Welcome to another NHL weekend. We’ve got 12 matchups on tap for tonight, and the schedule is saving the best for last. Here’s a look at the Saturday games.
HNIC Game of the Night: Oilers at Flames
The Battle of Alberta is always fun. It peaked during the mid- and late-’80s when the Flames and Oilers were the two best teams in the league and spent every game punching each other, but even in recent years when both teams have been awful you could usually count on something fun happening.
This year’s teams veer closer to “awful” than “best in the league,” which isn’t necessarily how we thought it would look heading into the season. The Oilers’ troubles have been well-documented, although at least they’re getting timely scoring from the blue line these days. The Flames have been better, but are still inching along in win-a-few, lose-a-few mode.
That’s not quite the battle for Pacific supremacy we might have been hoping for. But it does lend a sense of urgency to tonight’s showdown, with both teams badly needing a win to keep pace. This is the second meeting of the season between the two rivals, and the first since opening night. The Oilers earned a 3-0 win that night, but it’s fair to say a lot has changed since those early days. At the time, we were hoping the matchup might be a playoff preview. But with the Central dominating again, and the Kings and Golden Knights banking points early on, there’s a decent chance that there won’t be room in the post-season for both Alberta teams. And if so, every meeting between the two will be crucial.
Tonight’s game will feature two of the league’s top scorers in Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau, with the latter actually holding the lead in the provincial scoring race. It’s possible that no player has benefitted more from being allowed to actually play hockey without getting hacked on the wrist every shift; if both he and the refs can keep it up, Gaudreau has a legitimate shot at the Art Ross. McDavid will obviously have a thing or two to say about that, and tonight’s game could come down to which team manages to stifle the other’s top threat.
Maybe more importantly, it will presumably feature a matchup between Mike Smith, the Flames’ unquestioned starter and early-season workhorse who’s coming off a shutout, and Laurent Brossoit, the Oilers’ backup who’s suddenly in the spotlight with Cam Talbot out. Brossoit had an uneven game against Toronto on Thursday in what ended up as a 6–4 loss. Talbot is expected to miss at least two weeks, and with the Oilers’ season already hanging by a thread they may not be able to afford much of a downgrade. If Brossoit can’t get it done, Edmonton may need to seek out a trade.
These two teams won’t see each other again until late in January, and maybe by then they’ll both have figured things out and be back in the division title race. In the shorter term, both teams play the same opponents over their next three, with home games against the Flyers followed by a road trip through Toronto and Montreal.
Key subplot: Atlantic Pity
So the Atlantic Division might be bad this year.
Not every team — they have quite possibly the league’s very best in the Lightning, and so far the Leafs are hanging with them. But after that it’s a bit of a mess.
That’s not great news if you’re a Metro playoff contender, since there’s an outside chance that there could be six teams there that are better than the Atlantic’s third best. If that were to happen, the East wouldn’t send its eight top teams to the playoffs, and we’d been in for another round of complaining about the league’s playoff format.
But it’s very good news if you’re one of the many struggling Atlantic teams, because nobody’s out of this thing yet. The Senators are still hanging around, despite recently losing seven straight. The Bruins are right there and holding games in hand, despite all their injuries. The Panthers still have a shot. The Sabres, uh, have nice uniforms.
And then there are the Red Wings and Canadiens, who’ll meet tonight in Montreal. The Wings held the Atlantic’s third playoff spot earlier this week, and the Canadiens have it now (assuming you go by total points and not percentage). Both of those were surprising, since the Wings were expected to be terrible this year and the Habs actually were until about a week ago. In they were in any of the other three divisions, they’d be looking up at a wild card. But they’re not, so here we are.
It’s probably stretching it to say that tonight’s game will have a playoff-like atmosphere, but it’s possible that these two points could matter in the eventual race. It will also be a battle of teams heading in opposite directions in a hurry. The Canadiens will be looking to build on a 6–3 win in Detroit on Thursday, and have won four straight since Carey Price‘s return; Detroit has lost six in a row.
Marquee matchup: Nazem Kadri vs. the Canucks
Last year, the Leafs and Canucks engaged in a nasty game that featured plenty of bad blood, and Kadri was right in the middle of it with a controversial hit on Daniel Sedin.
That play reignited the debate on blindside hits (Kadri wasn’t suspended), and the fallout had Canuck players vowing revenge. The league made sure that a rematch a few weeks later came and went without anything silly happening. Now the two teams will meet again for the first time in almost a year, and you wonder if there may be any lingering memories.
Kadri can be, to put it mildly, a divisive player. Maple Leafs fans have had an up-and-down relationship with him over the years, as he went from Brian Burke-hyped draft pick to mild bust to breakout star and then back to disappointing problem child. But he seems to have found his role under Mike Babcock, and that role is the underrated two-way centre who can score at one end, match up with the other team’s top player in the other, and drive everyone crazy while he does it. He hit career highs with last year’s 32-goal, 61-point season, and is on pace to surpass them this year. Leafs fans will take that.
As for the rest of the league, well, it’s fair to say Kadri isn’t exactly beloved. He certainly tends to find himself in the middle of these types of things, as fans of opposing teams have noticed. He has a reputation as a diver, which may not be completely fair, and even the penalty-box officials have had their run-ins with him. But there’s no denying his talent — not many players can do this to Connor McDavid.
We’ll see if he gets a chance to pull off something similar tonight, or whether he ends up spending the night with irate Canucks chasing him around the rink. But knowing Kadri, he’d probably consider that a win. And speaking of wins, Vancouver could sure use one at the end of a tough road trip that had them falling out of the playoff mix. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but two points will matter more tonight.
Hot-seat watch: Dave Hakstol, Flyers
“Hot seat” might not even do the situation in Philadelphia justice. At this point, Dave Hakstol’s seat has just about melted into a steaming puddle. So has the Flyers’ season.
Just over three weeks ago, the Flyers earned a 3–1 win over the Blackhawks to bring their record to 8-6-2 on the year. That record wasn’t great, but the win meant they’d earned points in five of six and moved them into an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.
But since then, disaster. The Flyers have lost nine straight games, plummeting out of the playoff picture. A season that should have offered up continued optimism as Ron Hextall’s rebuild moves forward now seems in danger of being all but over before Christmas.
And Flyers fans are fed up, booing the team off the ice after Wednesday’s loss to the Sharks.
Now there’s a growing push to see the team make a coaching change, one that’s even spawned a novelty Twitter account. It’s getting ugly.
So far, Hextall has defended his coach and his team, arguing that they’re not playing poorly. There’s some truth to that — five of the nine losses have come in overtime or the shootout — and as always in these situations, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Making Hakstol the fall guy might not be fair. But with a season slipping away, fair might not matter much.
Hakstol was a surprising choice when the Flyers plucked him out of the college ranks back in 2015; it was the first and so far only head-coach hiring of Hextall’s GM career. But there are experienced names like Darryl Sutter out there, plus a rising coaching star already waiting in the wings in OHL coach of the year Kris Knoblauch, who was hired this summer as an assistant.
Hakstol still has his defenders, and to his credit he’s been willing to face the heat. But with Boston in town tonight and a three-game Western Canada road trip coming next week, the Flyers don’t need soundbites right now. They need a win, or else.
From the archives
The Sabres are in Pittsburgh tonight to face the Penguins in a battle between one of the greatest teams of the modern generation… and a team that is not that.
For two teams that have a combined 97 years in the league, most of it spent in the same conference and much of it in the same division, there isn’t a ton of history between the two teams. There’s the first-ever Winter Classic, which is probably the biggest moment the two franchises have shared. There was the Tom Barrasso trade, as well as the Stu Barnes-for-Matt Barnaby swap that stands as just about the most late-’90s trade possible. Both teams had Scotty Bowman. That’s about it.
But today, we’ll look at the one and only time the two teams faced off in a full playoff series. Not too many of today’s fans remember it, which is too bad, since it’s an underrated classic of the era. So let’s head back to 2001, when Mario Lemieux and the Penguins faced Dominik Hasek and the Sabres in the second round of the Eastern Conference bracket.
The fifth-seeded Sabres went into the series with home ice over the sixth-seed Penguins. But while neither team was dominant, there was plenty of star power in the series. It was Lemieux’s first playoff run since his surprise return midway through the season, and the series featured four of the last five Hart Trophy winners in Lemieux (1996), Hasek (1997 and 1998) and Jagr (1999). The Sabres even had a couple of other future Hall of Famers in veterans Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour.
The visiting teams dominated early, with the Pens winning the first two in Buffalo as Johan Hedberg somehow outdueled Hasek. The Sabres roared back to even the series with a pair of wins in Pittsburgh. But things really got interesting in Game 5, when the Sabres fought back from a 2-0 deficit to send the game to overtime, where Barnes scored the winner on a long-distance bomb. The Sabres were looking to end the series in game six and held a late lead before Lemieux banged in a rebound to tie the game with a minute left in regulation, and Pittsburgh’s Martin Straka scored the overtime winner to send the series to a seventh game.
That seventh game would see the two teams trade goals in both the second and third periods, and regulation ended with some controversy when Penguins defenceman Darius Kasparitus appeared to intentionally throw the puck into the stands but didn’t receive a delay-of-game penalty. (If you hate today’s automatic puck-over-glass penalty, now you know who to blame.) That sent the teams to overtime for a third straight game, where it took 13 minutes to get our series-winner:
It was a weak goal, an unexpected hero and — let’s be honest — a fantastic celebration. It was also, although we didn’t know it at the time, our very last look at Hasek in a Sabres uniform. Weeks later he’d be traded to Detroit, where he went on to win the Cup that had eluded him in Buffalo.
It was also our last glimpse of Lemieux celebrating a playoff-series win; the Penguins would fall to the Devils in the conference final. They wouldn’t make the playoffs again for six years, bottoming out and eventually earning enough ping-pong balls to rebuild around Sidney Crosby.
Oddly specific prediction
Before we get to this week’s prediction, some important business to take care of.
[balloons fall from sky]
[confetti cannons erupt]
[a large banner reading “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” is unfurled]
[a smaller banner reading “It wasn’t all that tough of a prediction” is unfurled and then quickly torn down and hustled away by security]
Yes, two months into the season, the “Oddly specific prediction” section has claimed its first checkmark of the year. And ironically, the shutout was broken by, well, a shutout. Carey Price did indeed return to the lineup and blank the Sabres as prophesized in last week’s column, meaning this section will not go oh-for-the-season.
Could this be the turning point that leads to a season-long win streak? We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but yes, it definitely is.
This week’s prediction: The Leafs beat the Canucks, with their old pal Kadri scoring the winning goal.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-8