One of the things players seem to like about this unique NHL season is the “baseball style” schedule that sees them stay in a city for two, maybe even three games. There’s a chance this will become a permanent feature of the regular season when things mercifully return to normal down the road.
With Major League Baseball teams about to break camp from spring training, I can’t help but think of another way this NHL campaign is baseball-like — except this aspect can feel more like a fastball in the ribs.
Hockey still isn’t literally an everyday sport the way baseball is. But this compressed schedule has clubs often on long stretches of every-other-night action and when things are going bad, man, can they spiral in a hurry. Losing is one thing; losing with no real breaks from the misery is quite another.
Take the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers — and, more specifically, the Flyers goalies. The Blackhawks were dropped 4-1 by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, a loss that came 48 hours after the defending champs beat them 4-2 on Thursday night. When the Hawks woke up two weeks ago on Monday, March 8 they were six points up on a floundering Columbus Blue Jackets squad for the final playoff spot in the Central Division. Today, they find themselves tied with Jackets in points with 33, but on the outside of the post-season cutoff thanks to Columbus having one more regulation/overtime win than Chicago.
In a 13-day span, the Hawks played seven times, went 1-6-0 and allowed 4.6 goals per game. Six of those games were roadies and five of them were against the Bolts or their fellow Florida frontrunners, the Panthers. It took less than a fortnight for the Blackhawks to switch from surprise team that looked destined to at least snag a playoff berth to one in a dogfight to stay in the post-season mix.
As for the Flyers, they were walloped 6-1 by the New York Islanders on Saturday, with Carter Hart absorbing the ‘L’ in goal. Just as entire teams have trouble pulling out of tailspins, that’s certainly true of individual players — and that process is never more painful to watch than when it’s happening to a goalie.
Hart has struggled all season, but things have gone to an excruciating other level of late. The 22-year-old’s even-strength save percentage in March is .815, worse than all goalies with at least four appearances save for his batterymate Brian Elliott, who sits at .814. Hart hasn’t posted a single-game save percentage better than .889 since recording a shutout against Buffalo on the last day of February. Believe it or not, Elliott also blanked Buffalo on the second-last day of February and has registered an .821 save percentage since.
The loss to the Islanders on Saturday was Philly’s sixth game in 10 days and the club allowed an average of 5.3 goals against in those contests, with no time to come up and gasp for air. If the fifth-place Flyers and their goalies can’t get things turned around fast, they’ll find themselves slipping further and further down the East Division board.
Obviously every team is playing under the same conditions this year. But when you’re a club being tossed by turbulence, it’s easier than ever to feel like you’re all alone in hockey hell.
•Of course, for every snowball barreling down a steep slope, there are teams turning seasons around in a hurry. The Vancouver Canucks are still looking at an uphill battle, but taking three of a possible six points in Montreal on Friday and Saturday has kept them relevant in the North playoff race. Thatcher Demko, who got the overtime win on Friday, has as many victories (8) as any goalie in March and a better save percentage than them all (.950).
Canucks sure feel like a team just good enough to not pick up additional assets in a year they probably should (playoff push baby!), and just good enough to neither pick high or really threaten to come out of the North. /ducks
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) March 21, 2021
•Speaking of Montreal, this is almost spooky: Jonathan Drouin and Mikhail Sergachev — both of whom picked up assists during victories on Saturday — have the exact same 2021 season stat line of two goals and 19 assists for 21 points in 31 games. Drouin has 12 penalty minutes, Sergachev has 14. Drouin is shooting 3.8 per cent on the year with 52 shots fired, while Sergachev is at 3.5 per cent on 57 shots.
Check out their Hockey Reference comparison. Are these guys secretly Sedin twins?
It’s understood Tampa emerged the clear winner in this 2017 mega swap, but it’s interesting to note what a Rorschach test Drouin has become. Detractors will say he’s never come close to living up to expectations in Montreal and it’s hard to stump for a third-overall pick currently on pace for a five-goal season over 82 games. That said, he got off to a fantastic start last season before a November wrist injury basically scuttled his season; he’s likely played his best all-around hockey this year; Drouin is still only 25 and at $5.5 million per season against the cap, actually provides decent value as a 55- to 60-point guy.
The key, if you’re a Habs fan, is just trying to forget what the team gave up to get him.
•We’ve got to do a quick ‘Connor Corner’ because things are getting a bit silly. McDavid picked up two points in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Winnipeg on Saturday, including one on this game-opening goal.
That tally puts McDavid at 21 goals, giving him a share of the NHL lead with Auston Matthews. The Oilers captain has a league-best 39 assists, meaning No. 97 is threatening to become the first player to pace the NHL in both biscuits and apples since Mario Lemieux’s 69-92-161 showing 25 years ago in 1995-96. (Teammate Ron Francis actually tied Lemieux for the assist lead that season). Nobody has even managed to lead the league in goals and points since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08.
Soak it in, hockey fans.
Robin Lehner returned to the Vegas crease on Friday after a six-week absence, turning aside 23 shots in a 4-2 victory. He also spoke from the heart about hearing rumours he was having mental health issues again, as opposed to being sidelined by a concussion. This league is lucky to have such a forthright person in the fold.
Robin Lehner, you are a gift to this game and to professional sports. Thank you for being you. https://t.co/JD1lj6gZiS
— Kelsie Snow (@kelsieswrites) March 21, 2021
Honourable mention to Akil Thomas, who had a hat trick and shootout winner on Sunday during an AHL game that was about a lot more than hockey.
The Week Ahead
•Sidney Crosby is five points shy of 1,300 for his career. Sid is closing the gap on Ovechkin for second place in terms of active scorers. The former trails Ovi by eight points, but is scoring 1.03 points per game this season compared to Ovechkin’s 0.93. (Joe Thornton is your leader at 1,521).
•Tuukka Rask may return to the Bruins lineup this week, which will allow him a shot at career win No. 300. The headstrong Finn has flicked at the notion he could hang up his NHL pads when his contract expires this summer. The 2005 Maple Leafs first-rounder just turned 34 and probably needs three more years to overtake Pekka Rinne (367 victories) as the winningest Finnish tender in league history.
•Vegas and Colorado will meet for a tasty two-game set in Colorado beginning Thursday night. The Knights had a five-game win streak snapped by L.A. on Sunday, while the Avs have won six straight and trail Vegas for the West lead by three points.