If it’s lonely at the top, lord knows it can often be something far worse at the bottom.
Lately, though, the two worst teams in the NHL have witnessed some sunshine break through the basement cracks.
The Montreal Canadiens have been transformed under first-time NHL coach Martin St. Louis, while another Francophone, André Tourigny, is overseeing an Arizona Coyotes team that — in a disastrous season on and off the ice — is finally seeing a positive or two.
The Coyotes were downright offensive on Saturday, scoring four unanswered third-period goals to turn a 5-4 deficit against the Ottawa Senators into an 8-5 victory. The Canadiens, meanwhile, won for the seventh time in their past eight outings by more or less taking it to the Edmonton Oilers in Northern Alberta to the tune of 5-2.
A month into the campaign, these two squads combined for six wins in 34 attempts. Since Feb. 1, the Habs have the 13th-best points percentage in the league at .583, while the Desert Dogs are No. 19 at an even .500.
You can spin that as bad news given both these outfits have no shot at the playoffs and are hoping for the best draft lottery odds possible. Arizona, specifically, came into this year with clear intentions of trying to snag that No. 1 pick.
That said, the lottery odds are such that finishing last still means you basically have an 80 percent chance of not picking first. And there’s always that tricky divide between what the front office would like from its perch way above the fray versus the day-to-day reality of slogging through a grim 82-game season for the players absorbing all the L’s. At some point, you need to experience things that remind you hockey — even at the highest-stakes level — is supposed to be fun.
There had to be no shortage of joy in the Coyotes family on Saturday after Nick Schmaltz set a franchise record with seven points, to say nothing of rookie Matias Maccelli scoring his first NHL marker in just his second game. A night like Schmaltz had obviously kickstarts your season totals, but the right winger — who missed a big chunk of time at the start of the season — has been fantastic for a good stretch now, registering 19 points in 18 games leading up to his outburst versus the Sens.
Schmaltz’s linemate, Clayton Keller, bagged four points himself versus Ottawa as he continues to make the case he was worth seventh-overall hype in 2016 and a $57-million contract in 2019. That pact is probably why we’ve previously seen no real talk of Keller being moved the way we’ve seen endless speculation about another 23-year-old, Jakob Chychrun, being traded out of Arizona for futures. Keller inked his deal with former GM John Chayka and while it might have looked like an overpay for a while, Keller’s latest strong showing leaves him with a pretty sweet 23-28-51 statline in 55 contests for a team that averages the fewest goals per game (2.38) in the league.
The Canadiens, naturally, average the second-fewest goals (2.41) and it might not be a stretch to say every single player in the organization has looked better under St. Louis since the latter took over nearly a month ago. Most critically, though, Nick Suzuki is playing like a true No. 1 pivot. The 22-year-old had a power-play snipe and two apples against the Oilers, running his total to a dozen points in his past seven outings. Cole Caufield, meanwhile, basically got a new lease on life when St. Louis replaced Dominique Ducharme. The undersized freshman, who also lit the lamp versus Edmonton, has one gone 7-7-14 in 11 games under his new bench boss.
Let’s be honest; winning the draft lottery is likely still the best thing that can happen in 2022 to these two organizations who still, by the way, have the worst (Arizona) and second-worst (Montreal) records by points percentage in the NHL today. But high picks aren’t the only thing that will push these teams forward. They need to know there are some young cornerstones to build around already in their midst and, more and more, that looks to be the case.
• Is Jason Robertson a fantastic hockey player but really bad older brother? On the same weekend Nick Robertson scored his first regular season goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, his older bro went bonkers, netting back-to-back hat tricks for the surging Dallas Stars. J-Rob filled the net on Friday, including the overtime winner to down the Jets in Winnipeg. Then, in a crucial match with the Minnesota Wild, Robertson popped two second-period markers and deposited an empty-netter to salt a 6-3 win for Dallas over a Wild squad the Stars could yet overtake for third place in the Central Division.
It's always interesting to see how a sophomore does after a Calder runner-up season like Robertson had last year, especially when that player’s strong rookie showing is one that not a lot of people saw coming. Well, Robertson’s next goal will be his 30th of the season, so it’s safe to say he’s made good on his promise. At least he didn’t play on Saturday so Nick’s tally could get all the family shine that night.
• As the MVP race enters the stretch run, Igor Shesterkin has clearly thrown his mask right into the middle of the ring. The Rangers stopper allowed one goal to the New Jersey Devils during a 3-1 home-ice win on Friday, then stonewalled the Jets in Winnipeg 48 hours later with 45 saves in a 4-1 victory. No goalie with 1,000 minutes in the crease has a better five-on-five save percentage or high-danger save percentage (.944 and .883, respectively) than Shesterkin.
Stick taps to Wayne Simmonds and Mark Giordano for appearing in their 1,000th NHL games on the weekend. Marc Staal is up next, as the Red Wings defenceman can hit the magical mark on Saturday in Calgary.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Calgary Flames (33-14-7): The Colorado Avalanche are the only Western Conference team with a better points percentage than the Flames, so while “statement game” might be overselling it, Saturday’s 4-3 extra-time victory in Denver was obviously a huge ‘W’ for Calgary.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (35-16-4): You know all the talk for two weeks leading up to the deadline will be about addressing shortcomings in their own end. That said, let’s just carve out a second to note the remarkable season Auston Matthews is putting together. No. 34 scored Nos. 38 and 39 on Saturday night, leapfrogging Leon Draisaitl for top spot in the Rocket Richard chase.
3. Vancouver Canucks (28-23-6): The win over Toronto capped a nice four-game roadie for the Canucks, who went 3-1-0 on the trip. Now they head home for a seven-game homestand knowing this is the time to make hay in their playoff chase.
4. Edmonton Oilers (30-22-4): Evander Kane has eight goals in 17 outings with the Oilers, but his tally on Saturday came in a 5-2 loss to Montreal that could have been worse had the Habs not had two goals called back for being a whisker off-side.
5. Winnipeg Jets (24-21-10): Was allowing the equalizer with fewer than five minutes to go and losing in overtime on Friday night at home to the Stars the death knell in Winnipeg’s post-season chase? They threw the house at Shesterkin on Sunday but still came up short there, too.
6. Montreal Canadiens (15-34-7): It’s not just skaters finding themselves under St. Louis; Sam Montembeault is proving himself an NHL-calibre stopper, posting a .913 save percentage in eight games since the new coach took over.
7. Ottawa Senators (19-30-5): It was a tough 24 hours for the Senators, getting lit up in the third period by Arizona on Saturday, then playing Vegas close all game on Sunday until a highly questionable call put them down a man late, allowing Jack Eichel to score the power-play winner with 5.2 seconds left to give Vegas a 2-1 victory.
The Week Ahead
• Monday night marks the first Calgary-based edition of the Battle of Alberta this season and, oh boy, could the visitors use two points in that contest.
• The Washington Capitals begin a swing through Western Canada on Tuesday with Nick Backstrom just three points shy of 1,000 for his wonderful career.
• Jack’s back and I think it’s fair to say Mr. Eichel can expect some boos when the Golden Knights visit the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday.
• Tim Hortons teams face off at Tim Hortons field when the Sabres meet the Maple Leafs outside in Hamilton at the Heritage Classic on Sunday.