Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Faceoff: Ducks fight back
OK, so we had to let the Americans win one game. It was the polite Canadian thing to do.
Last night’s Ducks win in Edmonton spoiled what had been a perfect second round for the two remaining Canadian teams. That was a little uncool, especially after Oiler fans went and salvaged the American anthem.
Still, four out of five isn’t bad. The Oilers hold a 2–1 series lead over the Ducks, and now get an extra day to stew over last night’s 6–3 loss before Game 4 goes on Wednesday. It was an odd game, one that saw the Ducks score three straight early on, the Oilers rally to tie it up, and the Ducks score three more to pull away.
But every team hits a few bumps along the road in the playoffs, even if that team is (briefly) the Stanley Cup favourite. If the Oilers could shake off a 7–0 loss to the Sharks in round one, you figure they’ve got a decent shot at doing the same here, especially if Cam Talbot can bounce back and Connor McDavid keeps doing ridiculous stuff like this:
Meanwhile, the Senators have pulled off a pair of comebacks to take a 2–0 lead over the Rangers. Saturday’s dramatic overtime win was Ottawa’s eighth straight one-goal game of the playoffs, and sends them to New York with a chance to all but wrap up the series in tomorrow’s Game 3. That’s not bad for a team that was widely considered an underdog against both the Bruins and Rangers, despite holding home-ice advantage heading into each series.
The country’s 24-year Stanley Cup drought has been well-documented, and we’re still 10 wins away from either the Oilers are Senators ending it. But they’re getting close to breaking another streak that’s lasted almost as long; two Canadian teams haven’t made it to the conference final in the same season since the Maple Leafs and Canucks faced each other in 1994. And it would be the first time that a Canadian team was playing in each conference final since the Leafs and Canadiens in 1993.
Almost as importantly, having both the Oilers and Senators advance would avoid the dreaded “one Canadian franchise left” scenario, which inevitably results in a) every media outlet trotting out the same clichéd “Canada’s team” stories, and b) every neutral hockey fan in the country immediately turning on that team because we all secretly don’t want anyone else to win a Cup before our team does. The longer we can hold off on all of that, the better.
But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. On to this week’s power rankings…
Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.
5. The Hurricanes’ goaltending: They may have finally solved their longstanding goaltending problems, thanks to a weekend trade that saw them acquire Scott Darling from the Blackhawks for a third-round pick.
With only 64 career starts under his belt, Darling’s not a sure thing. And he’ll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, so in theory Carolina could lose him for nothing if they can’t get him signed. But given how glaring a need the position had become, the deal is worth the risk. You’d have to imagine that the Hurricanes get an extension done quickly and hand over the starting duties to Darling, who should be a major upgrade over the Cam Ward/Eddie Lack combo that struggled through the last two seasons.
4. The Predators’ blue line: Nashville took a 2–1 series lead over the Blues with yesterday’s 3–1 win. The game featured goals from Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi, tying them for the team lead with Filip Forsberg. Ellis has been especially hot, riding a six-game point streak. Mix in P.K. Subban‘s tour de force in Game 1, and Nashville’s blue line looks scary good right now. And it might get them to the conference final.
In related news, the Predators apparently have Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the bandwagon now, presumably because he’s not used to watching a team’s defence get the job done in the post-season.
3. The Devils, Stars and (especially) Flyers: Saturday was the draft lottery, as you already know if you live near any Canucks fans and heard all the screaming. We’ll have more on that side of the coin in a bit, but it was a good night for three teams with long odds who made big jumps up the order.
The Devils drew the top pick, moving up from fifth spot, and the Stars went from eighth to third. But the night’s biggest winner was the Flyers, who came in ranked 13th of the 15 lottery teams and jumped all the way to the second pick. In a draft with two players vying for top pick status, that’s a huge leap for a team that was in the playoff race until the season’s final week.
2. Jake Guentzel: The Penguins’ rookie has been the story of the first two rounds. On Saturday, he recorded his second multi-goal game of the playoffs, and now has seven goals through Pittsburgh’s first seven games. That’s pretty good.
Seeing a 22-year-old kid break out in his first post-season action is a fun story. But for the Penguins, it’s something bigger. On a team that’s already stacked with elite talent up front, getting this kind of production from a supporting player is big. It’s hard enough for opponents to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel from filling the net; when a 16-goal man suddenly turns into Maurice Richard, however briefly, good luck.
It’s early, but this is starting to feel a lot like last year, when Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin both elevated their games on a line with Kessel to give the Penguins the kind of balanced scoring that opponents couldn’t find an answer for. Guentzel won’t keep this pace up for long, but if he can continue to chip in occasionally then a tough team to contain gets even tougher.
1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau: Real tough call on this one.
Pageau’s four-goal performance on Saturday, including two late in the third to tie it and the overtime winner, will go down as the biggest individual effort in franchise history. And that may be underselling it — Pageau may have just recorded one of the biggest games in recent memory, by anyone, period.
Of course, that part will come down to hindsight. If the Senators can keep this going all the way to a Stanley Cup, the hometown hero’s four goals in a game the Rangers seemed to have wrapped up will just about get him canonized. By the same token, if New York manages to come back and win the series, maybe Pageau’s game ends up being remembered as a nice moment that didn’t turn out to be especially important.
But for now, without knowing what the future holds, we’ll just have to call it the game of the playoffs so far and leave it at that. For now.
A look at the week’s biggest underachievers.
5. Re-litigating the off-season: When two teams hook up for a blockbuster trade, we all know that it’s foolish to rush to judgment. We still do, at least with our initial verdict about who won or lost the deal, but there’s an understanding that all those takes are just placeholders. When teams exchange stars in the prime of their career, we won’t know how the deal really worked out until we’ve watched those players for years to come.
Or, apparently, one good playoff game. That can be enough, too.
So when Subban goes out and almost singlehandedly wins Game 1 against the Blues, he also won the Shea Weber trade for the Predators. And when Adam Larsson throws a puck at the crease for the Ducks to kick into their own net, that wraps up the debate on the Taylor Hall trade. We haven’t been able to pin down the Derick Brassard/Mika Zibanejad deal yet (although we came close in overtime on Saturday), but check back after Game 3 and we should have that one sorted out, too.
Is it all a little bit silly? Sure. But it’s also more fun than circling back in a decade or so for the real answer. And the nice part is that if you don’t like the results, you can just wait a few games and they might change. One Larsson giveaway or Subban stumble could be all it takes to turn a good deal into a disaster. At least for the next day or two.
4. The Flames off-season: Nobody wants to lose in the playoffs, but not all losses are created equal. And for Calgary, despite a disappointing sweep at the hands of the Ducks, the season felt like progress. They’ve built a good young roster, the balance of power in the Pacific division is shifting, and it seems like the future is bright.
So why does this off-season already feel like a mess?
They’ve yet to sign GM Brad Treliving to the new deal he needs, which is unusual to say the least. Both Treliving and team president Brian Burke have been linked to the Sabres by the rumour mill, and even if that’s just the usual misdirection, the fact that it’s out there at all suggests that something odd may be happening in Calgary. Treliving was reportedly set to meet with ownership last week, so maybe something gets done soon. But with expansion and the entry draft approaching and other teams already making deals, it’s strange to see a team still dragging its feet on figuring out who’ll be in charge.
Mix in a fight for a new arena that continues to generate far-fetched relocation scenarios, and it’s been a bumpy start to an important off-season. Here’s hoping it all gets cleared up, one way or another, before even more time ticks off the clock.
3. The fun police: Consider this a quick reminder: No dancing before the game, because that makes you a clown. No celebrating after a goal, because that makes you a showoff. Remember, everyone, the NHL is in the entertainment business. Nobody do anything that might seem entertaining.
2. The Colorado Avalanche: Saturday night’s draft lottery was carnage for the teams at the top of the odds list. The Canucks, Golden Knights and Coyotes all came in holding down top-four position, and all suffered the worst-case scenario of dropping the maximum three spots. In a draft that was already considered underwhelming, that’s a tough pill to swallow for three teams that needed some good news.
But with apologies to those teams, nobody took a tougher lottery night kick in the pills than the Avalanche. They just suffered through one of the worst seasons in modern history, finished dead last by a stunning 21 points. They didn’t even tank — they were just terrible.
Their coach quit just before the season. Their GM froze in the headlights of the trade deadline. Their team Twitter account just spent the last week alone in its room listening to The Downward Spiral and painting its nails black.
And now this. After all of that, the Avalanche’s reward is the fourth-overall pick in a weak draft.
No doubt, some will look at Saturday’s results and declare that the league needs a new system. And sure, there are better options available. But if you were OK with the lottery system on Saturday afternoon when you knew there was a chance that the top teams could get burned, you have to be OK with it now that it’s actually come to pass.
The NHL designed a system where this sort of result was going to happen eventually, and you just hoped it wasn’t your team that got burned when it did. For the Avalanche, in a season where anything that could go wrong did, the lottery stuck to the script.
1. The Washington Capitals: If our No. 1 pick in the good section was an easy call, this one may be even more of a slam dunk. Last year, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy but ran into a tough matchup with the Penguins in round two that they ultimately lost. This season, with the exact same scenario playing out again, they’ve been handed a shot at redemption.
Instead, it’s all happening again. By dropping the first two games of their series at home, the Capitals find themselves with a huge mountain to climb to even get back into the series.
It’s not even like the Capitals aren’t playing well. They’ve been dominant at times, including spending just about the entire first period on Saturday peppering the Penguins with shots and scoring chances. But they can’t buy a goal when they need it, Braden Holtby hasn’t looked like himself, their big deadline pickup has been a bust and Barry Trotz is being accused of making panic moves. And right on cue, here come the depressing quotes from the locker room…
For any other team, that combination would be seen as inching towards disaster. For the Capitals, with their storied history of playoff failure, it feels like a full-speed plummet. Do you know any Capitals fans? Go and give them a hug right now. They need it.
And sure, maybe this is just the setup for the big turnaround that finally signals the end of decades of misery. If the Capitals were ever going to win a Stanley Cup, there would have to be a monster comeback along the way, wouldn’t there? And if so, there’d be no better opponent in that scenario than the Penguins. If you want to view this Caps season through the eyes of some demented scriptwriter penning the ultimate redemption story, then hey, everything is going according to plan.
Or maybe not. Maybe the Penguins are just better, again, and the Capitals aren’t as good as everyone thought, again. Maybe their season has two games left, and then we get an off-season full of finger-pointing, firings, roster overhauls and self-fulfilling narratives. You know, again.
Game 3 goes tonight. If you’re a Penguins fan, a win is a nice-to-have. If you’re a Capitals fan, it’s only the most important game of a generation. No pressure.