Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Time to give Columbus credit

Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner join Scott Oake to comment after a thrilling Centennial Classic.

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: That was fun
It was a big weekend in the NHL. The arrival of the new year meant the official start of the league’s 100th anniversary celebrations, and the weekend was headlined by the Centennial Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.

We’d seen these two teams take it outside once before – this was the first rematch in NHL outdoor game history – and neither is sitting in a playoff spot right now.

And after two periods, it looks like the league might have delivered a dud, as a lackluster 1-0 game dragged into the third without much in the way of highlights.

But that’s when things got a little crazy, as the Leafs poured home four straight to build a 4-1 lead, only to watch the Red Wings mount a furious comeback to tie the game with a second left on the clock. That set up a back-and-forth overtime, one that Auston Matthews ended with his first career overtime goal.

It was all a lot of fun, and the weekend in Toronto even included a memorable alumni game—one highlighted by a ridiculous Mike Palmateer save, some good-natured toque-theft by Chris Chelios, and a decidedly not good-natured exchange between Kris Draper and Gary Roberts.

We also had the St. Louis Blues/Chicago Blackhawks alumni game—one featuring Wayne Gretzky’s return to the ice, and we’ll get the real thing Monday afternoon when the Winter Classic goes in St. Louis.

But despite all the hype that comes with the league’s various outdoor events, the highlight of the weekend was probably a game that nobody paid any attention to when the schedule was released. That was Saturday’s contest between the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, a meeting of two teams riding double-digit win streaks.

It was a history-making matchup, marking the first-ever game between teams riding win streaks of 12 or more across all of major North American pro sports.

And despite various attempts by both teams to remind us that this was still just a regular season game, it felt like something bigger. Maybe that’s because fans are finally giving these two teams some respect. Or maybe it’s because we were just waiting to see whether one would be exposed.

Either way, the game managed to live up to expectations, delivering an entertaining game that ended with a 4-2 Blue Jackets win. We got some nice goals, a few big saves, and even a couple of scraps. It all played out in front of a loud Minnesota crowd, giving the whole thing a true big game feel.

So… did we just see a Stanley Cup Final preview?

That still seems like a stretch; June is still a long way away, and you can bet that teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Blackhawks will have a thing or two to say along the way. But at least a few fans may be holding out hope, given how Saturday night’s meeting played out.

And if you prefer to keep things a little more realistic, we’ll at least get a regular season rematch in early March.

The game snapped the Wild’s streak at 12, and gives the Blue Jackets 15 straight. That’s tied for the second longest streak in league history, and they’ll have a chance to break the record this week with games against the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers.

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

5. Chicago Blackhawks (23-11-5, plus-13 true goals differential*) – The Wild are getting all the attention right now—and rightly so—but the Blackhawks are technically still the Central’s top seed.
4. New York Rangers (26-12-1, plus-37) – They closed out 2016 with a pair of road games against the league’s worst teams, putting up a half-dozen goals on both the Coyotes and Avalanche.
3. Minnesota Wild (23-9-4, plus-38) – Despite the loss to the Blue Jackets, their recent hot streak is enough to return them to our top five for the first time since October.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (25-8-5, plus-25) – They’ve got a four-game win streak. They’ll keep it all week; they don’t play again until Sunday.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets (26-5-4, plus-49) – You don’t want to think too far head, but the Blue Jackets going for the all-time win streak record on home ice against the Rangers on Saturday night would be worth tuning in for, right?

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

We took last weekend off because the NHL did too, so we’ve got two weeks of shuffling to deal with in the power rankings. Let’s dive in and figure out where things stand.

The big news is that we have a new number one, and yes, it’s finally the Blue Jackets. We’ve been struggling with how to handle Columbus in this space all year, initially going conservative to deny them a spot and later wrestling with just how good they might be.

There’s still some debate to be had, and even those praising the Blue Jackets are still doing so with some caveats.

But at some point, you don’t over-think this stuff. They’re in first place overall, they’ve got the league’s best goals differential, and they’re riding one of the greatest hot streaks of all time. They get the number one spot, and fairly easily. At least for this week.

The last time we were here, we were trying to figure out whether the Wild were really a playoff lock. Two weeks later, they sure seem to be, pulling away to build a double-digit gap over teams like Dallas and Nashville. They’re also just one back of the Blackhawks for the Central lead and hold three games in hand. Add it all up, and it’s hard to deny them a top-five spot.

And that means that after a few weeks of relatively stability, somebody has to drop off the list to make room for Minnesota. That ends up being a team that’s been there nearly the entire season, and has held the number one spot more than anyone else: the Montreal Canadiens. (Don’t worry, I’m sure Habs fans will take the news well.)

It’s a close call, and if you wanted to nudge the Canadiens ahead of somebody like Chicago, then you could certainly make that case. But the reality is that after a red-hot start, the Canadiens haven’t been much better than average for the better part of two months now—and maybe not even that.

They had a four-game win streak back in early November that moved them to a league-leading 13-1-1, and ever since that ended, they’re just 9-8-5.

In other words, they’ve lost 13 of their last 22, and only six of those nine wins have come in regulation. Even Carey Price looks mortal lately, giving up three or more goals in each of his last three starts.

It’s not all bad in Montreal–they’ve banked enough points that their playoff spot is all but locked in, and they’re still holding a comfortable six-point lead on top of the Atlantic. There’s plenty of time to sort things out and get back into the mix at the top of the league.

But for the first time in months, they’re not quite there right now.

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. Detroit Red Wings (16-16-5, minus-19) – They did well to come back and get a point in Toronto. But they’ve now managed just three regulation wins in their last 30 games.
4. New Jersey Devils (14-16-7, minus-29) – With one regulation win in their last 12, they’ve dropped below the Islanders for last spot in the Metro.
3. Buffalo Sabres (13-15-8, minus-19) – They managed just two wins in a six-game stretch against teams outside the playoff race, then lost back-to-back games to the Bruins. This week, they get the Rangers and Blackhawks.
2. Colorado Avalanche (12-23-1, minus-47) – They’ve lost three straight, and are apparently willing to start listening on some of their bigger names.
1. Arizona Coyotes (11-21-5, minus-41) – They’ve lost seven straight, including some ugly ones, and are now in that awful place where everyone knows they’re bad but the players aren’t allowed to come out and admit it because… oh, wait, never mind.

Let’s face it, this is a pretty miserable time of year to be a fan of a bad team. The season is mostly over, at least in terms of the playoff hunt. As much as the league tries to pretend otherwise, the loser point makes it all but impossible for teams to make up big gaps in the standings, especially if there are multiple teams ahead of you.

And the rewards at the end of the road for bad teams, the draft lottery and draft, are still too far away to get excited about.

So where do you find optimism these days? One potential source is the World Junior Championships. A top prospect having a strong performance at a major international tournament can be just the thing to offer some hope to a suffering fan base.

So today, let’s check in on how some of the NHL’s more hopeless teams are doing at the WJC.

We’ll start near the bottom, where Coyotes fans will be focused on Dylan Strome. He’s been a disappointment at the NHL level so far, failing to stick in Arizona through two seasons, but is still viewed as a top prospect. He’s got one of the highest-profile jobs in the tournament as captain of Team Canada, and has looked great so far, with eight points in four games. That’s the start of the sort of performance that will restore some faith in his potential to be a special player in the NHL.

And the Coyotes’ 2016 top pick, Clayton Keller, has also looked good, leading Team USA with seven points.

Colorado’s top prospect is also playing a key role on Team Canada, in 2016 first round pick Tyson Jost. He’s only managed two points so far, but has made some big plays.

Meanwhile, the Islanders will be watching another Canadian in Matt Barzal, who’s right behind Strome with seven points.

Sabres fans are getting some much-needed positivity, with first rounder Alex Nylander leading the entire tournament in scoring through four games.

The Devils have four players at the tournament, including Team Canada forwards Blake Speers and Michael McLeod, who each have two points.

The Hurricanes have three players on Team Canada, including Nicolas Roy.

And the Red Wings may have found a gem in goaltender Joren van Pottelberghe, who’s put up a .935 save percentage in four starts for underdog Switzerland.

And then there’s the surprisingly feisty Canucks, who are hanging tough in the playoff race. They have top prospect Olli Juolevi serving as captain of Team Finland. That team has been a disaster, sitting last in Group A and firing their entire coaching staff mid-tournament. That’s hardly Juolevi’s fault, although he’ll take his share of the heat as one of the team’s key players. He led all defencemen in scoring last year as Finland won gold, but has just a single assist so far this year.

It’s the second straight year that a Canucks prospect has been front-and-centre in a WJC disappointment, and a reminder that this time of year doesn’t always bring good news for the teams that could use it.

Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Now that we’re into 2017, expect to see plenty of self-promotion and celebration of the game’s history. On Sunday, the league unveiled the first 33 members of its Top 100 list. The rest of the (unranked) list will be announced at the All-Star Game.

• Congratulations to Team Canada on its second straight Spengler Cup title. This year’s team was coached by Luke Richardson and backstopped by Zach Fucale.

• We had an ugly moment on Saturday when Devils defenceman John Moore was hit from behind by Washington’s Tom Wilson. Moore was stretchered off and spent time in hospital, but has since been released.

Wilson did not face any further discipline from the league, and played in last night’s win over the Senators.

• Tough news for the Predators, as P.K. Subban will be out at least two or three weeks. That includes tomorrow’s game with the Canadiens, which would have been his first meeting with his former team.

Elliotte Friedman has reported that the injury is thought to be a herniated disc.

• Another key defenceman injury, this one in San Jose where Marc-Edouard Vlasic took a puck to the face on Friday. He missed Saturday’s game and is considered day-to-day.

• Evander Kane and Kevan Miller mixed it up a bit on Saturday, then settled it the way hockey tradition demands: With post-game media sniping and Twitter burns.

• The Hurricanes might be getting a little bit predictable; they’ve now lost nine of their last eleven on the road, while claiming points in eleven straight at home.

• Coyotes defenceman Anthony DeAngelo has been suspended three games for physical abuse of officials, stemming from an incident in Saturday night’s game against the Flames.

• The league and its players continued to send mixed messages on the 2018 Olympics yesterday. Donald Fehr says he’s “more optimistic,” while Gary Bettman seems less so.

• Finally, in what was easily the best story of the weekend and may be a late candidate for best story of 2016: Hurricanes’ equipment manager Jorge Alves, who was forced into the lineup as the emergency backup goalie on Saturday when Eddie Lack got sick. We see this happen every now and then, but this time there was a twist: The Hurricanes actually put him in the game.

Carolina Hurricanes on Twitter

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