Who wants a cold one? Tonight marks the return of outdoor hockey, as the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens meet at Lansdowne Park. It’s also a rare Saturday night without the Toronto Maple Leafs or Vancouver Canucks, while the three remaining Canadian teams get a tour of the Central.
HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Senators
There isn’t much question over where most of the attention will be turned tonight, as the Habs and Sens take it outside at Lansdowne Park in what’s been dubbed the NHL 100 Classic. The game commemorates the meeting between the Canadiens and the original Senators in one of the first two NHL games ever played, way back on Dec. 19, 1917.
But while you can expect to see plenty of history on display, we can forgive these two teams if they’re focused squarely on the present. That’s especially true for the Senators, who desperately need a win to build some momentum after a brutal few weeks that’s seen them lose 12 of 14 to plummet well out of the playoff race. With rumours swirling of major changes on the way – and their GM being forced to deny that he’s about to fire the coach – the Senators are a team that desperately needs to start making up some ground.
They took the first step towards that on Wednesday with a win over the New York Rangers. The two points were important, but the way they were earned them may have mattered even more. Craig Anderson looked strong, Bobby Ryan was a force, Zack Smith finally scored and Matt Duchene may have earned his most important point as a Senator.
Almost as important: With a win under their belt, the Senators can now enjoy hosting the franchise’s first outdoor game, or at least go through the process without feeling like they can’t so much as smile. Still, the timing of tonight’s event isn’t ideal.
Between the losing, Erik Karlsson’s contract comments, a push for a new arena and rumours around ownership, conventional wisdom would say that the last thing this team would seem to need right now is even more distractions. But on the other hand, maybe that’s exactly what they could use. There are worse ways for an NHL team to forget its troubles than by getting out under the lights for a little pond hockey. And if a big crowd inspires Ottawa to collect a win against a division rival it’s chasing in the playoff hunt, even better.
Or they faceplant in front of a national audience. There’s that possibility too.
As for the Canadiens, their up-and-down season continues to defy any attempt at analysis. They lost three straight before beating the Devils on Thursday, falling back out of a playoff spot they’d climbed into possession of last week. The way things have been going this year, that means it’s time for everyone to write them off, at which point they’ll run off another win streak and surge back up the standings.
Outdoor games are always tough to predict – the puck bounces even more than usual, the weather can affect different players in different ways, and the whole endeavour often feels like it’s taking place as a separate piece of its own instead of as part of a larger season. For these two teams right now, that might be a good thing. The league might want tonight to be all about the past, but if the Sens and Habs can’t start banking wins soon, their playoff hopes might be history.
Key subplot: The Jets look to make a statement, Part 2
Last week, we looked ahead to a Winnipeg/Tampa matchup that offered a chance for the Jets to make a statement by earning a road win against the league’s top team. They didn’t, although they did get a point by taking the Lightning to overtime, and they followed that with a blowout win over the Canucks and a 5-1 loss to Chicago. So the jury’s still out.
This weekend serves up an even bigger opportunity to make their case, and it’s one that could go a long way towards settling the Central Division. The Jets get the Blues in an old-fashioned home-and-home on back-to-back nights, with tonight’s game in St. Louis and a rematch tomorrow in Winnipeg.
We can’t quite call this a battle for Central bragging rights, since the Predators would have a thing or two to say about that. But the Blues have spent most of the season on top of the Central, with the Jets hanging within range. Now Winnipeg gets an opportunity to pass them outright if it can sweep both games in regulation. And the Jets have to like their timing, as the Blues have lost two straight and will be without Jaden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo due to injury.
It’s the first time this year that the two teams will cross paths, and the last until a pair of games in February wraps up the season series. For the Blues, tomorrow night kicks off a four-game Western Canada road trip that will take them through the Christmas break. Meanwhile, the Jets will get one day off before yet another Central showdown, as they’ll head to Nashville on Tuesday to start a three-game road trip of their own.
Player in the spotlight: Jesse Puljujarvi, Oilers
Puljujarvi faced high expectations coming out of a 2016 draft in which he was a consensus top-three pick that surprisingly fell to Edmonton at the four-spot. Typical Oilers, many fans thought – even when they don’t win the lottery, they luck into a future star. His rookie year was a letdown, with just one goal on 28 games before he headed for the AHL. That’s where he started this year too, before earning a call-up in early November. He scored in his first game back, and lately he’s been showing signs of progress, with two multi-point games in December and a five-shot night in Montreal.
He’s also had some rough nights, and others where he was barely noticed. That’s to be expected from a 19-year-old kid with only a half-season’s worth of big-league experience. But these days, it’s not unusual to see Puljujarvi do something once or twice a game that reminds you that he has the potential to be something special. At the very least, he’s finally starting to look comfortable as an NHLer.
And at the risk of over-reaching on the expectations again, that would be big news for the Oilers as they try to get back into the playoff hunt. Among the many issues that have derailed the Oilers’ season is a lack of forward depth. Connor McDavid is ridiculous as always. But the three other lines have to play too, and on too many nights those other units have struggled. That’s led to plenty of handwringing over how a team that once had Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle is now desperate for secondary scoring.
Puljujarvi making the leap from prospect to full-time force would go a long way towards addressing that issue, whether he’s lining up with McDavid or anchoring another line. It’s not going to happen overnight, of course. But we’ve been seeing signs that it may not be all that far off, and that might take some of the pressure off of Peter Chiarelli & Co. Another strong game tonight against the Wild would be further good news for a team that could use all it can get.
Marquee matchup: The Flames blue line vs. the Predators blue line
Some days, it feels like every team in the NHL is looking for help on the blue line. Some are looking for a stud, others need help on the second pair, and everyone else at least wants more depth because somebody’s hurt or slumping or just turned out not to be very good. And after hearing about how everyone needs blue line help, you might find yourself wondering where all the good defencemen went.
Other days, the Flames play the Predators and you go “Oh, right.”
Tonight’s game in Calgary is a meeting of, quite possibly, the two best blue lines in the league, at least on paper. When healthy, each team has four rock-solid options, all of whom would be worth a top-pairing spot on lots of teams in the league.
That’s all well and good, but careful readers will have noticed the qualifiers like “on paper” and “when healthy” that we had to sneak into that last paragraph. Nashville’s big four hasn’t been healthy, with Ryan Ellis out until the new year. And at times, both teams haven’t seen the results they’d expect from their biggest names. That’s especially true in Calgary, where off-season addition Travis Hamonic hasn’t lived up to expectations. That’s created issues on the second pairing that have had a hand in the Flames’ underwhelming start.
Heading into tonight, the Predators have won two straight and have at least a point in 12 of their last 13, earning a share of the Central lead. The Flames are headed in the other direction, losing five of seven and slipping out of a Western playoff spot, so there should be at least a little urgency to get back on track in front of the home crowd.
Eventually, Ellis will get healthy and Hamonic should improve, and maybe one of these teams starts getting the sort of dominating back-end performance it was banking on. Or maybe an injury or slump has already caused problems somewhere else on the blue line by then. That’s the thing about defencemen – even when you have enough, you never really have enough.
From the archives
We’re getting to that point in the season where we can start feeling safe about writing certain teams off as playoff contenders.
It’s a short list right now, but it will grow over the next few weeks, as teams simply fall too far behind in the race to make up the ground.
And that also means we can start looking ahead to the trade deadline.
Not too far ahead, of course. If we start throwing names and potential trades at the wall right now, we’ll all lose our minds before we get to February. Pacing is important. For now, we should stay in the big-picture zone, wondering who might be buying and who should be selling, and just how the market might shape up.
And right on time, the schedule serves up a meeting between the two teams that made what still stands as quite possibly the most influential deadline deal ever: The Los Angeles Kings and New York Islanders, who combined on the 1980 Butch Goring trade.
That trade saw the Kings send a 30-year-old Goring to the Islanders for two younger players, Billy Harris and Dave Lewis. It wasn’t a classic rental by today’s standards – Harris and Lewis weren’t prospects, and contract status didn’t play into roster decisions anywhere near as heavily back then – but it was exactly the boost the Islanders needed. They were already a good team (albeit one still recovering from a mediocre first half of the season). Once Goring arrived, they were unstoppable, winning the next four Stanley Cups.
The deal is often credited with launching the modern NHL trade deadline. That’s not quite true, since deadline day remained fairly quiet throughout most of the 1980s. If anything, it was probably the Ron Francis trade in 1991 that really nudged the whole process into an eventual era where fans hang on every rumour and trade possibilities get around-the-clock coverage.
But either way, there’s little question that the trade remains the archetype for everything that came after. Every team that gives up a piece of the future to fill an immediate need is hoping against hope that their move will have a Goring-like impact. History tells us that the odds are slim, but even that small chance has proven to be irresistible for GMs. Most of them are probably already thinking ahead to this year’s deadline. And we have the Kings and Islanders to thank for it.
Oddly specific prediction
The Canadiens and Senators honour all the history and tradition and ghosts of the last century by going to a shootout.
Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-10