We’ve got a dozen games on the schedule Saturday, including a pair of afternoon games, one of which is being played in Sweden. Let’s dive in.
HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins
We’re going with the Leafs and Bruins as Saturday night’s featured game, for a couple of reasons. First, by using it here we don’t have to worry about having it show up in the “From the Archives” section, meaning we don’t have to revisit this or this. Honestly, that’s kind of the main one. Whoever said “time heals all wounds” was never a Maple Leafs fan.
But even putting all that unpleasantness aside, Saturday night’s game looms as an intriguing one. It’s the back half of an old school home-and-home series played over consecutive nights. Last night, the Leafs beat the Bruins in overtime. Now the Bruins get their chance at revenge.
Both teams have steered through an up-and-down first month of the schedule. The Leafs have more to show for it, thanks to a hot start and a solid last week that balance out a rocky two-week stretch in late October. They’re sitting at 11-7-0, and while even their wins tend to feature uneven performances, holding down second spot in the Atlantic behind only the powerhouse Lightning seems like a reasonable result.
The Bruins are off to a slower start, having lost more games than they’ve won. At 6-5-4, they look like a playoff bubble team, which is essentially what they were last year. But given their injury troubles so far, they’ll probably take it. They’ve been without David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and David Backes among others; Brad Marchand returned Friday night after missing two games with an upper-body injury.
(The Maple Leafs are dealing with an injury issue of their own, of course, with Auston Matthews missing time this week. He’s not expected to play Saturday.)
So it’s the beaten-up Bruins against the still-figuring-it-out Maple Leafs in a matchup between longtime rivals fighting for the same playoff spot. And that fight may have gotten tougher over the last week, since one of their fellow Atlantic contenders just made a few headlines of their own…
Marquee matchup: Matt Duchene vs. Kyle Turris
Not exactly a tough pick this week. But after last weekend’s three-way trade drama, what had seemed like a forgettable overseas marketing event featuring the Senators and Avalanche is suddenly front-and-centre.
We got our first look at Duchene as a Senator Friday, when he was held pointless in Ottawa’s overtime win. Now we get to see what will technically be his first home game, although we’ll have to wait until Thursday to see him in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Kyle Turris is expected to make his Predators debut Saturday against the Penguins after an immigration-related delay kept his out of the lineup earlier in the week. The symbolism of the opponent might feel a little too on-the-nose for the Predators, who lost the Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh largely because they couldn’t come close to matching them down the middle. Now with Turris on board, Ryan Johansen healthy and Nick Bonino switching sides, it’s Nashville that look like the deeper team at centre.
Is it fair to spend the rest of the season comparing Turris and Duchene, tracking their production against each other while constantly adjusting our view of which team “won” the deal? Probably not, but let’s face it, we’re all going to do it anyway. It’s too easy. In a league where teams almost never swap guys who are roughly the same age and play the same position, it’s a rare opportunity to at least get close to an apples-to-apples comparison.
Sure, the Predators aren’t the Senators and the two players weren’t even directly traded for each other, but they’re similar enough that it’s going to be irresistible to compare their numbers the rest of the way. If one guy gets hot while the other struggles, we all might declare a winner in the trade before it’s two or three weeks old. Then we’ll reverse that ruling, repeatedly, arguing back and forth as the years go by. Fair or not, we’re hockey fans; it’s what we do.
Duchene will get a head start on Saturday’s scorecard; the Sens and Avs face off this afternoon, while the Pens and Preds will wait until this evening. We’ll see if Duchene has built an insurmountable lead by then.
Key subplot: Cue the comeback
Saturday’s schedule serves up a pair of games that seem eerily similar. The Rangers host the Oilers this afternoon, while the Canadiens will welcome the Sabres tonight.
If these games had shown up on the schedule a few weeks ago, we would have been seeing four of the most disappointing teams in the league. All four were struggling near the bottom of their conference standings, despite coming into the season with various degrees of expectations for a playoff spot, if not more. Two weeks ago, we’d have been talking about how desperately they needed a win. Heck, we did talk about that two weeks ago, when the Habs and Rangers were facing each other and we were trying to figure out if it was too early for a must-win game.
As it turns out, yeah, it was too early, at least for Montreal and New York. Both teams have turned their seasons around and started the slow climb back to the playoff race. Today, the Rangers have won five straight to move into a tie with the Flyers for the last wild-card spot, with Montreal lurking a manageable three points back. That’s not where the two teams probably pictured themselves being a month into the season, but after the starts they had, it’s not bad.
So instead of “four struggling teams,” we can flip the script here and give this pair of games a different theme: there’s still hope. The two visitors come into the action still well back of the race, although both have made up some ground this week. The Sabres are coming off a solid win over the Capitals on Thursday to inch to within six points of the Eastern wild-card, while the Oilers edged the Devils to move to within four in the West.
Is there a lesson here for the Sabres and Oilers? You could go with something like “stay calm,” since the Rangers didn’t fire their coach and the Canadiens resisted the urge to make a big trade. So sure, sometimes patience is a virtue. Then again, recent history is filled with teams that were patient all season long, went nowhere, and ended up wishing they’d done something. So maybe we can settle on a slightly wordier but more accurate version: stay calm if you’re convinced your team is good enough to weather an early storm, but you’d better be right.
Right now, the Rangers and Canadiens look like they were indeed good enough to get back into the race. For the Oilers and Sabres, we’re still trying to figure it out. Both teams can start by picking up a road win today. We won’t call it a must-win, since it’s still too early for that. But maybe not by all that much. In the NHL, as Yogi Berra once said, it gets late early out here.
Hot seat watch: Bill Peters, Hurricanes
We haven’t done one of these in a few weeks, and we wouldn’t want the league’s coaches to start feeling good about themselves. So let’s talk about Bill Peters.
In theory, Peters is an ideal hot-seat candidate. He’s in his fourth year on the job, so he’s in that range where the pressure starts to mount. He’s never made the playoffs in Carolina, and never been a head coach anywhere else, so there’s no track record of success to buy him some benefit of the doubt. His team made some big off-season moves to get better right now, so expectations are high. And his GM happens to also be the best player in franchise history, so if ownership decides that somebody has to go, it’s going to be the coach.
Add it all up, and Peters feels like a guy who needs a strong season to stay employed. And so far, his team isn’t delivering for him. The Hurricanes are sitting dead last in the Metro, sporting an uninspiring 6-5-3 record that includes a recent two-game road trip that saw the Hurricanes lose to both the Avalanche and Coyotes. That’s not good enough, and the calls for some kind of change in Carolina are getting louder.
So yeah, it’s not looking great for Peters right now, and his name is showing up on lists of coaches in danger. But there’s one factor we haven’t mentioned yet, and it seems fairly important: is he a good coach? Or, to put it differently, is any of this actually his fault?
There’s an argument to be made that much of it isn’t. The Hurricanes are controlling games for long stretches; they’re dominating the shot clock to an almost ridiculous extent, so it’s not like the system isn’t working. They’re losing because the forwards aren’t scoring enough and the new starting goalie has been just OK. Those problems tend to be issues of roster construction, not coaching.
On the other hand, coaches tend to get the credit and the blame for special teams, and the Hurricanes haven’t been very good on either the power play or penalty kill, so Peters isn’t exactly untouchable. And at the end of the day, it’s a tough business and you’re evaluated based on your results. That’s the standard Peters memorably held Eddie Lack to last season, and it’s the standard that will be applied to him too. Fair or not, that’s life in the NHL.
A few weeks back, we were told that Alain Vigneault was one loss away from a pink slip. The Rangers haven’t lost since. Winning always quiets the critics, and Peters and the Hurricanes could buy some silence with a win tonight at home against the Blackhawks. Scott Darling should get the start against his old team after Cam Ward played Friday night.
It’s a tough matchup – the dreaded second game in two nights against a team that’s been resting up in your city while you’re on the road. But the Hurricanes need the two points. Their coach might too.
From the archives
The Canucks are in San Jose tonight to face the Sharks. It’s a good matchup between two divisional rivals, both of whom are right in the mix for a Pacific playoff spot. And there’s an element of a rivalry here too, as the two teams have faced each other in the playoffs twice in this decade. The Canucks knocked off the Sharks on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, and were swept in a first-round rematch two years later.
But today, let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back as far as we can go, to the Sharks very first game back in 1991.
The 1991-92 Sharks were, to put it kindly, a bit of a weird team. They were an expansion team, but only kind of, having been born in an unusual dispersal/expansion hybrid draft that also involved the Minnesota North Stars. They were marketed as a brand new team, but technically had some DNA from not just the North Stars but also the California Golden Seals and Cleveland Barons.
And they were terrible – one of the worst teams ever. With a roster built around top pick Pat Falloon and veterans like Kelly Kisio, Brian Mullen and future GM Doug Wilson, the Sharks ended their inaugural season going 17-58-5 for just 39 points, leaving them dead last overall.
But before all that, they had to play their first-ever regular season game. That came when they visited the Canucks on Oct. 4, 1991, as documented in the wonderfully 1990s video below.
(Kids, that thing a young Doug Wilson is looking at 35 seconds into the clip was called a “newspaper.” Ask your grandparents about them.)
The Canucks won that game 4-3. The next night, the two teams met again, this time for the first-ever home game in Sharks history. Vancouver won that one too, taking a 5-2 final. The Sharks would get their first win in their third game, against the Flames, before losing 13 straight to get out to a 1-15-0 start. It’s fair to say that the NHL was a significantly tougher place for expansion teams back in those days.
Somehow, the Sharks would be even worse in their second season, when they managed just 24 points before turning things around with a surprise playoff appearance (and win) in 1993-94. Decades later, the Sharks have built a reputation for consistency, if not playoff success, and remains one of the West’s better teams so far this season.
But it all started with an October home-and-home against the Canucks. Here’s hoping everyone’s sweaters make it to tonight’s game.
Oddly specific prediction
Duchene and Turris each score a goal today.
Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-5. You let us all down, Ryan Reaves.