The concept was met with excitement and the experiment may well create some lasting change, but for a number of teams playing north of the 49th, life in the Canadian Division — at least the regular season portion of it — can’t end soon enough.
As Canada’s squads enter their final days of being lumped together, two playoff-bound teams — the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens — remain in prolonged tailspins. The Habs lost 3-2 to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday after blowing a 2-0 lead, while the Jets dropped a home-ice affair to the Ottawa Senators by a 4-2 count on the same night. The defeat marked Winnipeg’s eighth setback in its past nine outings. The Jets have been outscored 32-16 during that stretch and the team’s 5-on-5 save percentage during the rough patch is .908, which ranks 20th in the league.
The Habs, meanwhile, have failed to leapfrog the Jets for third place because they’ve dropped three straight games and haven’t won back-to-back outings in regulation time since beating Ottawa 4-1 six weeks ago on April 1.
While the struggles of Montreal and Winnipeg have been the most poignant of late, it’s not like they’ve been the only ones scuffling. Crack the season in two and you’ll find — with the exception of a jump by the Vancouver Canucks and a complete about-face by the Senators — the first half of the year painted The Group of Seven in a much better light than the back half. Here’s how the Canadian teams ranked league-wide on March 1 in terms of points percentage: Toronto (1st), Winnipeg (7th), Edmonton (13th), Montreal (15th), Calgary (21st), Vancouver (29th), Ottawa (31st).
Contrast that with the results since March 1: Edmonton (8th), Toronto (9th), Ottawa (16th), Vancouver (T-18th), Montreal (T-18th), Winnipeg (20th), Calgary (24th).
The three teams that won’t make the post-season are in different spots. Ottawa can officially get optimistic about what’s ahead, Calgary has to be contemplating off-season moves that would alter the core and Vancouver — given the team was shattered by COVID-19 six weeks ago — can more or less write the past four months off as a truncated season from hell.
Montreal and Winnipeg, though, need to get it together if we’re going to get any kind of first round in this division. Right now, both teams just look like objects Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid will sharpen their sticks on before going at each other’s necks in Round 2.
While there’s chatter this year’s cornucopia of all-Canadian competition could lead to scheduling changes that will prioritize more out-of-conference games between Eastern and Western clubs in Canada down the road, I think most of us are ready to get back to the usual, balanced schedule.
Until that happens, we can only hope the Canadian Division has been withholding its best action for the post-season.
• What a kick by the Vegas Golden Knights during the final leg of the season. The Golden Knights — who beat the St. Louis Blues 4-3 in overtime Friday and 4-1 on Saturday — have won 14 of their past 16 contests. Chandler Stephenson — acquired from the Washington Capitals at the end of 2019 for a fifth-rounder — had a helper Friday and a nice shortie Saturday, continuing a breakout year which has seen him play more than 18 minutes per night as the team’s top centre. Previously, he’d never averaged more than 14:19 minutes per game.
Since Vegas’s hot streak started on April 9, only linemates Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty have more points than Stephenson’s 15. And he’s far from the only success story here. The list of guys posting career-best points-per-game clips includes Stone, Pacioretty, Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez. Marc-Andre Fleury has won his past eight starts, while posting a .938 save percentage in those games. Overall, his .927 mark matches his career-best, which was set during his first year in the desert.
Watch. The Bleep. Out.
• Despite his Dallas Stars being eliminated from playoff contention Saturday, we need a stick tap for Joe Pavelski. Dallas was up against it all year, and in the absence of top centre Tyler Seguin — who was sidelined thanks to off-season surgery and played his first game of the season on May 3 — the soon-to-be-37-year-old Pavelski scored at the third-highest points-per-game rate (0.91) of his long and fantastic career. He bagged a pair of goals and added two more helpers during Friday’s 5-2 win over the Lightning in Tampa Bay, when Dallas was still scrapping for its playoff life. That dream ended Saturday with the Nashville Predators' win over the Carolina Hurricanes, but what a gutsy season from one of the most respected dudes in the game.
• With news breaking over the weekend that John Tortorella won’t be back with the Columbus Blue Jackets, I’ll be fascinated to see what’s next for both team and coach. There’s a natural inclination to assume Columbus will put a tie on a cotton ball as the antidote to six years of “Torts,” but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is no shrinking violet himself and, though it eventually became too much, don’t overlook how much Tortorella squeezed out of this club and the degree to which many players appreciate his blunt approach. I thought he was done coaching after his disastrous one-year tenure with the Vancouver Canucks in 2013-14, so I’m not betting against him finding work again.
• Farewell, Ryan Miller — and to our ability to control the water works.
Surely Connor McDavid — who reached 100 points with four points in Game No. 53 on Saturday — won’t mind stepping aside for linesman Pierre Racicot, who’s hanging up his whistle after 1,880 regular season NHL games and 254 more from the playoffs, to say nothing of an incredibly decorated career calling the lines internationally.
The Week Ahead
• Vegas can lock up both first place in the West Division and top spot in the league with a victory of any kind when the Knights host the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night. This would be the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy, but the Knights have already won their division twice since entering the NHL in 2017-18.
• The slate of contests gets pretty light after Monday, as we work through re-scheduled games now that the original end date for the season has passed. The last night with at least four contests is Wednesday, when the Habs host McDavid and the Oilers and we get one final “Battle of Ontario” between Toronto and Ottawa. You get the feeling that provincial rivalry could be a meaningful one again as early as next season.