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: Senator six-packs
So that was a pretty decent road trip for the Senators.
Facing back-to-back weekend games in Alberta, Ottawa put an even dozen goals on the board against the Flames and Oilers. Combined with Tuesday’s shootout win over the Canucks, that earned Ottawa the first sweep of a three-game Western road trip in franchise history.
In the process, they gave both of their opponents plenty to think about. Friday’s 6–0 win over the Flames saw them light up Mike Smith, putting the first serious dent in his Calgary resume. The good news is that the schedule served up a quick chance to bounce back, and the Flames eschewed conventional wisdom by sending Smith right back out there on Saturday to face the Canucks. It paid off with a 5–2 win, one that should wipe away at least a little of the bad taste from Friday’s beatdown.
The Oilers weren’t so lucky; they get to dwell on their loss until tomorrow night. And there will be plenty of tough questions for the team in the meantime, especially given how last week played out. The team hadn’t played since Monday, and had spent most of the time in between vowing to be better after a pair of losses. Coach Todd McLellan was publicly scolding his team — “There wasn’t a lot of hugging going on,” he’d explained, “there was a lot of kicking” – and even raised some eyebrows by taking aim at the team’s stars. They were at home and well-rested against a team that had played the night before. And then they laid an egg, leaving them at a disappointing 1-3-0 on the year. It’s not good enough.
Meanwhile, the Senators are heading home at 3-0-2 on the year, making them one of only two teams in the league (along with the Kings) without a regulation loss. Their eight points leaves them in a four-way logjam on top of the Atlantic, and at +11, they’ve got the Eastern Conference’s best goals differential. The penalty kill remains perfect on the year. And the power play is finally clicking, connecting five times in Alberta after shooting blanks for the season’s first three games.
Oh, and they did it all without Erik Karlsson, whose absence was supposed to be a deal-breaker. He could be back as soon as tomorrow, by the way. Not bad at all for a team that just about everyone was ready to write off as a playoff contender, even after last year’s deep run.
Is it enough to get them into our weekly top five? Let’s find out.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-1-0, +7 true goals differential*): They barely hold onto a spot after a tough loss to the surprising Devils, but Saturday’s OT win in Montreal offered some redemption.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1-0, +5): They’re in Winnipeg tomorrow, and then get four straight at home. That sets up the possibility of a rare hot start for a franchise that usually specializes in the opposite.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (4-1-0, +4): They won three straight this week against some pretty good teams in Washington, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (4-1-1, +12): The goals differential is still inflated by that one blowout over the Pens and they’ve given up 38 shots or more in three of their last four. But without anyone really dominating, we’ll leave them in the top spot for another week.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
So no, the Senators don’t crack the top five. Not yet, at least.
This seems like a good time to remember what these rankings are trying to do. It’s written right up there in the italics part that you skipped over without reading like everyone else, so let’s cut and paste it here, too: These rankings are meant to be “the five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.”
That’s not the same thing as saying “the five best teams this week” or “the five best teams so far this season” or even “the five teams with the best record right now.” That last one would be pointless — we already have a page that tells us that.
It will not shock you to learn that this is not the only NHL power rankings feature out there – it’s not even the only one on this website – and many of those rankings are more concerned with immediate results. That’s a perfectly valid way to do it, and it gets you a list that can have teams like the Golden Knights near the top.
But with all due respect to Vegas (and Detroit, Colorado and New Jersey), we’re going to need to see more than a week or two of winning hockey before we completely tear up all the pre-season predictions.
That’s not to say that some of those teams won’t get there. We went through this dance last year with the Blue Jackets, who came into the season with virtually nobody expecting so much as a playoff run, and who didn’t earn a spot in our top five until mid-December. In hindsight, they probably deserved more respect than they got.
Could one of the several teams that are surprising us so far be this year’s Blue Jackets? It’s possible. But let’s wait and see rather than getting ahead of ourselves based on four or five games.
The Senators, of course, aren’t in the same category as the Avs and Devils. This is a team that went to the conference final last year, and brought back essentially the same roster. That should be enough to earn them some benefit of the doubt, and they’re certainly in the conversation for a top-five spot. But if you had to place your Stanley Cup bets right now, are the Senators really in the same category as the Penguins or Blackhawks?
As a wise man once said, probably not. But they may be getting there.
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. Carolina Hurricanes (1-1-1, -2): They’ve got only one win and that came in a shootout, and they’re dead last in goals scored. Of course, they’ve also somehow played only three games. Did we forget to tell them the season has started?
4. Colorado Avalanche (4-2-0, +6): Last year’s last-place team by a mile has already escaped the No. 1 slot in the bottom five, and might be off the list altogether soon. Just not quite yet.
3. Vancouver Canucks (1-2-1, -4): Hey, at least they got a point off the Senators. They get a rematch tomorrow night in Ottawa.
2. Buffalo Sabres (1-4-1, -8): Man, did they ever need that win last night in Anaheim.
Last week’s theme was “It’s early.” This week, we’ll go with “It’s still early… for most teams.”
There’s this weird thing that happens in the modern NHL. A good start doesn’t necessarily mean all that much. It’s nice, sure, and you’d rather win your first few games than lose. But as last year’s Canucks (4-0-0) or Avalanche (3-1-0), or the 2013–14 Maple Leafs (6-1-0) or 2009-10 Oilers (6-2-1) could tell you, a strong start can fall apart quickly. It doesn’t take long for October to be forgotten.
In theory, it should work the same way on the other side, and there should be plenty of time to recover from a bad start. But in today’s league, thanks to parity and loser points and a system designed to have everyone finish the season over .500, a bad start can torpedo a season. We see it every year. Some team comes into the year full of optimism that they’re ready to make a leap. Then they stumble out of the gate, and two weeks in it feels like their season is already over.
And the thing is, it might be. As Elliotte Friedman pointed out years ago, teams that are even four points out of a playoff spot on Nov. 1 rarely make it back into the race. That feels counter-intuitive – how can you be out when there’s still 70 games left? – but it generally holds true. If you’re hovering near that four-point mark by mid-October, every warning light on the dashboard is already flashing.
There are exceptions, of course – the 2015-16 Penguins started 0-3-0 and have won every Cup since. But those are the Penguins, one of the best teams in the league, and even they had to fire a coach before things really turned around. For most teams, a slow start is manageable, but an outright bad one is curtains. And a few teams are getting dangerously close to that territory already.
Just like with the top five, we’re going to try not to panic here and overreact to two weeks of action. We’re making teams like the Avalanche work to escape the list, although we’ve given the 4-1-0 Golden Knights a reprieve. And struggling teams that we thought could be contenders, like the Canadiens, Oilers and Sharks, won’t make an appearance quite yet. But that doesn’t mean those teams aren’t in danger of falling further behind than you want to be at this point in the season.
That brings us to one so-called good team that might have a case for cracking this list: the Rangers. They’ve been a mess through six games, winning just once and riding a three-game losing streak. They’ve scored more than two goals just once, and have only given up two or less once. That’s not a winning combination, and it’s ratcheting up the pressure on GM Jeff Gorton to make changes.
Given how hard it is to shake up a roster this early in the season, those changes could come behind the bench. Alain Vigneault is in his fifth season in New York, and he has a Stanley Cup final appearance and three 100-point seasons under his belt. It’s hard to come up with many available coaches who’d be an upgrade, but if things don’t turn around quickly then something will have to give.
The Rangers are dead last in the East and already five points out of a playoff spot. There’s still time to make that up. Just not as much as you might think.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The streak is over. The Maple Leafs finally beat the Canadiens, thanks to Auston Matthews‘s second overtime winner of the week, snapping a string of 14 straight Montreal wins over Toronto.
The good news for Montreal is that they scored a season-high three goals, including the first of the year from Alexander Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin.
• It’s been a tough week in Washington, where the Caps dropped three of four and lost defenceman Matt Niskanen to an upper-body injury that will keep him out for at least a few weeks.
• Congratulations to Tyler Seguin on his first career Gordie Howe Hat Trick. It was also the first fighting major of his career.
Meanwhile, his coach, Ken Hitchcock, has passed Al Arbour to move into third on the all-time wins list.
• Scary moment in Colorado, as Nathan MacKinnon took a stick to the eye on Friday night that knocked him out of the game against the Ducks. He was back in the lineup against the Stars on Saturday.
• Some interesting thoughts here from hockey Ken Dryden on concussions, rule changes and the future of the game.
• Best revenge win of the weekend: Malcolm Subban earns his first career win against the Bruins, the team that waived him two weeks ago.
• There’s only one game on the schedule tonight, but it’s a good one: The Lightning and Red Wings, both at 4-1-0, battle for top spot in the Atlantic.
• Finally, welcome to the NHL, Chance the Weird-Looking Gila Monster. The Golden Knights mascot made his debut on Friday, and he’s already a huge hit.