischier and Patrick. The latter had been more heavily hyped over the years, but had also seen his stock drop due to health problems. In the end, the Devils went with Hischier, leaving Patrick for their division rivals to scoop up. And the rest of us settled in for years of back-and-forth over who got the pick right.
There’s just one problem: Through half a season, there isn’t much of a debate to be had. So far, Hischier has had the better rookie season, and it’s not all that close.
Through 41 games, Hischier has put up a respectable 26 points. Those aren’t Calder Trophy numbers, especially in a season where guys like Mathew Barzal and Brock “The Laser” Boeser are running wild, but they’re not bad. Given how the rest of the season is unfolding and where they’re at in the standings, the Devils will take it.
Both Patrick and the Flyers are having a tougher time; the second pick has missed time due to a concussion and has just two goals and eight points on the year, and some nights is only getting 10 minutes or less of ice time. That doesn’t make him a bust — this is a tough league, and most teenagers need some time to adjust. But it’s raising a few eyebrows in Philadelphia; as one writer put it, “it’s difficult to tell where the patience should end and the concern should begin.”
This is the first NHL meeting between the two players, but they’ll have plenty of opportunity to get familiar with each other; the Devils and Flyers meet four times over the next month. Those games won’t tell us which player is the better prospect, and it will be years before we can answer that question with any real degree of confidence. For now, the advantage goes to Hischier, the Devils and the top overall spot. But as history has shown, we may want to hold off on any assumptions about whether we’ll remember No. 2.
Player in the spotlight: Dustin Byfuglien
The list of things going right in Winnipeg this year is a long one. The Jets are the country’s best team, they’re leading a very tough Central Division, and they’re enjoying breakout seasons by players like Blake Wheeler and Connor Hellebuyck. After six years without some much as a playoff-game win, Jets fans are realistically thinking a lot bigger as they head towards the post-season.
But while it’s been almost all good news in Winnipeg, one key Jet is suffering through an off-year. That would be Byfuglien, the massive blueliner who’s been one of the most consistent offensive threats from the back end in the league for a decade. He’s scored double-digit goals in each of the last nine full seasons, and was on pace to do it again in the lockout year. Since Byfuglien became a full-time player in 2007, only Shea Weber has more goals among defencemen.
But this year, Byfuglien’s big shot has been letting him down. Until last week, he hadn’t scored a single goal on the season. He finally broke that goose egg with a goal against the Sabres, and his reaction made it clear that the slump had been weighing on him. He added another this week.
If you’re a Jets fan, there are two ways you can look at all this. The first is with trepidation. Byfuglien will turn 33 later this year, and he still has three more years left on a deal that carries the team’s highest cap hit. Goal-scoring isn’t all he brings to the table, but it’s a big part of what makes him such a unique force. If his scoring touch deserts him, that contract starts to look like a potential problem.
On the other hand, you could take the optimist’s view. The Jets are already rolling without much of a boost from Byfuglien. If his first-half was just the sort of fluky prolonged slump that some guys go through and he’s back on track now, how much scarier does this team get? When your highest-paid player is struggling and you’re still in first place, the sky starts to look like the limit.
That all makes Byfuglien a player worth watching over the next few weeks, including tonight’s meeting with the Wild. And while his goals (or lack thereof) will continue to get attention, there’s another column in the box score to keep an eye on. He’s recently been complaining about his ice-time, which has dropped to a season low. Maybe Paul Maurice has found a way to keep his star hungry, or maybe this is something else. When it comes to Byfuglien, time will tell.
Key subplot: Requiem for a rivalry
Remember rivalries? I don’t mean the ones we have today, where two teams who met in the playoffs four years ago have a scrum in front of the bench and everyone shrugs and says that’s close enough. I mean real rivalries, where two teams would legitimately hate each other and the rest of us were right there to cheer them on. I’m talking Wings/Avalanche, Oilers/Flames, or the entire Norris Division. The good stuff.
Maybe you don’t. Fans that are new and/or young enough may not remember what a real rivalry was like [adjusts bifocals and begins pointing cane accusingly] because they just don’t make them like that anymore.
And maybe that’s a good thing. If we’re being honest, some of those old-school battles we loved at the time actually look pretty ridiculous in hindsight. Given what we know about the dangers of fighting and blows to the head, it’s probably best to leave the past in the past. But man, it was fun to be a fan in those days.
Today, we’ll get a chance to relive at least a few of those memories, as the schedule serves up a pair of matchups featuring two of the greatest rivalries in NHL history. First up are the Islanders and Rangers, who square off — probably not literally — at MSG this afternoon. The game is scheduled to begin at 1:00; the first “Potvin Sucks” chant is penciled in for roughly five seconds later. It’s an important game for both teams, with the Islanders desperately chasing a wild-card spot and the Rangers happening to hold one.
The second game won’t have quite the same impact in the standings. But it’s always special when the Bruins visit Montreal, and there’s an extra layer to the rivalry after last year’s Claude Julien shuffle. So far, that one’s working out well for Boston, who’ve quietly emerged as one of the league’s better teams and have already all but locked up a playoff spot. Montreal’s post-season fate is pretty much sealed, too, and we’re all waiting to see what that means for the future of various key names both on and off the ice. The Bruins will have plenty of opportunity to impact that short-term future; the two teams meet again on Wednesday and then yet again next Saturday.
If those two classic matchups don’t quite hit your rivalry quota, you can close off the evening with a more recent addition to the club, as the Ducks visit the Kings. The three-way Battle of California has been one of the league’s better rivalries over the last decade or so, although the Ducks and Kings have actually met only once in the playoffs. That was back in 2014, but there’s at least a decent chance it could happen again this year in the opening round. That would be a fun series, as the two teams battled it out for the right to get swept by the unstoppable Golden Knights in round two.
From the archives
We didn’t list the Stars and Avalanche in that rivalry section because, well, it’s not much of one these days. Sure, both teams are in the same division, but that’s about it. They’ve only met in the playoffs once in the salary-cap era, and that was a forgettable first-round series way back in 2006.
But there was a time, brief as it may have been, when these two teams made for one of the best matchups in hockey. That was back at the turn of the century, when they met in back-to-back conference finals, both of which went seven games.
The first meeting came in 1999, with the Stars coming off a 114-point season and their second-straight Presidents’ Trophy. The 98-point Avalanche were the conference’s second seed, and they took a 3–2 lead in the series back home to Colorado. But the Stars extended the series with a 4–1 win, then took Game 7 by the same score. The clincher came on a Patrick Roy giveaway, which we all figured would be the worst game-seven moment of his career. (Narrator voice: It wasn’t.)
The Stars went on to win the 1999 Cup in somewhat-controversial fashion. They followed that up with a 102-point season, then knocked off the Oilers and Sharks to set up a Conference-final rematch with the Avs. This was the year that Colorado had made the Ray Bourque trade at the deadline, so they were all-in.
The two teams went to a seventh game again, and this one was a little more dramatic. The Stars led 3–0 through two periods, but the Avalanche came back to pull within one midway through the third. That was as close as they’d come, as the Stars held on through a tense final three minutes and a last-second post to head back to the final.
The Stars’ quest for a repeat ended at the hands of Jason Arnott and the Devils. Bourque and the Avalanche would get their hands on the Cup in 2001, but didn’t have to go through Dallas to do it. The two teams would meet in the playoffs again in 2004 and 2006, both Colorado wins. And that’s basically been it for the rivalry.
Should we remember Stars vs. Avalanche more fondly than we do? Maybe. It’s not hard to figure out why the matchup didn’t stick in our memories – Colorado was a little preoccupied with the Red Wings back then, and that rivalry was so off-the-charts crazy that it overshadowed everything else of the era. But for a time, Dallas wasn’t a bad third wheel in the Western Conference mix. Maybe we’ll even see the matchup when it matters again someday down the line.
Oddly specific prediction
Patrick picks up his third goal of the season against Hischier and the Devils.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-14