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: The Plural Alberta Advantage
It’s been a rough season for the two Alberta teams. The Oilers are responsible for most of that, as we may have mentioned once or twice. But while they haven’t been a disaster on anywhere near the same level, the Flames have at least been a disappointment, the kind of underachieving team that can give a coach fits. Literally.
So when an opportunity presents itself to go a few paragraphs saying almost entirely positive things about these two teams, let’s jump on it. The weekend was a very good one for the province, with each picking up a pair of road wins as they head into their bye-week break.
For Calgary, the wins continued a recent streak that now stands at seven games. The weekend visits to Florida and Carolina spelled the end of a four-game road trip, and make the Flames the hottest team in the league right now. At this point the Flames would probably rather skip their mandated bye and just keep playing, but since that’s not an option, they’ll have to settle for at least temporarily passing the Kings for second place in the Pacific. That’s probably going to be temporary – the Kings have two games in hand – but it’s still a pretty stunning achievement given the Flames were 11 points back of L.A. on Jan. 4.
It’s too early to start worrying about playoff scenarios, so we’ll just say this: With the Kings fading, the Knights still at least somewhat of a question mark and the rest of the division looking underwhelming, the Pacific is looking very winnable right now if a team wanted to hit the gas in the second half. Right now, the Flames are that team.
The Oilers haven’t been quite as hot, and they’re still well out of the playoff race. But if the season ends up being the write-off it looks like it will be, this weekend may stand out as the high point. The Oilers went into their bye week on a high note, earning road wins in Arizona and Las Vegas to string together their first win streak since they briefly showed signs of a turnaround before Christmas.
The weekend didn’t start off well, with the Coyotes scoring twice in the game’s first few minutes to chase Cam Talbot and take an early 2–0 lead on Friday. But Al Montoya closed the door the rest of the way and Edmonton fought back to earn a 4–2 win, with Darnell Nurse getting the winner in the third period. The Saturday-night game was even more fun, as the Oilers seemed to figure out a counter to the growing legend of the Golden Knights’ home-ice advantage: Just have your fans show up and take over the whole building.
The invasion served as a celebration of Connor McDavid’s 21st birthday, one that even included a first-period serenade. And the fans were rewarded with a third-period comeback capped off by an overtime win, with Nurse playing the hero once again.
It’s not all good news. The Oilers lost Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to injury and came within inches of losing Milan Lucic, too. Meanwhile, the Flames were missing Sean Monahan for the first time all season, and captain Mark Giordano was ejected from last night’s win and could face further discipline for this hit on Sebastian Aho. But for two teams that have already handled their share of negativity, we’ll skip over that and let Alberta’s fans enjoy a productive weekend, and a quick break to gear up for whatever comes next.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Winnipeg Jets (26-13-7, +26 true goals differential*): They head into the break with two straight losses, but still hold first place in the Central.
4. Washington Capitals (28-14-3, +11): A Jay Beagle buzzer beater in Carolina sent them into their bye on a winning note.
3. Boston Bruins (24-10-7, +29): With at least a point in 12 straight, three games in hand and a relatively easy schedule coming up, maybe tracking down the Lightning for top spot in the Atlantic isn’t completely out of the question after all.
2. Vegas Golden Knights (29-10-3, +29): They have points in 16 of their last 17. But if the big correction is ever going to come, it will be now; they’re on the road for 10 of their next 12, including tough matchups in Nashville, Tampa, Winnipeg and Washington.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-10-3, +49): The news on Victor Hedman isn’t good, but it’s better than it could have been. The Norris candidate will miss up to six weeks with a knee injury, but will return in plenty of time for the playoffs after initial fears that he could be done for the season.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
The NHL’s relationship with bye weeks is complicated. The concept was proposed by the players, and was negotiated into the deal that saw the league switch to a 3-on-3 format for the all-star game. In theory, it’s a great idea — the regular season is a six-month grind of injuries and fatigue, so why not give the players a quick break to recharge for the stretch run? When players are healthy and rested and at their best, everyone wins.
Well, almost everyone. Here’s who doesn’t win: Teams coming off their bye weeks. It quickly became apparent during last season’s initial foray into the bye-week concept that we’d all underestimated the rust factor. The numbers were jarring; teams coming off a bye and facing a team that wasn’t posted a record of 8-14-4. Many of those losses weren’t close, with plenty of bye teams struggling to so much as score a goal in their first game back.
That helped kick off a mini-backlash against the concept, with coaches like John Hynes and Mike Babcock leading the way. And for once, the league listened, agreeing that the idea hadn’t worked out as hoped. Gary Bettman told reporters that “if this doesn’t work any better and we still get the negative feedback that we got then I think we’re going to have to consider getting rid of it,” a rare case of the commissioner acknowledging a problem publicly.
And the league took steps to address the issue. As fans have no doubt noticed, this year’s byes aren’t spread out like they were last year. Instead, half the league was off last week, with the other half heading out this week. That gave the league the opportunity to schedule everyone coming off their bye against an opponent in the same situation, wiping out any sort of advantage. But while the schedule does feature nine such matchups, that still leaves 13 teams to face the dreaded bye-vs.-non-bye scenario.
Three of those matchups came this weekend, and two involved the Oilers getting the theoretically easy matchup against a rusty team. Sure enough, the Oilers won both, beating the Coyotes and Knights. The third team, the Sharks, pulled off a win, although their defence was shaky and they needed a last-minute goal to force overtime before Marc-Edouard Vlasic could win it.
The real test will come this week, as 10 more such matchups play out. In an interesting twist that will surely be noticed by any schedule conspiracy theorists, the expansion Golden Knights get to spend the week facing three different teams coming off their bye. The list of teams facing a tough post-bye matchup include some that need all the wins they can get, including the Blackhawks, Hurricanes and Senators. (The Sens, by the way, are the only Canadian team to find themselves facing such a matchup.)
We probably shouldn’t see as big a gap as we did last year; several of the teams who aren’t coming off a bye are just a day or two removed from it, so their advantage should be reduced. But if we do see another week of bye-week returnees getting stomped, expect the league to take action. And that might mean we say bye-bye to the byes.
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. Montreal Canadiens (18-20-5, -22): The scariest moment of the weekend came in Montreal on Saturday, as Canadiens’ forward Phillip Danault took a Zdeno Chara slapshot to the side of the head. Danault lay motionless for several minutes before being transported to the hospital, but early reports are positive and he’s now resting at home.
4. Ottawa Senators (15-18-9, -28): GM Pierre Dorion is apparently approaching his second-half decisions with patience. He may be the only one in Ottawa who feels that way.
3. Vancouver Canucks (18-21-6, -25): The Oilers and Flames aren’t the only Canadian teams heading into the bye after two straight weekend wins, as the Canucks beat the Jackets and Wild to leapfrog past Ottawa into 28th place.
2. Buffalo Sabres (11-24-9, -51): With the deadline approaching, talk around Evander Kane will heat up. Here’s a look at why that deal may not necessarily be the home run Sabres fans are hoping for.
1. Arizona Coyotes (10-28-7, -54): With their season over, attention is shifting to the fate of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’ve spent years swearing they wouldn’t trade him, but now it’s starting to feel like a question of when, not if.
Now that we’re at the mid-way mark of the NHL season, it seems like a good time to check in on how the power rankings have played out so far. Have we settled into any sort of consistency, or are things still just as chaotic as in those early weeks when teams were swapping in and out based on a handful of games?
The answer depends on where you look. The top few spots of both rankings has been remarkably consistent virtually all year long. In the top five, the Blackhawks held onto the No. 1 spot for the first two weeks thanks to a hot start (that included them demolishing a Penguins team we all assumed was still good.) But ever since, it’s been all Lightning. This week marks their 12th-straight appearance in the top spot, and if anything their hold is getting more secure as the season wears on.
The same is largely true of the bottom-five list. From week two on, it’s been the Coyotes and Sabres flipping back and forth for worst-team honours. Again, the gap between those two and the rest of the league might be getting bigger, although a trade-deadline selloff in Vancouver or Ottawa could change the dynamic.
But once you get past the top spots on either list, things have been a lot murkier, with plenty of teams making appearances. Both lists have featured 14 different teams showing up for at least a week. And three teams have appeared on both lists — the Oilers, Jets and Golden Knights. We can chalk that up to the season’s first week, when we had only a couple of games to go on and were relying mostly on pre-season expectations. That got the Oilers into the top five, and the Knights and Jets into the bottom rankings. By week two, all three teams were gone from the list and starting their journeys towards the other side of the tracks.
So with 14 teams on each list and three pulling double duty, that leaves us with six teams that haven’t shown up on either. We can call this the stuck-in-the-middle brigade. The half-dozen teams have taken the league’s mantra of perpetual parity to heart by never being quite good or bad enough to be worth singling out.
One of those teams is the red-hot Flames, who’ve spent the season lurking around the fringe of the playoff race while never looking quite as good as we all thought they’d be. Three of their fellow Western wild-card contenders are also in the club, with the Wild, Stars and Ducks managing to stay off the radar at either extreme.
Out East, the Islanders have had an up-and-down season but haven’t hit either list yet. And then there’s the Devils, who probably did deserve a top-five spot at some point early in the season, at least based on the standings. But we tend to be skeptical of unexpected early results around these parts, as Golden Knights fans could tell you, so we waited to see just a little more before the Devils earned their spot. With six straight losses knocking them perilously close to non-playoff status, it looks like we were right to be patient.
Will any of those six teams earn a spot somewhere before the season ends? The Flames might have a shot if they keep rolling over everyone. The unpredictable Islanders feel like the team most likely to plunge down to the bottom five, although the way their season has gone your guess is as good as mine.
But as the season goes on and the standings solidify, there’s a good chance the power rankings do, too. Being stuck in the middle isn’t a great place to be in the NHL. Then again, as teams like the Sabres and Coyotes could tell you, there are worse fates.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The star of the weekend was Islanders rookie Matthew Barzal, who racked up five points in a 7–2 blowout win over the Rangers.
It’s the second five-point game of Barzal’s rookie season, a feat that players like Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid never pulled off. I think he might be good.
• On Saturday, we mentioned the decline of old-school NHL rivalries. Apparently the Kings and Ducks missed the memo.
• Don’t look now, but the Penguins have won four straight, their stars are all scoring, they’re back in a playoff spot and are just one point back of the Devils for third in the Metro.
• Also red hot: The Avalanche, who’ve win six straight to move within two points of a wild-card spot.
• This was an interesting feature: In a modern era where shots are getting harder and harder, NHL goaltenders occasionally get a whiff of actual burning rubber.
• Blue Jackets defenceman Jack Johnson has reportedly asked for a trade. Now the question is what a Columbus team trying to win right now will do with him — and whether any other team really wants to pay up to add him.
• Never let it be said that Wild fans haven’t had much to cheer about this year.
• Finally, this feature on the long struggle of Kevin Stevens is a tough read, especially for fans who remember him at his best. But it’s well worth your time.