Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Division by zero
This is a weird question to ask before the season has even hit the halfway mark, but we’ll ask it anyway: Is the Atlantic Division playoff race already over?
There’s a case to be made. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the league’s best team, and are holding a 10-point lead for first place in the division. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s pretty darn comfortable, especially when every other division is within three points. We can already pencil the Lightning in for the division’s top seed.
While we’ve got that pencil out, we might as well go ahead and add the Bruins and Leafs in second and third. We don’t know the order there yet, with the two teams tied (although Boston has three games in hand), but the two teams seem locked into those two spots. If so, that gives us our first playoff matchup, although we may not know for a while who’d have home-ice advantage.
That leaves five Atlantic teams to work with, and man, what a mess the rest of the division is.
The Senators just spent the week dropping a pair of crucial games to the Bruins by a combined score of 10-1, leaving them 16 points back of the third spot. We said that the Senators’ performance against Boston would tell us a lot about the team, and it’s fair to say we didn’t learn anything good. And if you’re keeping track, we’re now into the “disgusted fans throw their jerseys on the ice” portion of the meltdown in Ottawa. (See video at the top of this page).
The Canadiens are in slightly better shape in terms of the standings, sitting 12 back of Boston and Toronto, but they might be even more of a mess off the ice. Word emerged over the weekend that the Habs are actively shopping captain Max Pacioretty, whose goal-scoring streak continued in a 2-0 loss on Saturday. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Marc Bergevin’s “top priority is moving (Pacioretty) for a top goal-scorer back — preferably a younger one.” Makes sense. Teams are probably lining up to move a young guy who scores goals for an older one who, for now at least, doesn’t.
The Red Wings aren’t good, although they’ve been marginally better than expected. The Sabres remain a mess. And that leaves perhaps the only team with a shot at making things interesting: The Panthers, who’ve won five straight to climb back to within nine points of third in the division. That’s still a long way to go, but compared to the other teams in this turtle derby, at least it’s a shot.
Of course, the top three isn’t necessarily the only route to the playoffs for the Atlantic’s bottom five, who could also get in through a wild-card spot. In theory, that’s a more realistic target, with the last spot currently held by the Islanders with 44 points. But that means passing more teams, including the surging Hurricanes and oh yeah, the two-time defending champion Penguins. If you believe that Pittsburgh will sort things out and get back into the race one way or another, that eats up another spot.
Add it all up, and the odds don’t look good. Three sites that try to project playoff chances – Money Puck, Hockey-reference.com and Sports Club Stats – all think the Panthers are still in the hunt, with odds ranging from 17 to 24 per cent. Montreal and Detroit are in worse shape, the Senators range from 0.7 to 3.5 per cent, and the Sabres are basically off the board. Meanwhile, all three sites see the Lightning and Bruins as virtual locks, and only Money Puck has the Leafs at less than 90%.
And if anything, those projections may be underselling the disparity, since they’re based on the assumption that teams stay the course with the current rosters. With two months until the deadline, at some point the Atlantic’s also-rans will have to throw in the towel and start shipping out veterans for future assets, which will lower their odds even more. And if the Metro’s wild-card teams start loading up – remember, we’re told the Penguins are about to make big changes – then the wild-card door may slam shut too.
All in all, the outlook is bleak for the majority of an entire division. That’s not supposed to happen in a league that pushes hyper-parity above all else, but here we are. Nothing is locked in, and we won’t see any mathematical clinching scenarios for a long time, so for now we can put that pencil away. But the way things are going, it won’t be long before we need some ink.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. St. Louis Blues (24-15-2, +15 true goals differential*) – After eight straight weeks in the top three, they’re wobbling. They’ve lost seven of 10, although they did manage a solid win over the Hurricanes on Saturday.
4. Vegas Golden Knights (26-9-2, +26) – I held out as long as I could. More below.
3. Washington Capitals (24-13-3, +8) – Impressive wins over the Bruins and Devils reclaimed top spot in the Metro, and erased some of the bad taste from a three-game losing streak.
2. Nashville Predators (23-10-5, +20) – The depth up front will get a test now that top scorer Filip Forsberg has gone on the IR. While there’s no timetable on his return, the IR designation means he’ll miss at least a week, and it sounds like it could be longer.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (28-8-2, +50) – Make it 10 straight weeks at No. 1 after last night’s impressive 5-0 win over the Blue Jackets.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
And there it is. A belated welcome to the top five, Golden Knights.
Like many things Vegas-related, we’ve been living in denial about this for weeks, even months. We pretended it wasn’t happening. We hoped it would just go away on its own.
But it hasn’t, and now it’s time to hit the grudging acceptance stage. The Vegas Golden Knights are good.
Not just “good for an expansion team” or “good compared to what we expected,” but flat-out good. By last week we were ready to tap out on our anti-Knights stance, and they followed that with road wins over the Ducks and Kings to take top spot in the Pacific. Then they closed out the weekend by badly out-skating and outplaying the Maple Leafs yesterday afternoon.
Does any of this make sense? Not really, no. It’s certainly not following any scripts. Coming out of the expansion draft the Knights had stocked up on defencemen, but their plan to trade blueliners for other assets hasn’t really worked out. They looked solid in goal, but that was before they were hit with a ridiculous batch of injuries at the position. The forwards seemed deep, but there wasn’t the sort of front-line talent that other teams had, and this is supposed to be a league driven by the top tier of players.
Add it all up, and the Knights looked like they’d avoid the kind of first-year faceplant that so many other expansion teams have executed, but that was about it. Instead, they’re among the league’s very best. And maybe more amazingly, if some time traveler from 2018 showed up to tell you that the Knights were far better than expected, you’d have probably assumed they were doing it by clutching and grabbing and boring opponents to death. Instead, the Knights are skating teams into the ground.
If anything, maybe you make the case they should be even higher on our list, given that they’re sitting second overall in the league. Maybe they should. But remember, this ranking isn’t meant as a snapshot of right now – it’s the teams most likely to win the Stanley Cup in June. They’re certainly in the running right now, but let’s see whether the fabled “Vegas flu” holds up in the playoffs, or whether the Knights’ nearly insurmountable home-ice advantage fades when visiting teams are coming in more focused.
Or maybe that’s just another excuse, one that we’ll have to sheepishly abandon down the road. It wouldn’t be the first time with these guys. But for now, they’ve kicked down the door to the top five. We’ll see how far down the list they can make it as the season wears on.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft lottery simulations.
5. Vancouver Canucks (16-18-5, -19) – Sure they’ve had only one regulation win in their last 11, but at least they have Brock “The Bruiser” Boeser.
4. Montreal Canadiens (16-19-4, -22) – Make it four straight losses, featuring a combined three goals scored. I think we can all agree that the answer here is trading your best veteran goal-scorer.
3. Ottawa Senators (12-17-8, -26) – After Saturday’s loss, Mark Stone told reporters that the Senators’ top players are “cheating.”
2. Buffalo Sabres (10-20-8, -41) – We’ll nudge them out of the bottom spot for the first time in a month, if only because they’re about to take centre stage. More on that below.
1. Arizona Coyotes (9-27-5, -52) – Look on the bright side, Coyotes – you’re one of two teams to have officially hit the halfway mark, which means you’re closer than just about everyone to having this season be over.
Ten years ago today, the Sabres hosted the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first-ever Winter Classic. Coming five years after the only other regular season outdoor game, the Classic was viewed as a major question mark heading in, with plenty of whispers that the concept wouldn’t work. Instead, by the time Sidney Crosby had scored the shootout winner as a gentle snow fell over the proceedings, hockey fans were hooked. The NHL, a league that had always been reluctant to try new things, had a hit on its hands.
Ten years is a long time. When it comes to the Classic, it feels even longer.
Monday the Sabres will be back for another Classic, this time “hosting” the Rangers at Citi Field. (The game is in New York, but the Rangers can’t be considered the home team in any game outside of Madison Square Garden due to a tax loophole.) And outside of Buffalo and New York, there doesn’t seem to be all that much buzz for this year’s game.
That’s been a trend lately, with TV ratings for the annual game dropping for years south of the border. Some of this is just the novelty factor; the Winter Classic was unique back when it was the only outdoor game of the year, while now there are three or four each season. In hindsight, jamming the 2014 calendar with six games seems like a momentum-killing mistake.
This year’s matchup certainly doesn’t help, pitting a middle-of-the-pack Rangers team against a Sabres squad that may be the league’s worst. The world junior tournament got the jump on the NHL this year, hosting a game of its own on Friday in the very same stadium used for the 2008 game, so the Classic may not even be the biggest outdoor game of the weekend. It’s certainly not going to be the talk of the town in Buffalo Monday.
But while all that is working against this year’s game, there seems to be something bigger going on here. There’s a growing cynicism about outdoor games creeping into a large portion of the fan base and media, and it’s not totally undeserved. After 10 years of watching outdoor hockey, we can all admit that while the visuals are often still phenomenal, the actual games usually aren’t very good. The ice isn’t great, wind and glare can impact the action, and the whole thing usually results in choppy, uneven action. The fans are freezing. And at times, you find yourself just hoping the two teams can get to the final horn without anyone getting hurt.
Maybe this is where the Sabres and Rangers come in. If they can conjure up some of that old magic today and deliver a game worthy of the spectacle, maybe some of the cynicism will fade. Even if it’s only temporary, it would be fun to recapture some of that excitement we had watching Crosby skate in on Ryan Miller all those years ago.
The Sabres should be inspired, at least, since this is probably the last meaningful game they’ll play all year. The Rangers just need the two points to hang in the wild-card race, so they’ll probably take an ugly win. Recent history suggests that’s exactly what they’ll get. But every now and then this league can surprise us, so here’s hoping today is one of those days.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
•The weekend’s best story came on Friday night, as 32-year-old goaltender (and 2005 WJC hero) Jeff Glass finally made his NHL debut after well over a decade toiling in Europe and the minor leagues. He earned the win, helping the Blackhawks top the Oilers in overtime and earning the game’s first star honours.
•The Oilers’ climb back to the playoffs hit another snag with an embarrassing 5-0 loss to the Jets. Edmonton is playing better lately, but isn’t gaining ground, and is running out of time.
•That Jets win moves them ahead of the Predators and Blues and into first place in the Central. They’ve won three straight, and get the Sabres twice in their next four.
•The Flames snapped a three-game losing streak with a much-needed win over the Blackhawks. Mark Giordano got the overtime winner.
•In other Calgary news, Eddie Lack’s post-Canucks tour of the league continues, as the Flames sent him to the Devils for Dalton Prout in a weekend deal. Both players will be assigned to the AHL.
•Scrap of the weekend: Matthew Tkachuk and Ryan Kesler were not kidding around.
•Hey, at least you probably had a better weekend than this guy.
•Six players have already hit the 20-goal mark. As we all predicted, two of them are Anders Lee and William Karlsson.
•Islanders’ coach Doug Weight lived the employee’s holiday dream yesterday when he was told he could go home early.
•Finally, enjoy today’s Winter Classic followed by a night off from NHL hockey. It will be the last one until the all-star break, as the schedule picks up with a dozen games tomorrow.