Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Capitals peaking too early?

Taylor Hall continues sinking Canadian clubs, the Wild take over the Central, Washington stays red hot and the Blues get a monkey off their backs.

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: Capital Wasteland
So the good news is that the Blue Jackets have cooled off after winning 16 straight, and look like they’re not going to run away and hide with the Presidents’ Trophy after all.

The bad news is that now it’s another Metro team that looks unbeatable, and it’s the team that ended the Blue Jackets’ streak. Apparently ending a team’s shot at the all-time streak record is some sort of Highlander thing where the winner absorbs the loser’s powers, because now the Washington Capitals are running over everyone.

Their two weekend victims were a pair of pretty good teams in the Blackhawks and Flyers. No matter; the Caps smoked both, winning those two weekend games by a combined score of 11–0. That ran their current win streak to nine, and moved them past Columbus into first place overall. Since the puck dropped on that streak game with the Blue Jackets back on Jan. 5, the Caps are 6-0-0 and have outscored their opponents 26–3.

The Capitals are unstoppable. Nobody can score against them at even strength. And if the playoffs started today, they’d head into them as the league’s top seed and Stanley Cup favourites.

For most teams, that would be considered a good thing.

But this is Washington, and Capitals fans don’t exactly have the best history when it comes to getting their hopes up. That’s led to some handwringing over whether the team is peaking too early, and to headlines about the winning streak that include the words “Oh noooooooo.”

You can kind of see where Caps fans are coming from. After decades of periodic playoff collapses, this had been shaping up like the sort of year where they could sit back, watch their rivals eat up all the attention and expectations, then sneak into the playoffs as a solid but under-the-radar dark horse.

Then they started winning and, well, so much for that plan. Now it’s all eyes on Washington. Braden Holtby is back in the running for another Vezina, Nicklas Backstrom is getting pregame ceremonies, and Alex Ovechkin has people debating where he ranks among the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. And Capitals fans who’d been banking on a nice quiet underdog vibe are suddenly curled up in a ball and dreading what’s inevitably to come.

Tonight, the Caps visit the Penguins in what may be the week’s best game, not to mention a possible first-round playoff preview. It’s the first game of a tough stretch that will see them play seven of nine on the road, so fingers crossed, Washington fans. Maybe they can snap out of this unfortunate hot streak sooner than later.

Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Montreal Canadiens (27-11-6, +26 true goals differential*) – They’re back, if barely. More on that below.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-11-5, +20) – They went pointless on a three-game road trip, and have dropped to third in the Metro.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets (29-9-4, +46) – They’ve now lost four of six since the end of the streak, and even when they win they’re still “red rotten” at times. We all just learned that term this weekend.

2. Minnesota Wild (28-9-5, +47) – The only Western team on this week’s list cemented their hold on the Central with yet another comeback win over the Blackhawks.

1. Washington Capitals (29-9-5, +48) – Wait, if the Caps play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, which team suffers the devastating gut-punch loss? Can they somehow both do it? This is confusing.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

Not surprisingly, the Capitals make a dramatic return to the top five. They’d been regular residents over the first two months of the season, but had dropped a tier over the last few weeks. One big win streak later, they’re back in the mix.

Which brings us to another team that used to make regular top-five appearances, but had been notably absent in recent weeks: the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens moved into the top spot on our list in week three, and stayed there for five straight editions. But they slipped off the list entirely by the new year, and their reappearance this week has more to do with other teams slumping than their own success. Even with Saturday’s win over the Rangers, Montreal has been decidedly average in their last dozen games, winning six and losing six.

So what’s going wrong? Well, fatigue has been a factor; their recent rough patch included a brutal seven-game road trip. They’ve had four back-to-backs in that stretch, and playing five straight overtime games at one point didn’t help. Playing tired is part of today’s NHL so sympathy only goes so far, but it’s only fair to mention it. (For what it’s worth, the Habs don’t get their bye week until mid-February.)

Injuries have also played a part, with extended absences from Brendan Gallagher, Andrei Markov, David Desharnais, Alex Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw. The latter two returned to the lineup on Saturday; Galchenyuk scored the team’s first goal, while Shaw got himself kicked out.

But as with most things Habs-related, much of this mini-slump can be boiled down to one player: Carey Price. He just hasn’t been very good lately, giving up four goals or more in five of his last seven starts, matching the total from his first 25. That included Thursday’s ugly loss, in which he was in net for all seven goals against in an embarrassing blowout to the Wild. This year’s Canadiens aren’t quite the Price-or-bust edition of past years, but when your best player goes cold, it’s going to be reflected in your record.

In a way, that’s the good news for Montreal fans. Price’s recent slump has been part of a larger trend, but he should still be fine; everyone has the occasional cold stretch, and his track record says he’ll be back to his usual self soon.

Meanwhile, the schedule lightens up over the next few weeks, with five of the next seven games coming against non-playoff teams. And the Habs banked enough points during their early-season streak that they’re still well ahead in the Atlantic, so a division title and home ice in the opening round aren’t in any real jeopardy even if it takes them some time to get back on track.

So sure, the Canadiens should be OK, and for this week, that’s enough to get back into the top five. But it’s going to take more than that to keep them there.

Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft-lottery simulations.

5. Winnipeg Jets (20-22-4, -14) They’ve lost three straight, which is bad. They’re drawing comparison to the John Brophy-era Leafs, which is worse.

4. Buffalo Sabres (16-17-9, -18) – After showing signs of life with points in four straight, they’ve dropped two in regulation to fellow non-playoff teams.

3. New York Islanders (16-17-8, -10) – On the bright side, if one year ago you’d told an Islanders fan that John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen would all be 2017 all-stars, they’d probably have been pretty excited.

2. Arizona Coyotes (13-23-6, -47) – With the season already over, the team is apparently ready to make the shift into firesale mode.

1. Colorado Avalanche (13-27-1, -54) – Congratulations to the Avs on becoming the first team in the league to fall 20+ points out of a playoff spot. For comparison, everyone in the East is still within 10.

The Eastern Conference playoff race got a shakeup over the weekend, with the Maple Leafs earning road wins against the Rangers and Senators to move into possession of a spot. Toronto now sits third in the Atlantic, at least temporarily bumping Ottawa out of the postseason. The good news for the Senators is that with the Flyers fading and everyone holding games in hand on the Bruins, the race is still very much open.

But while all that Atlantic shuffling has been interesting, it may have distracted some of us from another Eastern story that’s slowly but surely emerging over the last month: The Carolina Hurricanes are still in this thing.

Carolina was an easy enough team to write off in the early going. For one thing, they’re the Hurricanes – they hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years, and not many of us expected them to come especially close this season. And as recently as a month ago, they were all but done, sitting 10 points back of the surging Flyers for a Metro Division spot.

But in 13 games since then, the Hurricanes are 9-4-0. They’ve beaten the Blues, Blackhawks and Blue Jackets over that stretch, and are currently riding a four-game win streak in which they’ve scored 21 goals. Today, they’re just one point back of the Flyers and hold three games in hand, and a playoff spot suddenly seems not just possible, but maybe even likely.

That’s not bad for a team that traded away its franchise player at least year’s deadline, and whose biggest off-season move aside from the Teuvo Teravainen trade was giving goalie Cam Ward an extension that everyone hated.

Last year, the Hurricanes were a trendy “might be better than you think” pick in certain circles, posting better 5v5 possession numbers than Cup contenders like Chicago and Washington. But it didn’t translate to the standings, where they finished 10 points out of a playoff spot, largely thanks to the league’s second-worst goaltending and bottom-10 shooting.

This year’s goaltender is still bad, although Ward’s having his best season in years. But the team shooting percentage has climbed back over league average, and that’s been enough to give the Hurricanes a positive goal differential — something teams like Ottawa and Philadelphia can’t claim. They’ve also quietly put together one of the league’s best home records at 15-4-1. These guys look like they’re for real.

Now here’s the bad news: The schedule over the next two weeks looks brutal. They’ll face the Blue Jackets twice, plus the Penguins, Capitals and Kings. But if they’re still in the race after that stretch, they’ll get the Flyers after the all-star break in what could be a battle for the Metro’s final spot.

Nobody had that game circled on their schedules a month ago, but it looms large now. For a team that didn’t look like they’d be playing meaningful hockey in the second half, that’s reason enough to start paying attention.

Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• The biggest hockey news of the weekend: Women’s-game pioneer Hayley Wickenheiser announced her retirement. The five-time hockey Olympian (she also competed once in softball) should be a sure thing for the Hockey Hall of Fame in three years.

• Congratulations to Martin St. Louis, who became the first player in Lightning franchise history to have his number retired on Friday night.

• You don’t often hear guys breaking out the “one call cost us the game” excuse when they lose by a half-dozen. But then again, the Blackhawks do things other teams can’t.

• Goal of the weekend: Detroit’s Andreas Athanasiou goes end-to-end.

• You don’t see many spearing penalties called these days, but Joe Thornton got busted for pitchforking Paul Stastny. The foul earned him a major and a game misconduct.

• Important news: Ilya Bryzgalov‘s cat is on social media because of course it is.

• Surely the Stars have to do something about their goaltending sooner or later. On Saturday, Antti Niemi didn’t make it to the five minute-mark before giving up three goals and getting yanked.

• Bad news, everyone: The NHL found out it accidentally had something fun and interesting that fans were enjoying, so you know what that means.

• The fading Lightning will be without Ryan Callahan for a month. The pre-season Cup contenders are now six points back of a playoff spot and have five teams to pass, and head out on a six-game Western road swing that might be the make-or-break trip of their season.

• Finally, let’s close with a nice story. An eight-year-old Jets fan invited Patrik Laine to his birthday party, and the rookie star responded by dropping by with a few gifts.

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