There’s something downright weird about the thought of a franchise in just its second year of existence having unfinished business. It seems like the equivalent of a 20-year-old having a crisis about his or her career.
The Vegas Golden Knights may be an expansion squad that made the 2018 Stanley Cup final, but they’re also a team that lost the Stanley Cup final and that leaves a mark, regardless of how long you’ve been around. For the past few weeks, Vegas has been busy distancing itself from a middling start by winning everything in sight and re-affirming its status as a team to be reckoned with in the West.
Most recently, the Golden Knights downed the Chicago Blackhawks 4–3 in overtime on Saturday, a win that marked the club’s eighth victory in nine tries. Vegas has earned at least a point in 11 of its past 12 games and the defending Western Conference champs have put up 31 points since Dec. 1, a total eclipsed by only Tampa Bay (35), San Jose and Calgary (32 apiece).
It’s impossible to think of the 2018 final without recalling Alex Tuch being denied by Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby’s save for the ages in the late stages of Game 2. Had Tuch buried there, the game surely would have gone into overtime, where Vegas would have been one shot away from taking a 2-0 series lead. Oh, what might have been.
If Tuch is still tortured by the memory of that near-miss, he apparently has no trouble ditching the anxiety at the dressing room door. Through 40 contests this year, the Golden Knights’ scoring leader has produced the exact same totals — 15-22-37 — he put up in 78 games last year as an NHL rookie.
Tuch, who sniped against Chicago, is taking his game to the next level while playing right wing on a trio with Vegas’s two key off-season acquisitions, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. Both of those players missed chunks of time with injuries, but are now showing their new team exactly what they can do. On the back end, Nate Schmidt is producing offence at a career-best clip after serving his 20-game sentence for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
So while the sick bay is still home to some key contributors like Erik Haula, Colin Miller and Reilly Smith, Vegas is clearly rounding into form as it prepares to take another crack at getting the Stanley Cup on The Strip.
Other Weekend Takeaways
• We’re at that juncture in the season where four-point weekends feel like they could impact a team’s big-picture approach. With wins on Friday and Sunday, the Carolina Hurricanes — thought to be sellers ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline — are just four points out of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact blue-liner Dougie Hamilton is rumoured to be available for the second time in about seven months and third time in his young career. I understand why the Canes want to get something for winger Micheal Ferland before he presumably leaves as a UFA in the summer, but Ferland — who had 1-2-3 versus Buffalo on Friday and two-thirds of a Gordie Howe hattie (fight and two helpers) against Nashville on Sunday — could also play a significant role in helping the team track down its first playoff berth in a decade. How much value does the organization place on that?
• I think we can safely say one Hurricane who isn’t going anywhere for a long time despite his pending-RFA status is Sebastian Aho. The 21-year-old Finn had himself a weekend, popping five goals in Carolina’s two outings.
• Anaheim is getting all the unwanted headlines with its 11-game losing skid, and rightfully so. The Ducks blew a 3–0 lead against the Penguins on Friday before gagging up a 2–0 advantage in Winnipeg on Sunday. Still, the Ducks are hardly the only Western Conference wild-card contender having issues right now. Take a look at the past 10 games for the five teams in the hunt for the final two post-season spots in the West: Anaheim (0-6-4), Colorado (1-7-2), Edmonton (3-7-0), Minnesota (5-4-1), Vancouver (5-4-1).
• I understand you’ll take ‘em any way you can get ‘em, but Conor Garland’s temple tip cannot be the preferred method of scoring goals.
This is the type of play we can only have fun with because Garland escaped relatively unscathed, showing off a serious scar to the Saturday Hockey Night audience during a chat with Scott Oake.
• It was great to see former Blue Jacket and Blueshirt Rick Nash at centre ice with his family on Sunday in Columbus, presiding over the ceremonial face-off in a game between his two former clubs just days after announcing his retirement. As a former defenceman and one-time teammate of Nash, Mike Commodore had a close look at what the first-overall pick from 2002 could do.
I remember seeing Nash live a few times in Toronto when he was still with the Blue Jackets, and there were games it felt like — with his size and strength — he legitimately had a chance to score on every shift.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Calgary Flames (30-13-4): Name a trophy and I’ll show you a Flame in the running for it, starting with Johnny Gaudreau and the Hart. Calgary has matched a franchise record by hitting 30 wins in 47 outings, equaling the pace of the 1988–89 squad that won the Cup.
2. Winnipeg Jets (29-14-2): The Jets have a tasty matchup with the Predators in Nashville on Thursday. Bryan Little picked up two goals on the weekend and is going through his most productive stretch of the season with seven points in his past five games.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs (28-14-2): If the Leafs have to see Boston again in the playoffs, they better at least lock down second place in the Atlantic and make sure they get home-ice advantage this time.
5. Vancouver Canucks (21-21-5): Try as Bo Horvat and Antoine Roussel did, they just couldn’t get Florida’s Michael Matheson — also known as the guy who slammed Elias Pettersson to the ground earlier this year — to drop the gloves on Sunday night.
6. Edmonton Oilers (21-21-3): The Oilers have gone a month without winning consecutive games, which is not how you stake your claim to one of two there-for-the-taking wild-card berths.
7. Ottawa Senators (17-24-5): With Thomas Chabot on the shelf nursing a bum shoulder, young defenceman Christian Wolanin has made the most of his call-up, netting four points in his past five outings.
In Your Ear
On the most recent episode of the Tape to Tape podcast, my co-host Rory Boylen and I listed our mid-season surprises, disappointments and MVP candidates. We also spent a little time on each Canadian team to see where they’re at relative to expectations halfway through the year.
• The Sharks-Penguins matchup on Tuesday not only represents a re-match of the 2016 Cup final — it also pits two of the hottest teams in the league against each other. Since Dec. 1, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have each put up 26 points to pace all defencemen in scoring.
• Colorado will have plenty of incentive to drop the Sens in Ottawa on Wednesday. In addition to desperately needing Ws, you’ll recall the Avs hold Ottawa’s first pick in the 2019 draft, meaning Colorado will have the best chance at selecting first overall should the Senators — presently 29th in the league — sink all the way to No. 31.
While an opportunity to draft American centre Jack Hughes is tantalizing, let me throw this scenario at you. Even if Ottawa actually finishes last — which, no matter how bad you are, really takes some doing — the Avs would still have less than a 20-per cent shot at winning the top pick in the lottery.
Given that, if you were running Colorado, would you be willing to talk about sending that pick — acquired in the Matt Duchene deal last season — back to Ottawa in return for pending UFA Mark Stone if the latter would sign an extension with his new team? Stone is 26 and may be the best two-way winger in hockey. Acquiring a player like that in his prime would go a long way toward making Colorado a more well-rounded team than the one that currently depends way too much on the line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog to supply all the offence.
Just a little trade thought to get you primed for the pre-deadline weeks ahead.