Welcome to the season’s third Saturday of NHL hockey. We’ve got another big Atlantic Division battle between Canadian teams, a crucial afternoon game for a coach on the hot seat, and two teams battling pre-season expectations. Also, a brief history of water bottles. It’s an eclectic mix. Here we go…
HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Senators
Let’s be honest — the Battle of Ontario hasn’t really been a thing for a decade or so.
Not in the way it used to be. It’s still a rivalry, one based on geography and a shared division, and those things don’t tend to change. So sure, a matchup between the Senators and Maple Leafs still matters more than your typical game.
But it’s not like it once was. Nobody’s making guarantees, or fake-throwing sticks, or diving onto benches. It’s been a while since a goalie tackled a referee or a defenceman got rag-dolled, and we haven’t heard a “boo hoo” or an overtime “PING” in a while now.
That’s largely because the two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2004. And it’s not hard to figure out where the blame lies for that streak — the Maple Leafs have been terrible for most of the last decade.
But as you may have noticed, they’re not terrible right now. At 6-1-0, the Leafs are off to one of the best starts in the league, not to mention one of the best in franchise history. According to the oddsmakers, they’re now the Stanley Cup favourites. They’re young and skilled and fun, and you either love watching them or you’re already sick of hearing about them. Either way, you’re well aware that the Maple Leafs are rivalry-worthy again.
And sure, the Senators may need to get in line behind the Habs or Bruins or Blackhawks or whoever else. But they have a well-earned place in that line. And tonight, they get their first crack at this year’s Maple Leafs. No doubt, Senators fans would love nothing more than to see their team hit the pause button on the runaway Leafs’ hype train.
To do it, the Sens will need to show a better game than they have so far in a disappointing week. They’ve lost two straight since welcoming back Erik Karlsson, dropping home games against two of last season’s weaker teams on the Canucks and Devils. That comes on the heels of last week’s dominant road trip, so it’s fair to say we’re still trying to figure out what exactly the Senators are going to be this year.
The same could be said for the Leafs, who have had their ups and downs early on, occasionally looking like the same flawed team that kept blowing crucial leads last year. But so far this season, those leads are mostly staying in tact, often because the Leafs just keep scoring. Coaches always talk about wanting to see a 60-minute effort, and no doubt Mike Babcock has mentioned it to his players once or twice. But the Leafs are looking like a team that can hit the snooze button every now and then, only to wake up and pump home two or three goals to flip a game on its head.
This is the first of four meetings between the two rivals. They don’t meet again until January 10, at which point they play three times in a month. And that will be it… at least for the regular season. As for renewing that playoff rivalry, there’s always a chance. But you know, no guarantees.
Key subplot: Great expectations
On the eve of the season starting, Sportsnet ran a survey of its various insiders, experts and contributors, asking them to predict how the year would unfold. Most of it was the standard stuff you’d expect – Stanley Cup picks, Hart Trophy favourites, that sort of thing. But we were also asked to come at the season from a slightly different angle: Which team is most likely to exceed expectations?
That’s always an interesting question, because it’s really asking you to do two things at once. You have to figure out what the widespread expectations actually are, which might be easier said than done depending on who you’ve been talking to. And then you need to find the ones that are most likely to be wrong. A team like the Lightning might make the leap from non-playoff team to Cup contender, but if everybody thinks that, then they’re not really exceeding expectations, are they?
Three teams ended up dominating the responses. One was the Jets, who tied for second with three mentions, and it’s safe to say that the jury’s still out on how their season is going. The other two teams face each other tonight, when the Stars host the Hurricanes.
On the surface, the Stars feel a bit like the Lightning – teams that everyone expected to be good last year before stumbling out of the playoffs, but were widely expected to right the ship and get back to contending. But while the Lightning finished with 94 points and missed out by a single win, the Stars plummeted all the way to 79 points. They didn’t just miss the playoffs. They never came close, and were one of the few teams selling at the deadline. The road back to respectability is a long one in Dallas.
And yet, you could see why expectations would be high heading into this year. They had a new goaltender in Ben Bishop, a new top line winger in Alex Radulov, and a new/old coach in Ken Hitchcock. They’d patched most of the holes. And they had what sure looked like an easy schedule to open the season, with seven of their first nine games coming against non-playoff teams, including one against the expansion Golden Knights and two each against the Coyotes and Avalanche. Apart from one game against the Blues, they don’t start facing Central playoff teams until Nov. 30.
So far, the results have been mixed. Heading into tonight, the Stars are 4-3-0 and holding down a Western wild-card spot. Bishop was hurt early on, which may have cost them a couple of wins, and you’d expect it to take some time for Hitchcock’s system to really sink in. It hasn’t been an awful start, and you could say it’s still early. But so far, this looks a little like last year’s middling start, and we know how that turned out.
As for the Hurricanes, they were the panel’s overwhelming pick as the team most likey to surprise. It’s tough to get much of a read on them so far, since they’ve played a league-low five games, although a 3-1-1 start isn’t bad. Like the Stars, they invested in a new goaltender this year, and Scott Darling is off to a shaky start. And like Dallas, they had a shaky start last year that torpedoed their season, winning just three of their first 13.
But unlike the Stars, they’re not trying to jump back into the playoffs after a year off. The Hurricanes haven’t made the post-season since 2009, the longest active streak in the league, so there’s some urgency for Bill Peters and friends to make a push now.
We’re only three weeks in, and neither the Stars nor the Hurricanes have anything to panic about yet. But that day may come eventually. After all, that’s the thing about expectations. When you’re not meeting them, they start to feel an awful lot like pressure.
Marquee matchup: Momentum vs. the schedule
Less than three weeks in, and tensions are already running high around the league. The standings don’t really look much like we expected, a few contenders are already dropping out of the hunt, and we’re starting to see stars shelved by injuries. It’s a lot to keep track of. It may even have you wishing you could call timeout and regroup.
Well, you’re in luck.
Today’s a busy day, with 12 games in all. But after that, the schedule serves up a little break. There’s only one game tomorrow, and then just two on Monday. That makes for the slowest 48-hour stretch in the league all season, with the exception of the Christmas and all-star breaks. The bye weeks don’t kick in until January, but apparently the schedule-maker figured we could all use a quick breather.
Use it wisely. Reconnect with friends. Play with the kids. Catch up on household chores. Oilers fans, consider cleaning up all those empty beer cans you’ve spent the last few weeks hurling at your TV. Leafs fans, maybe do the same with all the champagne bottles.
Or you could just watch football. Don’t let me tell you how to live your life.
Either way, don’t get too comfortable. We’ve got 11 games on tap for Tuesday.
We took our first look at coaching hot seats last week, borrowing from a betting list put out by oddsmakers. One week later, it seems like a coach who didn’t even make that initial list may be in the most trouble of all. Things move fast in this league.
That would be Alain Vigneault, who’s gone from seeming like one of the league’s safer coaches to having one foot out the door already, if you believe some of the reports out of New York. The Rangers are off to a terrible start, with just one win in their first eight games, and they keep giving up early goals. It’s early, sure, but not so early that a team can’t fall out of the playoff race, and that’s where the Rangers are headed if they can’t start banking some wins.
Vigneault’s record with the Rangers heading into this season is excellent, and he’s had plenty of success around the league. Is there anyone out there who’d really be a significant upgrade? One name that’s been floated as a potential replacement is Darryl Sutter, which would certainly make for an interesting fit with the New York market.
Today, the Rangers host the Predators, who serve up an interesting contrast. We just declared Nashville coach Peter Laviolette one of the five safest coaches in the league, which means he won’t find himself on any kind of hot seat for at least, oh, two weeks. It wasn’t all that long ago that Vigneault was the coach who’d just been to a final and could do no wrong. Again: Things move fast in this league.
It’s an afternoon game, with a 12:30 ET start time, so there’s a good chance it will already be done by the time you read this. Depending on how it goes, Vigneault could be, too.
From the archives
Have you ever stopped to consider how strange it is that goalies have water bottles clipped to the back of their nets? Probably not, since the bottles have been around forever. If you’re old enough, you can remember a time when they weren’t even strapped down, and the satisfying way that they’d pop up into the air on an especially well-place shot that went top shelf.
But when you think about it, NHL goalies are the only athletes in the big four North American pro sports who get to keep refreshments with them on the field of play. LeBron James doesn’t have a juice box taped to the backboard in case he gets thirsty. Marcus Stroman can’t bring a sandwich out to the mound. Tom Brady can’t set up an office water cooler in the pocket, and he drinks more water than anyone on the planet.
No, it’s a privilege reserved exclusively for NHL goalies, and one we’ve all just gotten used to. But there was a time when goalie water bottles were extremely controversial.
Today’s matchup between the Flyers and Oilers is a rematch of a pair of 1980s Stanley Cup finals. Their 1987 series was one of the best finals ever, featuring a series of furious Flyers comebacks, a dramatic Game 7, and Ron Hextall pulling off the rare feat of winning the Conn Smythe in a losing cause. The 1985 version wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it did feature one of the weirder controversies in NHL history.
Flyers’ goalie Pelle Lindbergh had battled dehydration during the playoffs, and had recently started bringing a water bottle onto the ice with him. It wasn’t really covered in the rulebook, but nobody had objected. That changed when the Oilers arrived in town, and Edmonton coach Glen Sather insisted that the bottle be removed.
“Maybe we want a bucket of chicken on our net,” Sather told reporters. “Maybe hamburgers. I mean, what’s the difference? If you have a water bottle out there, let’s have lunch.”
It sounds funny, and it was. But Sather at least pretended to be serious about the whole thing; he threatened to pull his team off the ice if the bottles were allowed to stay. So the league gave in, and banned the bottles from the series. That actually ended up coming into play, as Keenan had to briefly pull Lindberg on a handful of occasions due to dehydration.
The Oilers won the series in five, the water bottles were eventually granted a reprieve, and before long they could be found on every NHL net. They’re still there to this day. So far, nobody’s paired them with a bucket of chicken. Yet.
Oddly specific prediction
The Senators come out flying and score twice in the game’s first eight minutes to take the crowd out of the game.
Oddly specific prediction record: 0-for-2