It’s a relatively quiet Saturday night in the NHL, with only a half-dozen games on the schedule as the league gears up for a busy New Year’s Eve slate tomorrow. Four of the seven Canadian teams have the night off, while three others are in action and chasing a playoff spot…. Kind of.
HNIC Game of the Night: Bruins at Senators
Did you have a good holiday? Looking forward to your New Year’s party? Good. Have your fun while you can. Because for some teams, this is the part of the NHL season where things start getting desperate.
Coming into this week, the Senators hadn’t played the Bruins yet on the season. But the post-holiday schedule served up a pair of games right up front, one in each city. It was basically a home-and-home, albeit an odd one split up by each team having a game squeezed in between their two meetings.
And it represented a great opportunity for a Senators team that’s been desperate for one. With the entire Metro clogging up the wild-card race, Ottawa’s best path to the playoffs looks like it involves catching either the Bruins or Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic. That’s a tall order; the Sens came out of the break 13 points back of Boston and 14 behind Toronto. But sweep two regulation wins against the Bruins, and you get the gap down to single digits. That’s still a ton of ground, but at least it starts feeling manageable.
And so the Sens headed into Boston on Wednesday night looking to start their journey of a thousand miles with a single step. Instead, they stumbled through a 5-1 loss. And now, the situation feels critical. One regulation loss was a missed opportunity. Another might all but slam the door on catching the Bruins at all.
That’s not quite must-win territory – even if the Bruins pull away, there’s still the Maple Leafs or the wild card. Those may be better options no matter what happens, as the Bruins have quietly been one of the league’s better teams for much of the first half. They haven’t received enough credit for that, partly because their early record didn’t live up to how they were playing and partly because they spent the first few months having multiple games in hand on just about everyone. If you were only looking at the points column, they were an easy enough team to ignore.
They’re not being ignored anymore; five straight wins tends to do that. And it’s largely the young guys who are driving that success, with players like David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy and Danton Heinen exceeding expectations. Brad Marchand keeps scoring, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask keep making sure you can’t score, and the Bruins keep winning.
None of that is good news for Ottawa, a team whose struggles on and off the ice have been well-documented. Most playoff bubble teams have a tough time withstanding a four game losing streak; the Senators just ended their third in six weeks. And in the middle of all of that, they need to somehow find a way to win tonight.
If there’s any good news from an Ottawa perspective, it’s this: The Senators should be desperate. We should see them come out with all guns blazing. Given the disparity between the two teams, that still may not be enough. And if it doesn’t happen, it will be fair to start asking some tough questions about the makeup of this team. You certainly can’t say that the stakes aren’t high heading into tonight.
Or maybe it’s already too late, none of this matters, and it’s all about Rasmus Dahlin at this point. There’s that angle too. As far as I can tell, a lot of Senators fans are already there.
Either way, tonight is a chance for the Senators to make a statement. Maybe one of their last.
Marquee matchup: Max Pacioretty vs. the scoresheet
I was going to put Pacioretty in this week’s “In the spotlight” section, but that seemed wrong somehow. After all, if you’re going to highlight a player being in the spotlight, it sort of implies that they’ve ever been out of the spotlight. And when you’re the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, that doesn’t really apply.
So instead, we’ll just point out the obvious: Pacioretty has one goal in his last 20 games. Given that a big chunk of his job description is providing offence for a team that struggles in that department, his slump is an issue. And you can imagine how it’s going over with the less-than-patient segment of Canadiens fans, which is to say all of them.
Is that fair? This is the part in any “this player is slumping” piece where we dig a little deeper into the numbers, and point out that Pacioretty’s shot rate for the season is well in line with his best years and up significantly over last year, that his shooting percentage has cratered, and that all of that suggests there’s some bad luck involved and that the puck will start going in again once he gets a bounce or two. That was our defence of Mitch Marner last week, and he’s been on fire ever since. It’s only fair that we do the same for Pacioretty.
But Marner isn’t the captain of a supposed contender that’s falling out of playoff contention, and there’s a certain point in Montreal where fair doesn’t have much to do with it. The Canadiens are back to their early-season ways, which is to say they’re not scoring and they’re not winning. They’ve lost three straight in regulation, managing just a single goal each time out, and that’s cost them a big chunk of ground in the playoff race that they couldn’t afford to lose. This team can score – it put up seven in Vancouver last week, and a 10-spot on the Red Wings at the beginning of the month – but it needs to find some consistency.
Pacioretty has to be a big part of that. It would be nice to see him break out with one of those games where he dominates, but at this point the Canadiens would probably take a puck or two that bounced in off a defenceman’s rear end. Anything to break the slump and help this team get a win.
In theory, they’ve got a golden chance to get that win tonight, as they face a Florida team that’s sitting right alongside them in the standings. But their timing isn’t great, as the Panthers are riding their first real winning streak of the season. A 12th-place team facing an 11th-place team isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a statement game, but the Canadiens are running out of time. Their captain needs a goal, the team needs a win, and at this point nobody really cares how they get them.
Hot seat watch: Uh, nobody?
It’s weird, right?
We’re 24 hours away from ushering in the new year. Strictly speaking, that’s not actually the halfway point of the season, but it tends to serve as an unofficial marker of sorts.
And we haven’t lost a coach yet.
Not one. That’s fairly rare. Last year, we lasted until November, when Gerard Gallant was left at the side of the road by the Panthers. That was an improvement over 2015, when it took just a few weeks before the Blue Jackets made the switch from Todd Richards to John Tortorella. Three coaches were fired in December 2014, and it only took three games into the 2013-14 season before Peter Laviolette took the fall in Philadelphia.
And yet here we are, on the doorstep of Month 4, and nobody’s made a change yet. And more surprisingly, nobody seems all that close.
We’ve broken this section out three times so far this season, and so far it seems to be a good luck charm. We featured Alain Vigneault and the nose-diving Rangers back in Week 3, and since then they’ve turned things around. We also had Dave Hakstol when the Flyers were in the midst of their 10-game losing streak, but Ron Hextall stuck by him and it’s paid off with a renewed playoff push. Bill Peters was the third candidate, and while his team hasn’t made quite the same turnaround, he’s got it right in the playoff hunt despite awful goaltending.
So if you had to bet on somebody to be the first to go, who looks like the favorite right now? It’s a tough call, in part because several of the league’s very worst teams – Arizona, Buffalo and Florida – have first-year coaches who are unlikely to be dismissed unless things go completely off the rails.
Is Guy Boucher in trouble in Ottawa? You never say never with a Sens organization that churns through coaches, but that seems crazy given his success last year, and Pierre Dorion has already offered a Hextall-like vote of confidence. Todd McLellan seemed like he could be wobbling in Edmonton, but the team appears to be back on track. Montreal could be a team looking at changes, but you wonder if they wouldn’t come a little higher up the chain of command.
That leaves… who, exactly? Jeff Blashill and Jared Bednar are leading rebuilding teams, so you’d figure they at least get to finish the season. The Penguins keep talking about making big changes, but it’s almost impossible to imagine those involving a two-time Cup-winning coach. Bruce Boudreau has to get at least one more playoff run before we worry about him. And Barry Trotz seems to have the Caps headed in the right direction again.
So could we actually make it through an entire season without a coaching casualty? Almost certainly not. Remember, at this time last year guys like Claude Julien, Michel Therrien and Ken Hitchcock seemed fairly safe, and none made it out of February. Half of the league’s coaches are probably two bad weeks away from feeling their seats get warm. Somebody will make this section look bad, and probably sooner than later.
But for now, the whole coaching fraternity seems oddly stable. It’s weird.
Player in the spotlight: Brock Boeser
Recently, all the hockey fans who live within a few hundred miles of the East Coast were having one of our weekly meetings where we plan out all of our various conspiracies against Vancouver Canucks fans. We’d covered all the usual items on the agenda – you know, “Mixing up which Sedin is which”, “Randomly mentioning Mark Messier just to ruin their day”, “Making them play in the afternoon whenever the Leafs come to town” – when somebody put up their hand and offered up a new suggestion: Making sure Brock Boeser doesn’t get enough Calder love.
This was a shocking suggestion to most of us because, as you can probably imagine, we had no idea who Brock Boeser is.
So we looked into it. And you know what? This kid is pretty good.
Through the season’s first 35 games, Boeser has put up 38 points, moving him ahead of Mathew Barzal for the rookie lead. That’s not bad for a kid who went straight from college to the NHL, without spending so much as a game in, uh, wherever the Canucks’ AHL team is. More impressively, he reached the 20-goal mark before the holiday break, which put him in some truly rare rookie company; only Alex Ovechkin hit the mark faster in the last 25 years.
His dream season almost came crashing down a week before Christmas, when Boeser blocked a shot and immediately went down with what appeared to be a serious foot injury. For a team that’s already missing Bo Horvat, Chris Tanev and Sven Baertschi, not to mention the permanent loss of Derek Dorsett, it seemed like just about the worst-case scenario. But he was right back in the lineup for the next game, and scored in three straight heading into the break. That’s the kind of stuff that’s going to earn him even more ice time from the Canucks coach, whoever that is.
So yes, it’s probably time for the hockey world to start getting excited for Brock Boeser, who has to be the odds-on favourite for the Calder Trophy right now… assuming us Easterners don’t screw it up. We might end up doing just that. But I think we need to get behind the kid. I’d even suggest we come up with one of those cute rhyming slogans to help his cause. How about: “The Calder gets closer for Boeser”?
OK, I’m being told his name isn’t pronounced that way. Somebody make a note to look into that for the next meeting.
From the archives
The NHL spent most of 2017 celebrating its history. They told us about their best 100 players, their top 10 teams, their greatest moment ever and lots more. It was a fun way to spend a year.
So let’s close it out with one more: What’s the worst rivalry in NHL history?
The league has seen plenty of good rivalries over the years, and they’ve created some of the league’s most memorable moments. But what would be the worst possible pairing of teams? Which matchup was the perfect mix of awful teams playing meaningless games that weren’t even all that fun?
That’s where tonight’s matchup between the Capitals and Devils comes in. Because while both teams are good now, it’s fair to say they’ve come a long way.
Literally, in the case of the Devils. They started life as the Kansas City Scouts, then had a stop in Colorado before finally settling in New Jersey. The Capitals haven’t had to move around, but they’ve certainly had their share of terrible seasons.
Many of those came in the mid-70s, when these two teams entered the league as expansion cousins in 1974. This was back when the WHA was siphoning players away from the NHL, so the talent ranks were thin. What followed was some of most dismal hockey we’ve ever seen, with the Capitals suffering through two of the worst seasons ever and the Scouts faring only marginally better. In their first two seasons, the best result either team managed was 41 points by Kansas City. They were bad.
So imagine paying money to see them play each other. You would have had that chance eight times over the course of those two seasons. The Scouts won five of those, with two Caps wins and a 5-5 tie in their last-ever matchup in 1976. That was also one of the only close games the two teams ever played; the other games ended with scores like 5-1, 3-0, 6-2 and 5-1 (again).
Those two years were all this rivalry was given; the Scouts were done by 1976, heading to Colorado in the off-season. We never got see another Scouts-Capitals game, and we likely never will.
But the DNA is still there, living on in the Devils. When they visit the Caps tonight, maybe the rivalry will live on.
(But if you bought tickets, let’s hope not.)
Oddly specific prediction
The Canucks upset the Kings thanks to two points from Brock “The Bulldozer” Boeser. (No? Not pronounced like that either? Huh.)
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-12