Saturday Storylines: Canadiens, Oilers face off for 2 needed points

NHL insider Mark Spector joins HC at Noon to discuss the Edmonton Oilers starting to really turn things around, and whether he believes they can get back into playoff position.

Tonight brings a packed schedule featuring the maximum 15 games, as the league crams in as much action as possible before shutting down the schedule for three days over the holidays. The Flames are the lucky team that gets the extra night off, while the country’s other six teams are in action, including one all-Canadian matchup. We’ll start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Oilers

When these two teams met in Montreal two weeks ago, we wrote about how their respective struggles had dominated so much of the early season storytelling. That game seemed to represent a chance for one team to earn a big win, maybe even the kind that can launch them down the long road back into playoff contention.

It was the Oilers who got it, thumping the Canadiens by a 6-2 final to earn their fourth win in six games, while sending Montreal to their third straight loss. And while Oilers sputtered to a 1-0 loss in Toronto the next night, they’ve won four of five since and are currently riding their first three-game win streak of the season. Meanwhile, the Canadiens won three of their next four.

Two weeks after the meeting, both teams are largely in the same place they were before, with the Habs chasing the Bruins and the Oilers still looking up at a long list of teams out West. So let’s call this take two. Who needs the win the most? And more importantly, who can’t afford to go into the holidays without a point?

On paper, the Canadiens are still in slightly tougher shape. They’ve lost ground to the Bruins lately, partly due to Boston finally make up some of those games in hand they’ve been holding over the rest of the division. And while Montreal is sitting in fourth place in the Atlantic, they’re now trailing the entire Metro, meaning the wildcard isn’t in the picture for now. They’re also in the midst of a brutal seven-game road trip, and with Shea Weber’s foot injury seeming more and more like it could be a long-term concern, the immediate picture looks cloudy. It wouldn’t take more than a loss or two combined with Bruin wins before that third Atlantic spot started to drift out of reach.

As for the Oilers, they’d need to play at a 106-point pace over the season’s last 47 games to get to the 95-point mark that we typically think of as the playoff finish line. That would be daunting for any team, especially one that’s still plugging along under the .500 mark, but the Oilers have the talent to make it happen. But with six teams to pass, they’re running out of time to flip the switch. Like the Habs, it wouldn’t take much of a short-term slump to torpedo the long-term hopes.

After slow starts, neither team has much of a margin of error to work with here. It’s cliché to talk about games where both teams need a win, as if there are many games where one team would be fine with a loss. But sometimes, both team really need a win, and with a break in the schedule looming, this would seem to be one of those games.

Of course, they’re not the only ones…

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Key subplot: Happy holidays?

The Christmas break provides a welcome opportunity for players to get away from the rink for a bit, spend some time with family, and hopefully enjoy a brief respite from the season-long grind. But for some teams, enjoying that break will be easier than for others. When the season isn’t going well, that cloud can hang over everything. And for struggling teams, the best way to avoid that is to head into the holidays with a win and some momentum.

That’s certainly the case for the Senators, who can use every win they can get after a rotten month that’s seen them lose seven of ten, hear their franchise player openly muse about testing free agency, and have their owner’s ill-timed rant spark a fan revolt. A month ago, you figured the Senators would be heading into the holidays basking in the glow of a successful outdoor game and riding the wave of the Matt Duchene trade. Instead, their playoff hopes are flatlining.

The Panthers are right there with them. They cleaned house on and off the ice in an effort to undo last season’s disappointment, only to surpass it. They’ve been treading water under tough circumstances lately, including a 2-2-1 road trip and an embarrassing loss to the Golden Knights team they helped build.

So there probably aren’t two teams in the East that are more desperate for a win than Florida and Ottawa. As luck would have it, one of them will get it – they face each other tonight. The Panthers have home ice, but also played last night while the Senators will be rested.

That dynamic of two struggling teams facing each other plays out elsewhere around the league, like in Arizona where the Coyotes host the Avalanche, or in Carolina where the Sabres visit the Hurricanes. And then there’s the Canucks, who’ve lost seven of eight while giving up a ton of goals in the process. They’d love to head into the break on a winning note, or at least with a defensive effort that doesn’t see them lit up for a half-dozen goals. The schedule doesn’t do them any favours, though, as they host the Blues.

Marquee matchup: The Golden Knights vs. reality

 

I give up. Almost. Maybe not quite, but it’s close. These guys are going to break me.

All year long, I’ve held off on boarding the whole “the Golden Knights are for real” bandwagon. They’re obviously a success story – a far better team than anyone expected, and one that’s banked so many early points that they’re probably going to the playoffs even if they play like an expansion team the rest of the way.

So they’re good. But home-ice in the post-season good? Division champion good? Even, just maybe, Stanley Cup contender good? Not yet, I figured. Readers of the Weekend Wrap column will know this, since I’ve avoided giving the Knights a spot in the top five even as other rankings have given up the fight.

But then came this latest stretch, one that’s seen the Knights win seven of eight to temporarily push past Los Angeles for the Pacific lead. The Kings reclaimed that spot with this week’s win over the Avalanche, but the gap is only two points and the Knights have three games in hand.

And it’s not like Vegas is doing it by beating bad teams, the way they were in the season’s first month. Their streak has included wins over both of last year’s finalists, the Predators and Penguins. Then came Tuesday’s ridiculously fun showdown with the Lightning, in which the Knights earned a regulation win with a buzzer beater goal.

What is going on here?

Plenty of smart people have taken a run at answering that question. Gerard Gallant obviously deserves plenty of credit. So does George McPhee, who put together a team that can skate a lot of opponents into the ground. Their somewhat unique home-ice advantage certainly seems to be coming into play. And while the expansion process didn’t leave them with much in the way of top end talent, they’re as deep top-to-bottom as any team in the league.

Add all of that up and… well, you’ve got a team that should be good, not one that should be pushing for top spot in the league. So this still doesn’t make sense. But like so much of what happens in Las Vegas, it may defy common sense, but it sure is fun.

So tonight, the Knights get another top team as the red-hot Capitals comes to town. Based on the standings, we should be calling this a potential Cup final preview. Based on reality, it’s a game between an expansion franchise and the Washington Capitals, so uh, no to that. But it should still be a great game, and given how things are going, it looks like a coin flip.

As for those Weekend Wrap power rankings, is this the week that I finally have to give up and hand the Knights a spot in the top five? No. But that’s because there won’t be any rankings this week, as we’re preempted by the Christmas break. Otherwise, yeah, the Knights would have to be in. They’re not leaving us with any choice.

Maybe they string together enough losses to drop down to sixth by next week, and I end up dodging the bullet based on timing. But I’m not counting on it. The Knights are running over everyone these days, and tossing one slow-on-the-uptake sportswriter onto the pile shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

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Player in the spotlight: Mitch Marner

Marner’s had an interesting year. Heading in, he looked like a good bet to build on a strong rookie season, cementing himself as a key piece of the Maple Leafs’ expedited rebuild. But his production has dipped, and his overall game has come in for some criticism. At one point, he was demoted to the fourth line, and you can imagine how well that went over in Toronto. At times, he even briefly replaced fellow sophomore William Nylander as the Leafs youngster whose name shows up in every trade rumor.

So what’s wrong with him? Well, maybe less than it seems. Stories about Marner’s slumps tend to focus on his goal scoring – he went 17 games without one early on, then more recently went another 15 straight. But Marner has never projected as a big-time goal scorer in the NHL. His skills are a better fit as a setup man, and 42 of his 61 points last year came from assists. This year, his assists-per-game rate is actually up slightly from last season, so when it comes to what he does best, he’s been fine.

As for the goals, his per-game shot rate is down from 2.3 last year to a bit over 2.0 this season; that’s enough of a drop to be a concern, but not so much that it should cause panic. The far bigger problem is his shooting percentage, which has cratered from 10.8% down to 5.4%. Not many players aside of enforcers and Riley Sheehan shoots that poorly over an entire season, and that’s especially true for players who’ve shot double-digits in the past. We haven’t seen enough from Marner to know where his true talent lies and he’s probably not a 10 per cent guy either, but it’s a safe bet that it’s significantly north of where he is now.

So we’d expect to see his numbers rebound. And they’re already starting to, thanks to a four-point afternoon against the Hurricanes on Tuesday. He followed that up with a goal on Wednesday in Columbus, and looked like the Leafs most dangerous player for much of the night. He was flying both games, delivering the kind of performance you’d expect to see every now and then to go along with the stretches where the puck isn’t going in. He’s still only 20 years old, as his coach and teammates apparently love to remind him. Consistency will probably be an issue for at least a little while, as he adjusts to the NHL (and the whole new family thinglove to remind him). The Leafs should be OK with that, as long as Marner has those occasional games where he dominates.

Tonight, he’ll get a chance to do it on a big stage, as the Leafs head to Broadway to visit the Rangers to continue their five-game road trip.

From the archives

The puck-over-glass rule is a divisive one. Many fans hate it. Others tolerate it, but don’t understand why the infraction would be treated so much more harshly than firing the puck down the rink for an icing. And still others like it, often describing it as one of the only rules in the book that’s black-and-white and called the same way every time. (The customary five-minute conference between officials trying to triangulate the puck’s exit angle that accompanies every call would seem to contradict the black-and-white argument, but we’ll ignore that.)

A lot of the debate comes down to how often you remember pucks being intentionally shot into the stands before the rule. Some insist that it was an epidemic, slowing the game down and sapping offence. Others barely recall it happening at all. Personally, I’m convinced the whole debate is one of those parallel universe proofs, like the Berenstain Bears or Sinbad’s genie movie.

But inevitably, when fans at a sports bar get to arguing about the rule, someone pounds their fist on the table and delivers a threat: Just you wait until an accidental puck-over-glass decides Game 7 of a playoff series. You’ll change your tune when that day comes.

And then, from the end of the bar, a haggard fan in a Sabres jersey spits out: “It already did”.

And it did indeed, as we’re reminded by tonight’s matchup between the Sabres and Hurricanes. While both teams are struggling now, back in 2006 they were two of the best teams in the East, with both hitting the 110-point mark. That made them worthy opponents in the Eastern Conference Final, and the series was a tight one, featuring five one-goal games including two that were settled in sudden death. It all came down to a Game 7 in Carolina, with a trip to the final to face the upstart Oilers on the line.

Midway through the third period, the game was tied at two. And that’s when Brian Campbell chipped the puck over the glass in his own end for an automatic minor. The play was clearly accidental, but that didn’t matter anymore. Campbell headed to the penalty box and the Hurricanes headed to the power play, where Rod Brind’Amour scored the winner.

The Hurricanes moved on and won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup; the Sabres had one more good year, watched their core leave in free agency, and haven’t won so much as a playoff round in the decade since.

Given all that, it’s kind of weird that the Campbell penalty doesn’t come up more often, since it seems to be exactly the sort of scenario that puck-over-glass haters should fear most. Maybe it would if it happens in a game between the Canadiens and Rangers instead of the Sabres and Hurricanes. Or maybe it’s the timing – the rule was still relatively new in 2006, so fans hadn’t had a chance to really develop a disdain for it.

Either way, over a decade late the rule is still in the books. And it will stay that way, at least until it costs some team a shot at a Stanley Cup. You know… again.

Oddly specific prediction

The Jets go into the holidays with a win, beating the Islanders by a 4-2 final.

Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-11.

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