We’ve got a dozen games on the schedule tonight, and with two weeks left in the season all eyes will be on the teams that are still alive in the playoff hunt. For our key game tonight, we’re going to get really generous with our definition of “still alive.”
We don’t need any complicated set-up here. Things are very simple for the Calgary Flames right now. Any margin for error is long gone. They need to win tonight in San Jose, and then win again in L.A. on Monday. And then they’ll almost certainly have to win every game the rest of the way. Then they need to hope for a miracle.
Even seven straight wins would get them to only 94 points, and that wouldn’t be enough unless somebody collapses. Odds are, it’s already over, and a win tonight only postpones the inevitable for a few more days. That’s the reality in Calgary, and the reality is ugly. So let’s be kind and pretend the Flames are still in this thing, if only as an excuse to get invested in what had seemed to be looming as a big game just a week ago.
Even if you’re not a Flames fan, it may be worth rooting for Calgary to stay in it tonight. That’s because after a long season in which there wasn’t much separation between the middle 20 or so teams, we suddenly find ourselves staring down the possibility of a final few weeks without all that much of a playoff race.
The Eastern Conference is already down to the Devils and Panthers fighting for one spot, barring a late collapse by the Flyers. We’d expected the Hurricanes, Islanders and maybe even Rangers to be in the mix down the stretch, but no such luck.
The Western race is a little tighter, but if we write off the Flames then we’re down to just the Blues and Stars still chasing spots. And even that might be generous to Dallas, who’ve lost seven straight and are missing Ben Bishop. Depending on how the next few days play out, it’s not inconceivable that we could go into the final week with all 16 playoff spots more or less wrapped up.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. If you’re a Calgary fan looking for optimism, you could point out that the Flames did manage to rip off seven straight not all that long ago, back when everything was clicking and certain dummies were penciling them in for a long playoff run. It happened then. Why not now, right?
Don’t actually answer that; the list of reasons why it won’t happen is a long one. Even the Flames seem to realize that, given that they’re shutting down Sean Monahan for the season. But every miracle journey begins with a single step, so here we go. At the very least, the plan isn’t all that complicated right now. Win out, then hope. It’s not much, but it’s all the Flames have got, and it starts this afternoon.
Marquee matchup: Misery vs. hope
The day’s first game features the Avalanche hosting the Golden Knights. It’s a reasonably important one, with the Avs looking to hold their ground in the wild card and the Knights looking to stay within range of the Predators in the Presidents’ Trophy race. But for the long list of teams suffering through a miserable season, the game might represent something more. It offers up a little hope.
Not a lot, mind you. But at least a little. And hope can be hard to come by when you’re playing out the string on a wasted season, so we’ll take what we can get.
Think back to where we were a year ago. The Golden Knights were hardly more than a logo, and the roster was mostly a gleam in George McPhee’s eye. They’d just added their very first player, and congratulations if you remember the excitement of the big Reid Duke signing. But this was long before Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jonathan-Audy Marchessault, James Neal and the rest had arrived in town. The Golden Knights, for all intents and purposes, had no players and did not exist.
And the Avalanche were probably worse.
Last year’s Colorado team had us wondering if they were the worst of the salary-cap era. The consensus was that they were close, and were almost certainly the worst among those teams that were actually trying to be good. It’s easy to forget now, but that team finished with an almost-unfathomable 48 points. Even this year’s worst train wrecks, like the Sabres and Coyotes, blew past that mark weeks ago. And what’s worse, there wasn’t exactly much in the way of hope for the future. They still had to trade Matt Duchene, the prospect pipeline wasn’t all that exciting, and they were about to lose big in the lottery. They were a disaster.
So heading into this season, you could have made a good argument that the Avalanche and Golden Knights would battle it out for dead last. It wouldn’t even have been much of a hot take.
A year later, the Knights are going to win the Pacific and the Avalanche look like a good bet to make the playoffs. It’s hard to figure which one is the bigger shocker. If watching these two teams play meaningful hockey today doesn’t offer up some hope to the dregs of the league, nothing will. They say you need a five-year plan to turn things around? Look at what these two teams just did.
Of course, hope is a tricky thing, because sometimes it gets in the way of reality. The Coyotes and Sabres thought they’d be good this year. The Canucks have been singing that song for three years now. The Senators and Canadiens and Oilers all figured they’d be headed back to the playoffs. Depending on who’s calling the shots, a little dose of hope might be the last thing those teams need, since it could get in the way of making the tough decisions that need to be made.
But that’s for down the line. For now, as the season ticks away, a little bit of optimism might be a welcome break. It can be done. We’ll be watching for proof of it this afternoon.
Key subplot: Taking ownership
Speaking of misery, the Senators are hosting the Hurricanes tonight in the first half of a home-and-home. Both teams are playing out the string on disappointing seasons; the Sens might finish dead last, while the Hurricanes will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
That’s already led to change in Carolina, where Ron Francis was booted upstairs after four years on the job. Ottawa fans want to see some changes, too, but they’re aiming a little higher. The revolt against owner Eugene Melnyk has been gaining steam over the season’s second half, driven by the online hashtag #MelnykOut. Recently, billboards have been appearing around town, even as Melnyk has inserted himself into the day-to-day running of the team.
That may seem harsh; after all, Melnyk might have saved the franchise when he arrived during the bankruptcy days of 2003. But he’s managed to burn through just about all of that goodwill over the years, and a disastrous decision to muse about moving the team on the eve of hosting the franchise’s first outdoor game was a turning point for many fans. They want a new owner. Preferably one with lots of money, a few new ideas, and a plan for building a winner.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what the Hurricanes just got in Tom Dundon. And as their fans could tell you, be careful what you wish for.
It’s far too early to pass any kind of judgment on the Dundon era, but it’s fair to say that things are off to a rocky start. Ousting Francis was probably justifiable based on the team’s performance, but the move was always going to be a tough sell from a P.R. standpoint. Rumours that Dundon planned to take a hands-on approach to hockey decisions raised eyebrows. And the subsequent GM search was an embarrassing bust amidst rumours that Dundon was low-balling candidates on salary.
If true, that sounds kind of… Melnyk-y. And it’s a timely reminder for Ottawa fans that a change at the top doesn’t necessarily guarantee smooth sailing. Then again, when the status quo isn’t working, sometimes something has to give. Maybe we’ll find out how many billboards it takes to make it happen.
Player in the spotlight: James van Riemsdyk
The Maple Leafs are coming off a two-game road trip that saw them face the league’s two best teams. They suffered a disappointing collapse against the Lightning on Tuesday, then rebounded with an impressive win over the Predators on Thursday, handing Nashville their first regulation loss in over a month. And as with most Leafs games these days, both featured goals from van Riemsdyk.
The red-hot winger heads into tonight’s matchup with the Red Wings with eight goals in the last five games, bumping his total on the year to a career-high 34. He’s done it the same way he’s scored most of his goals over the course of his career: By going to the net, grabbing rebounds, and getting his shots off quickly. It’s not fancy, but it works.
It’s been a nice streak, but it’s also been at least a little bit conflicting for Maple Leafs fans. With van Riemsdyk hitting UFA status this summer, there’s been some lingering hope that the team could find a way to sign him to an extension. That was never likely, given the team’s coming cap crunch when last year’s rookie class starts getting new deals, but it always felt like there was a chance. These days, it’s hard not to watch each goal he scores and wonder how many dollars it added to the price tag.
Probably too many by now, which is why Maple Leafs fans will also be watching guys like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, two younger wingers who’d presumably get first shot at moving up the lineup if and when van Riemsdyk signs elsewhere. Kapanen hasn’t exactly lit it up this year, with just eight points in part-time action, although he still makes one or two plays a game that make you wonder how he doesn’t have far more. Johnsson is a more recent and probably temporary addition to the lineup, but at 23 he might be closer to being ready for full-time duty next season.
As the Leafs play out the string without all that much on the line until the playoffs arrive, fans will be watching all three wingers with one eye on the scoresheet and one on CapFriendly.com. That’s life in the cap-era NHL, where it always pays to be thinking about the future.
From the archives
The Oilers host the Kings tonight. The game won’t mean much for Edmonton, who’ve been out of the playoff race for weeks now. That’s too bad, because these teams used to hook up in the post-season fairly often – seven times in all between 1982 and 1992. So today, let’s look back on one of those matchups from the high-flying Wayne Gretzky era…
(Oilers fans stop sobbing and think back to happier times. Some of them smile for the first time in months.)
…by heading back to April 10, 1982, and the Miracle on Manchester.
(Oilers fans go back to sobbing.)
It’s Game 3 of the best-of-five opening-round series, and the teams have split the first two games. That in itself is a surprise, since the Oilers came into the series as massive favourites — they’d finished the year with 111 points, compared to the Kings’ 63. The Oilers had also led the league with 419 goals, while the Kings had given up the second most with 369. You can see where we all thought this was headed.
And sure enough, Game 3 started off as expected. The Oilers rolled over the Kings for the first two periods, heading into the third with a 5–0 lead. And that’s when things got crazy:
A few thoughts:
• Good lord, goaltending was terrible back then. Since it’s apparently sacrilege to even suggest making the nets a few inches bigger, can we do the next best thing and force goalies to stay on their feet at all times like they did back then?
• How often do you think Pat Hughes relives those missed breakaways that could have ended the comeback? He was the previous generation’s Matt Frattin.
• I miss those old games where the fans standing up would totally block the camera angle.
• The “one guy scores and everyone chases him around the ice until they all crash into the boards” is a classic celebration that we don’t see enough of. And it always seems to work best against the Oilers.
The game became known as the Miracle on Manchester, which was the street the old L.A. Forum was found on. The Kings went on to finish the upset in five games, sending the Oilers home in what still ranks as one of the greatest playoff upsets of all time.
At the time, the collapse caused plenty of questions about whether Gretzky and the Oilers actually had what it took to win a Cup, or whether they were a team better suited for running up the score in the regular season before bowing out when the going got tough. Of course, they’d go on to win a bunch, so the narrative got retconned into the Kings series being the turning point, and that a team has to suffer some tough losses before they can learn how to win.
If so, then chin up, Oilers fans. With over a decade of training under your belt, you should be ready to start winning any day now.
Oddly specific prediction
Since nothing makes sense in the NHL and the Maple Leafs just spanked the league’s best team on the road, let’s pencil them in to return home and become the first team to lose in regulation to the Red Wings in exactly a month.
Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-22, after last week’s Canucks got us only 60 percent of the way there.