We’re into double digits as we hit the 10th weekend of the NHL season. We’ve got a dozen games on tap, starting in the afternoon and lasting through a trio of late starts. Here’s what to watch for.
HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Lightning
The Jets are in the middle of what’s been easily their best season since returning to the NHL in 2011. It might be taking a run at 1984–85 for the best Jets season ever, period. That’s not an especially high bar, but Winnipeg fans probably aren’t too worried about nitpicking right now, because for most of the year this team has been all sorts of fun.
Even after losing two straight to start this road trip, the Jets are still locked in a three-team race for top spot in the Central. But if there’s been a knock against them, it’s one we covered a few weeks back: they haven’t earned many signature wins. They had that one blowout over the Penguins, and they beat the Pacific-leading Kings, but for the most part their wins have come against a long list of also-rans and quasi-contenders.
That’s not entirely their fault, since in today’s parity-soaked NHL almost every opponent will be an also-ran or quasi-contender. But tonight, the Jets get their shot at an unambiguous Cup favourite when they face the first-place-overall Lightning.
Tampa’s been dominating the power rankings so far this year, ours included, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re stacked with talent, they score a ton, and they’re racking up wins. And they’re earning them — they’re the only team in the league right now that’s outscoring the opposition by better than a goal a game. They’re good.
The Jets are good, too, but you can forgive the hockey world for being a little bit slower to buy in. That could change with a strong showing tonight. We won’t go crazy and use words like “potential Stanley Cup final preview” here, but we reserve the right to change our mind if the Jets can go into Tampa and dominate.
And if seeing how the young Jets match up with the Lightning isn’t enough proof for any skeptics out there, stand by. Next weekend brings a home-and-home showdown with the Blues, and that’s followed by a game against the Predators. The Central picture is about to get a whole lot clearer, and for once the Jets have a chance to control how they fit into it.
Key subplot: The long road back
The struggles of the Canadiens and Oilers have been well-documented. Literally. It feels like every other column from the last two months has been about one of these two teams. We’ve certainly helped keep that average up around these parts.
And most of those pieces have followed a similar pattern. What’s wrong with these guys? Weren’t they supposed to be contenders? Why aren’t they scoring? How much will they miss their injured goaltender? Isn’t somebody getting fired for this mess? And can it be fixed?
And then, inevitably, the big question: have they left themselves with too much ground to make up to get back into the race?
Tonight, the two teams meet for the first time on the season, which makes for a handy checkpoint on where things stand. And there’s good news — one of the teams has indeed clawed back into the post-season picture.
That would be Montreal, and they had some help. The Atlantic Division is a bit of a mess this year, which opened up a back door to a playoff spot. The Canadiens are still well back of the Eastern wild-card race, but they’ve been able to skip that and head straight for third place in the Atlantic, a spot they’ve been in and out of for much of the last week. Even that might be temporary — it took a five-game win streak just to get them that far, and the Bruins are still sitting with four games in hand. But for now, the Canadiens can at least say they have a path to the playoffs.
The Oilers don’t, at least not in the same way. The Pacific may be just as weak as the Atlantic top to bottom, but third place there isn’t as easy a target. More importantly, the Oilers have left themselves with more work to do, and they’ve yet to enjoy the sort of short-term hot streak that would allow them to make a jump up the standings. Slow and steady is nice in theory, but when you’re eight points back it won’t get the job done.
Still, the Oilers come into tonight having won four of seven, tying their best stretch of the season so far. Meanwhile, the Canadiens have cooled off, dropping two straight. Unlike the Oilers, the Habs already have their goaltender back, and Carey Price has looked good since returning to the lineup. That sets up an irresistible showdown with Connor McDavid. They’re two of the sport’s biggest stars, not to mention the biggest contracts at their respective positions (although neither extension kicks in until next season).
No doubt, both guys would offer up some well-worn clichés about being more worried with getting a win than any kind of personal showing. Given where their teams are at, they’d probably be telling the truth. Playing games that feel like must-wins in December can make for a mentally exhausting season, but that’s what you sign up for when your start leaves you with this much ground to cover.
Marquee matchup: Phil Kessel vs. the Maple Leafs
Hey Toronto, you remember Phil, right? Awkward guy, bad body language, terrible quote, maybe something about hot dogs?
Oh, and also the whole “finished in the top seven in NHL scoring more times as a Maple Leaf than Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon combined” thing. That, too.
Kessel’s returns to Toronto get less attention as time goes on and we get some distance from the trade that sent him to Pittsburgh. This is his third season in Pittsburgh, and so far it’s shaping up to be his best. With Sidney Crosby slumping badly early on and Evgeni Malkin underperforming, Kessel has stepped up to lead the Penguins in scoring. Even on the wrong side of 30, he doesn’t seem to have lost a step yet.
The Kessel trade has been an odd one from a Maple Leafs perspective. They don’t have a ton to show for it directly – nobody on the roster tonight came over in the deal – and they’ll be paying a chunk of Kessel’s salary until 2022. And yet you’d have a hard time finding many Toronto fans who regret the deal. That’s partly because of the indirect benefits, like extra cap space and a draft pick that was part of the Frederik Andersen trade. But it seems like the team and the town just needed to move on, with the trade of their best player signalling the sort of clean break with the past that some teams need to shift into future mode.
In the Leafs’ case, that future came quicker than anyone thought it would, which is why even Kessel’s fans don’t seem to miss him all that much. As for the Penguins, they were focused squarely on the present, and two Cups later that seems to have worked out pretty well for them.
So maybe you just chalk this one up as one of those rare trades where both sides really did win. Kessel may not have lived up to sky-high expectations in Toronto, but he put up strong numbers and didn’t ask to be dealt. It happened, both teams are better for it, and life moves on. For once in Maple Leafs land, maybe we can close the book without any scapegoats or finger-pointing.
Player in the spotlight: Craig Anderson
The Senators have had a disappointing season so far, and there are plenty of explanations that could be offered up. Maybe Guy Boucher’s disciplined approach is already wearing thin. Maybe Erik Karlsson‘s recent slump shows he’s still hurt, or distracted by contract talk. Maybe they miss Marc Methot more than anyone thought they would. Maybe the Matt Duchene trade disrupted team chemistry. Or maybe last year was a fluke, and this just isn’t a very good team.
Those are all plausible theories, to varying degrees. But as is so often the case in hockey, there may be a simpler explanation. It might just be the goaltending.
Specifically, Craig Anderson is off to a terrible start, posting a sub-.900 save percentage through 21 games. That’s well below his career average, and over 20 points under the mark he’s posted over seven seasons in Ottawa.
In a sense, that’s good news for Sens fans. History tells us that when a goaltender with a proven track record hits a rough patch, we should largely ignore it and count on a return to form. Believe the big sample, not the small one.
But there’s a catch, and it comes in the form of a different number: 36. That’s Anderson’s age, which puts him right around the time when many goaltenders see their play start to drop off. Not all of them, of course; we have seen guys play well into the late-30s. But it’s rare, and when you see Anderson’s numbers go south, it’s fair to worry a little. And that’s what some Senators fans are doing.
If — and again, we’re talking about a quarter of a season here, so underline the “if” — Anderson is hitting a decline, the Senators are going to be in some trouble. They can’t just hand the job over to the backup, since Mike Condon hasn’t been much better this year. And while Anderson’s contract is up after this season, the team has already locked him in on a two-year extension that runs through 2020. At a $4.75-million cap hit, that deal is a bargain if Anderson returns to form. But if he can’t, they’d better hope 23-year-old prospect Marcus Hogberg turns out to be the real deal, because options for going out and adding another veteran could be limited.
Show me a good goaltender, the saying goes, and I’ll show you a smart coach, and probably a playoff team. The Senators still hope they have one, and this is all a bump in a very long road. It’s fair to give Anderson the benefit of the doubt for now, but it’s a situation worth watching tonight in San Jose.
From the archives
This afternoon serves up an old-school Norris Division matchup between the Blues and Red Wings. That gives us plenty to work with for this section, including seven playoff matchups (five won by Detroit) and even more brawls (like here, here and here).
But with all due respect to those options, there’s really only one choice when you’re talking classic Wings/Blues moments. And it came during the 1996 playoffs.
The second-round matchup between the Blues and Wings was one of the most fascinating of the modern era. That year’s Red Wings team was one of the best ever, racking up 131 points to fall just short of the 1976-77 Canadiens for the all-time record. They were coming off a disappointing loss in the 1995 Cup final and were the heavy favourites to finally win it all.
Meanwhile, the Blues weren’t anywhere near as good, but they sure were interesting. This was the year that Mike Keenan loaded up on veterans, including a late-season rental of Wayne Gretzky, then tried to play a 33-year-old Grant Fuhr in literally every game until he got hurt. (It was also back when the Blues were going through their weird uniform phase, but it was the mid-’90s so they weren’t alone.)
Between them, the two teams featured a combined 13 Hall of Famers, four Hart Trophy winners and four Norris winners. On paper, it was one of the best matchups ever. And for once, the action on the ice lived up to the hype, with the two teams playing a back-and-forth classic that wasn’t settled until double-OT of game seven, when Steve Yzerman did this:
I’ve made this argument before, but I’ll repeat it here: I think that given the circumstances and the stakes, that’s the single greatest shot in NHL history. Look at that thing. Yzerman launches a 60-foot laser beam directly into the roughly two inches of room he had to shoot at. He beats Jon Casey clean from the blue line, and I’ve never heard anyone call it a bad goal. Nobody was stopping that shot. It was either going past you or through you. The fact that he starts the play by stealing the puck from the greatest player who ever lived almost feels like overkill.
The goal had all sorts of ramifications, both short and long-term. It spelled the end of Gretzky in St. Louis – he signed with the Rangers in the offseason – and within a year Keenan was gone too. As for the Wings, they headed to the conference final and a meeting with the Colorado Avalanche. When it started, it was a matchup between two teams with absolutely no history. By the end of it, the greatest rivalry of the last quarter-century had been launched.
So sure, there have been bigger goals scored in this league. But all things considered, Yzerman’s double-OT rocket stands as the greatest single shot of all-time.
Oddly specific prediction
Well, that winning streak didn’t last long. Look, give us a break, we were focusing our powers of prognostication elsewhere.
This week’s prediction: Kessel has a three-point night in Toronto.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-9.