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: RIP Mike Ilitch
The biggest story of the NHL weekend came off the ice, and it was a sad one: The death of longtime Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away on Friday at the age of 87.
It’s easy to forget it now, but when Ilitch bought the Red Wings back in 1982, the team was largely an NHL afterthought. They hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1954; they hadn’t even won a full playoff round since 1966, and they’d topped the 70-point mark only once in nine seasons.
Ilitch and new hire Jimmy Devellano didn’t turn the franchise around instantly as another miserable season followed. But that one led to the drafting of Steve Yzerman, and soon the Red Wings were back in the post-season. Not long after that, their vaunted playoff streak began, and it continues to this day.
Growing up as a Maple Leafs fan during that era, it was hard not to admire this guy who was slowly but surely rebuilding a Norris rival into something respectable. He could seem like an outsized personality, even showing up in bizarre ads for his pizza chain. But he had the one characteristic that every sports fan wants in an owner: He wanted to win. Once Ilitch arrived in Detroit, the focus shifted away from the petty feuds, ego-stroking and nickel-and-diming that defined so many other owners of the era. With Ilitch, the focus was always on winning.
Eventually, the Red Wings did win. And once they did, they wouldn’t stop. Maybe the most telling moment of Ilitch’s time as owner came in 1997, when the Red Wings finally snapped their title drought after 43 long years. When Steve Yzerman accepted the Stanley Cup, he didn’t turn around and execute the traditional handoff to a veteran teammate. Instead, he gave the Cup to Ilitch. It’s a move that hadn’t been seen before or since, and speaks to the respect that his players had for him.
Ilitch’s passing comes during a season that already felt like the end of an era in Detroit. Pavel Datsyuk left in the off-season. GM Ken Holland is feeling heat from the fan base. And barring a frantic comeback, the playoff streak is going to end. The team will move into a new arena next year, an important part of Ilitch’s legacy that he didn’t live to see, but at this point it’s hard to know what the future might hold.
That’s the nature of sports, and of fandom. Eventually, everything ends. But even if that’s indeed what we’re seeing in Detroit, it’s amazing to think that Ilitch’s Red Wings stayed at the top for as long as they did, becoming the league’s model franchise in the process. Maybe that’s the greatest tribute that an owner can earn.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (35-14-5, +41 true goals differential*): Tell me I’m not alone here: This story about Columbus players calling a meeting to ask John Tortorella to be nicer to them is weird, right?
2. Minnesota Wild (37-12-6, +57): With Tortorella and the Blue Jackets wobbling, is it time to start calling Bruce Boudreau the Jack Adams favourite? He won one as a rookie back in 2008, but it seems like going eight-for-eight on division titles in full NHL seasons would warrant another.
1. Washington Capitals (39-11-6 +74): The offence continues to be unstoppable and they’re emerging as the consensus Cup favourites, which is going over about as well as you might expect. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby is chasing some win streak history.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
For the third straight week, the Montreal Canadiens don’t appear in our top five. They held down the top spot for five straight weeks, from late October through the end of November, but have faded steadily since.
Still, while their second-half slump has hurt their status as Stanley Cup contenders, it hasn’t exactly been cause for mass panic. After all, even as the Habs fell well behind the Metro powerhouses for top spot in the Eastern Conference, they were still sitting on top of a weak Atlantic Division, and had banked so many points early on that their lead seemed secure. They’ll win the division and have home ice in at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, the thinking went, so there’s plenty of time to figure the rest of it out.
Well, hold on.
After yesterday’s loss to the Bruins, the Habs do indeed remain in first place in the Atlantic, by a seemingly comfortable six points. But like an object in their review mirror, the Ottawa Senators may be closer than they appear.
That’s because Ottawa holds five games in hand, meaning that from a points-percentage perspective the Senators are already slightly ahead. With the Canadiens stumbling through most of the New Year, they suddenly look vulnerable to being caught from behind.
Those Montreal struggles have allowed Ottawa to gain ground even though they haven’t exactly been on fire themselves. Since taking a four-game win streak into the Christmas break, the Senators have won just nine of 19. They’ve actually lost ground to Montreal over that time – they were just three points back at the break. But they’ve piled up those five games in hand, and one site now lists them as having a 36-per cent chance to catch Montreal.
Those odds might even be low. Remember, the Senators have spent most of the season without their No. 1 goaltender. Craig Anderson is back now, which should give the team a boost, and he’ll be well-rested for the stretch run.
If there’s a chance for the Senators to pull off a comeback here, this week looks like a crucial opportunity. The Canadiens are on their bye week and don’t play again until Saturday. The Senators will eat up two of those games in hand over the next few days, and they’re both very winnable games, as the schedule serves up the Sabres and Devils.
That’s the start of a short-term trend; the Senators play their next nine games against teams that are below them in the standings, and only one of those — against the Maple Leafs — is against a playoff team. Montreal’s schedule is slightly tougher, although not overwhelmingly so. And the two teams still face each other three times, all of which come in an eight-day span in mid-March.
That showdown could be huge, but it’s a month away. By this time next week, we’ll probably have a much better sense as to whether the Canadiens are in serious trouble here. The Senators play four times in total this week to Montreal’s one, so in theory they could catch and pass the Canadiens right now. They could also burn through most of their games in hand without gaining significant ground, which would push the race firmly back into the Canadiens’ column.
In either case, both teams remain solidly in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. So maybe this whole first-place showdown just ends up being the preamble for an early-round series. Given the history there, that might not be a bad consolation prize.
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 Jersey Devils (23-22-10, -30): They should be sellers at the deadline. But really, who do they sell? There’s P.A. Parenteau, maybe Kyle Quincey, but no other rentals jump out. Can they move someone with term?
4. Detroit Red Wings (22-24-10, -34): We tend to stay away from the DoPS-bashing around here, but let’s do this preemptively: This brutal high-stick by Gustav Nyquist on Jared Spurgeon has to be a lengthy suspension. An in-person hearing is a good start.
3. Winnipeg Jets (25-29-4, -20): Jets fans, we need to talk. Meet me down below.
2. Arizona Coyotes (18-28-7, -49): The Coyotes are sitting 29th overall. They’re 11 up on the 30th-place Avalanche, and 11 back of a logjam at 28th. Other than that, lots to play for.
This year was supposed to be different for the Winnipeg Jets.
Sure, they hadn’t won so much as a playoff game in the five years since the NHL had returned to the city in 2011. And yes, they were stuck in what we assumed was both the league’s toughest division and conference. The road back to the post-season wasn’t going to be easy.
But there was reason for optimism. They seemed to have addressed their biggest problem; the goaltending would be better by virtue of finally moving on from Ondrej Pavelec and handing their reins over to Connor Hellebuyck, one of the position’s top young prospects. They managed to wait out the Jacob Trouba situation without being forced into a move they didn’t want to make. And surely the organization’s stockpile of young talent, the envy of the hockey world for so long, would click eventually.
And most importantly, as the season went on it became apparent that the Central and, especially, the Western Conference weren’t so scary after all. With teams like St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville struggling and the Avalanche outright flat-lining, a playoff spot was there for the taking.
And yet, here we are in mid-February, and the Jets are once again well outside the race. It was just over a week ago that they’d won three straight against Central rivals to close within a point of a wild-card spot. But they haven’t picked up a point in four games since then, and today they’re six back and looking up at four teams they’ll need to pass, most of whom hold multiple games in hand.
What’s gone wrong? Stop me of you’ve heard this one before, but they can’t keep the puck out of their own net. Hellebuyck struggled as the starter, Michael Hutchinson was worse, and a late-season return by Pavelec hasn’t stemmed the tide. In a league where teams try to win 2–1 and 3–2, the Jets are putting up numbers like this:
So what now? The various sites that track playoff odds have all but written off the Jets’ chances, listing them at between one and eight per cent to make it in. They’re chasing teams like the Kings and Blues, who seem to be turning their seasons around. And the schedule doesn’t do them any favors: Their next 10 games include the Penguins twice, plus the Habs, Senators, Sharks and Wild.
Maybe there’s a miracle run to be had here – eight per cent isn’t zero per cent. But if not, you have to wonder what comes next for this team. This year’s lopsided trade market would seem to present a golden opportunity to sell, but Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t much of a mid-season trader. You’d have to think that Paul Maurice’s job is in serious jeopardy, but those rumours were shot down earlier in the year and recent reports are that he’s getting an extension no matter what. With Tyler Myers out long-term, there’s nobody on the injured list ready to make an impact comeback. They’ve already played the Pavelec card.
Maybe they don’t do anything. Over the years, that seems to have become the Winnipeg way. But at some point, you’d have to think that fans will decide that the honeymoon is over and the status quo just isn’t good enough anymore.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The weekend’s best moment came on Saturday, when Senators goalie Anderson returned to the lineup with a 33-save shutout win over the Islanders. It was Anderson’s first game since early December; he’d taken time away from the team to be with his wife, Nicholle, as she battled cancer. He was named the game’s first star.
• Anderson’s return means the latest chapter in the Andrew Hammond story has come to an end. The Hamburglar was waived and went unclaimed, and will head back to the minors. His memorable 2015 run to get the Senators into the playoffs will remain one of the most memorable achievements in franchise history, but you wonder if we’ve seen the last of him in Ottawa.
• Best individual effort of the weekend: Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin dangles the entire Jets team before setting up a goal.
• Rough weekend for the goalies. Whoever was controlling Al Montaya started mashing buttons way too early here, and whoever had Mike Smith accidentally got unplugged.
• Congratulations to Henrik Lundqvist, who recorded the 400th win of his career on Saturday. He hit the mark faster than any other goaltender in league history.
• It was a fun weekend for women’s hockey. Team White pulled off a 9–5 win over Team Blue in an entertaining CWHL all-star game at the ACC, while Amanda Kessel stole the show yesterday in the NWHL version.
• That win made it five in a row for the Rangers, tied with Chicago for the second-best active streak behind Washington’s six. It hasn’t been enough to move them out of fourth in the Metro, but they’ll have a chance to pull even with the Blue Jackets when they face them tonight.
• See, Nordiques fans, we knew it would all work out. And only 26 years late.
• Sidney Crosby’s quest to hit the 1,000-point milestone remains on hold; he’s stuck at 998 after being held off the board by the lowly Coyotes and Avalanche. It’s the first time all season he’s gone pointless in back-to-back games.
• Finally, it’s worth noting that this week is a very busy one for byes. The Kings are in the middle of theirs, and return to action on Thursday. And in addition to Montreal, we also won’t be seeing Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Boston, Nashville or Chicago until the weekend.