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: Metro Prime
Every now and then, hockey fans like to argue over which division is the league’s strongest. Those fans have been out of luck in recent years, as the Central took hold of the title and didn’t seem interested in giving it up. But this year, there’s a new king of the hill, and it’s not even close. The Metro is crushing everyone.
We could crunch the numbers a few different ways. As of this morning, five of the division’s teams find themselves holding down spots in the top seven of the overall standings. The Metro boasts the two best goal differentials in the NHL, courtesy of the Rangers and Blue Jackets, as well as the league’s hottest team, the Flyers. Oh, and there’s also the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins and defending Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals. The Metro features the three highest-scoring teams in the NHL, and two of the three top teams in goals allowed.
The division is stacked. And they’ve spent the last week absolutely stomping the rest of the league.
The Metro isn’t unbeatable top-to-bottom, of course. But even the Devils and Hurricanes have had their moments, and both are probably better than their records show. And even the division’s only truly bad team—the last-place Islanders—have been trending up lately, beating some good teams over the past two weeks before falling flat in a 6-2 loss to the Blue Jackets on Saturday.
Here’s something to keep an eye on: If things keep trending in this direction, we have the possibility of running into a scenario that’s long been possible in the NHL but rarely actually happens: a top-eight team in a conference not making the postseason. That would require the relatively unlikely outcome of one division’s sixth place team ending up ahead of the other’s third place finisher, and we’re almost there right now.
The Devils are technically the East’s ninth-place team, tied with the Panthers, Lightning and Red Wings. But those three Atlantic teams are all two points out of a playoff spot because they can catch the Bruins, while New Jersey is seven back of the Capitals for the last wildcard spot. The Devils (or Hurricanes) could theoretically finish eighth or even seventh in the East and still miss out on a postseason invite. The NHL playoff format is weird.
On to this week’s power rankings. Hey, you’ll never guess which division is dominating the top five…
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup-favourite status.
5. New York Rangers (19-9-1, +31 true goals differential*): We always knew their starting goaltender would start winning them some games eventually. We just kind of assumed that would be Henrik Lundqvist.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (17-5-4, +31): I give up. I said I wouldn’t put them in the top five until they left me with no other choice. Here we are.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (18-8-4, +10): Their weekend included a 1-0 loss to the Rangers; they get a rematch tomorrow night.
2. Montreal Canadiens (19-6-3, +29): A 10-1 final? Geez, Montreal, what did Colorado ever do to you? Oh, right.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (18-7-3, +12): Sidney Crosby has officially entered “scary good” mode. With 20 goals through 22 games and 54 games left on the Penguins’ schedule, he’s on pace for 69 goals despite missing most of October. Nobody’s had more than 65 in a season since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96.
*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.
Last week, we looked at what seemed like a glitch in the NHL matrix—absolutely nobody was especially hot or cold, with every team in the league muddling along at close to a break-even pace over the past few weeks of action. We wondered if that meant anything, or if it was just one of those flukes that would sort itself out soon enough.
One week later, plenty of teams are still muddling away. But a few have broken loose and decided to go streaking. Right now, we’ve got four teams in the NHL who are riding win streaks of five games or more.
Not surprisingly, three of those teams are in that powerhouse Metro Division, including the team with the league’s best streak. That’s the Flyers, who picked up their ninth straight win with Sunday’s 1-0 overtime decision over the Red Wings. That low-scoring game was a bit of a new wrinkle for Philadelphia, given that they’re second in the league in goal scoring and had potted three or more in every other game of their streak. But now that the goaltending is settled down, the Flyers look like the dynamic young team we thought they’d be heading into the season.
What they’re not doing is gaining all that much ground in the race for the Metro title, thanks to the Penguins putting up a five-game streak of their own. They’ve scored 28 goals over that stretch, and will look to continue it tonight at home against the last place overall Coyotes.
Then there’s the Blue Jackets, who’ve won six straight. That’s been a bit of an odd streak, with the last five games coming against some of the league’s worst teams, but wins are wins. Factoring in that their last loss came in a shootout, Columbus has points in eight straight. And they’re doing it by blitzing teams; they’ve had 37 shots or more in all but one of those games, including that 60-shot effort against the Coyotes two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the league’s hottest non-Metro team is in Calgary, where the Flames have won six straight. That was good enough to briefly boost them all the way to first place in the Pacific yesterday, before the Ducks took the lead back with their win over Ottawa. Still, that’s one heck of a surge for a team that was well out of the playoff hunt not all that long ago.
Not to look too far ahead, but the Flames and Blue Jackets will face each other on Friday in Calgary, for a game in which both teams could be riding seven-game winning streaks. That would be a lot of fun, and a nice change from watching matchups between indistinguishable lukewarm teams like we were just a week ago.
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. New York Islanders (11-11-5, -9): Saturday’s loss against Columbus aside, if they keep playing the way they have recently they won’t be on this list much longer.
4. Buffalo Sabres (10-11-6, -14): Sit tight, we’re going to talk about them down below.
3. Vancouver Canucks (12-15-2, -21): With yesterday’s loss to the Caps, they became the first team in the NHL to hit double digits in regulation road losses.
2. Arizona Coyotes (9-13-5, -22): They snapped a six-game losing streak with an impressive 4-1 win over the Predators on Saturday.
1. Colorado Avalanche (11-15-1, -25): They gave up 52 shots to the Maple Leafs last night. And that was their good game of the weekend.
So yeah, the Sabres. They’re not very good again this year. Is it time to worry?
Buffalo suffered through a pair of truly awful seasons, finished dead last in the league in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. But it was suffering with a purpose. Some called it tanking, while others called it a strategic rebuild. (The second group still thought it was tanking, they were just too polite to say it out loud.) But either way, the organization was looking down the road and making an investment in the future. Last place now, glory in the days to come.
That future isn’t quite here yet—nobody thought the Sabres were going to be a two-year turnaround. But after signs of progress last season during a semi-respectable 81-point campaign, the Sabres seem to be stalling this year, if not outright regressing. They’re on pace for 78 points, sitting last in the Eastern Conference, and are dead last in the league in goals scored.
We can’t say for sure what Tim Murray’s plan was, but it’s a safe bet that still being last in the conference in Year Four wasn’t part of it.
Rebuilds are tricky things and there are no guarantees, but we’ve seen teams like the Blackhawks, Penguins and Kings make quick transitions from laughingstocks to legitimate Cup contenders. Maybe those are the outliers, but you’d like to think that two years out from rock bottom and with a big-name new coach behind the bench, you’d at least be pushing for a playoff spot.
So what’s going on in Buffalo? In fairness, injuries are playing a big part. The team made a big move to bring in Robin Lehner as the goaltender of the future two summers ago, but he missed most of last season and has been slowed somewhat this year by illness and hip problems. When healthy, he’s looked fine, so there’s still room for optimism here, but at some point the Sabres will want to be sure they’ve got a guy who can shoulder the load.
Then there’s Jack Eichel, who missed the first two months of the season. He’s looked great since returning, and the Sabres have picked up seven points in those six games. Evander Kane has missed time too, so the Sabres haven’t had many games where they could say they’ve had their best lineup on the ice.
Then again, injuries happen to everyone. Maybe a better sign for the Sabres is that they’re shooting a league low 5.3 percent at even strength; nobody else is even under 6.0 percent. That’s not good, obviously, but that’s the point—their shooting is so low that it has to rebound, suggesting that better days are ahead for the offence.
So sure, some patience may be in order here. But Sabres fans have been patient for a long time, and they’ve had precious little payoff for it. At some point, this team needs to start moving up the standings. It’s getting to the point where it will almost be too late for that to happen this year, although we’re not there yet.
It’s true that you can’t rush these things, and that Murray panicking now would be just about the worst-case scenario. But you also can’t wait around forever. When you finally shift the car into gear and step on the gas, you might expect the wheels to spin for a bit. But if you don’t start moving forward soon, you’re not being patient. You’re stuck, and going nowhere.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Well, we might as well start with the highlight everyone will be talking about today: Patrik Laine’s game-winning goal in last night’s loss. What can you say? The kid’s got a nose for the net.
• That loss was the Jets’ fourth straight. That’s the longest current streak in the league, and has dropped them back out of a playoff spot.
• Congratulations to Jarome Iginla, who played in his 1,500th game… in Saturday’s 10-1 loss.
• Another milestone: Ottawa’s Chris Neil, who reached the 1,000-game mark on Saturday against the Kings.
• That Senators’ game produced the first suspension in over five weeks, as Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki was given two games for a hit from behind on Tyler Toffoli. Later, Stars’ defenceman Jamie Oleksiak was suspended two games for a check to the head of Philadelphia’s Chris VandeVelde.
• Days after landing Peter Holland in a trade with the Maple Leafs, the Coyotes continued to add forward depth by claiming Josh Jooris off waivers from the Rangers.
• The Senators went 0-for-the-weekend, dropping road games to the Kings and Ducks. Ottawa has yet to lose three straight on the season.
• In injury news, Shayne Gostisbehere missed yesterday’s game with an upper body injury after blocking a shot on Saturday. He’s listed as day-to-day.
• Speaking of the Flyers, they unveiled the jerseys they’ll be wearing in the outdoor game you already forgot they’ll be playing in. In a surprising turn of events, they’re black and orange.
• Finally, the best goal of the weekend by a guy who was bleeding: Nathan MacKinnon walks through the Maple Leafs.