Hope and despair represent both sides of the sporting coin and either one can present itself in a young season faster than you can say heads or tails.
As should be the case, optimism — to some degree or another — rules the day in most places heading into the first weekend of NHL hockey. And if a team or player waters that plant just a little, excitement can be in full bloom fast.
How could any New Jersey Devils fan not be stoked after seeing Dougie Hamilton — who, based on cap hit, signed the richest UFA deal of the off-season — score just 17 seconds into his Swamp tenure on Friday night?
The Devils would love to make some noise in a Metropolitan Division that seems to have fewer sure things than any of the other three NHL groupings. Hamilton would no doubt be central to any Jersey rise, but so too would 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes. The middle member of the Flying Hughes Bros. has played two pandemic-shortened seasons to start his career, posting middling numbers on a bottom-feeding club along the way.
The fact he kicked off Year 3 with two goals — including the three-on-three winner — in a 5-4 extra-time victory over the Chicago Blackhawks could signal he’s ready for takeoff.
A lot of people have theorized the Florida Panthers are headed nowhere but up and the Cats came out and pasted an Eastern Conference contender on Saturday, downing the New York Islanders 5-1 to run their record to 2-0-0.
Recently extended Aleksander Barkov is the heart of this team, but Florida’s fortunes will largely be determined by an increasingly impressive supporting cast that’s been built by second-year GM Bill Zito. Sam Bennett, acquired from the Calgary Flames last spring, has to have Panthers backers going out of their minds after netting his second career hat trick versus the Isles. (His first, as it happens, came five years ago in a 6-0 thrashing of Florida). Bennett’s big Saturday gives him nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in his 12-game Panthers career.
Sustainable? No chance. Reason for enormous positivity? Um, yeah.
On the flip side, an off-season of angst in Montreal has morphed into in-season dread as the Habs have started 0-3-0 while scoring just a single goal in each of its losing outings. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to the New York Rangers saw 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere — who grew up about a half-hour drive from the Bell Centre — score the third-period game-winner for the Blueshirts just 26 seconds after the Canadiens had squared the game. If Montreal’s next three games are as bad as the first three, Habs fans might start wondering about their own lottery chances.
As for the Tampa Bay Lighting team that beat Montreal in the Stanley Cup Final three months ago, the defending champs watched scoring whiz Nikita Kucherov glide off the ice with an apparent groin injury on Saturday night. Given Kucherov battled a similar issue in the playoffs last spring and missed all of the regular season following hip surgery, there has to be some concern over the health of the guy who won the Hart Trophy the last time we had a full season.
Sticking with Harts, the one who plays goal in Philadelphia surely wanted a better start to this campaign after a miserable year last season. Carter Hart’s .877 save percentage in the 56-game 2020-21 schedule was hugely disappointing, and while the talented 23-year-old has plenty of runway ahead to figure things out, surrendering four second-period goals — including an unsightly one late in the frame to J.T. Miller — during a 5-4 shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night will only make things feel that much more unsettled in Flyer land.
To be fair, despair is probably too strong of a word to throw around in any context when an NHL season less than a week old. The point, though, is that no matter how “It’s early, but” you try to be about things, strong reactions out of the gate are inevitable.
And, man, it feels great to have all of them back.
• Let’s get a quick stick tap to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 2-0-1 after downing the Blackhawks 5-2 in their home opener on Saturday. Playing without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have outshot their opponents 108-87 through three contests. Veteran centre Jeff Carter has four points, newcomer Danton Heinen has three goals and rookie Drew O’Connor looks like the latest in a seemingly never-ending supply of former NCAA players who spend some time at the AHL level, then start contributing for the Penguins.
• How about some love for Andrew Ladd, who’s had about as tough a go as you can the past few years when you’re making ludicrously good money. Ladd was stapled to some draft picks and traded to Arizona in the off-season so the Islanders could clear his $5.5-million cap hit. Ladd lit the lamp on Saturday during the Coyotes’ 2-1 shootout setback in Buffalo. The tally was the 250th of his career, first since March 10 of 2020 and just his third NHL marker in nearly three years. You have to believe the 35-year-old Cup champ and former Jets captain is feeling great about being an everyday player again, as he is on track to play his 1,000th NHL game early in 2022.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Edmonton Oilers: (2-0-0) The questions in goal probably won’t go away all season, but 39-year-old Mike Smith — on the heels of a solid campaign last year — has two W’s and a .953 save percentage through two outings.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs: (2-1-0) Speaking of goaltending, between David Ayres’ magical Saturday night in 2020 and cap constraints forcing the Leafs to sign Canadian university tender Alex Bishop to dress in place of the injured Petr Mrazek this past weekend, you have to believe Toronto would be happy to never hear the term “EBUG” again.
3. Ottawa Senators: (2-1-0) With two home victories already in the bag, the young Sens now have a seven-game domestic winning streak dating back to last season.
4. Vancouver Canucks: (1-1-1) Vancouver is in the middle of a tough six-game roadie to start the year, but its remaining three games are against Buffalo, Detroit and the expansion Kraken. (Mind you, neither Detroit nor Buffalo has a regulation-time loss yet!)
5. Calgary Flames: (0-1-0) You have to know losing the first instalment of the “Battle of Alberta” on Saturday was not how the Flames wanted to kick things off.
6. Winnipeg Jets: (0-2-0) Mark Scheifele played his first game of the year on Saturday in San Jose after sitting the opener to close out the suspension he was handed for drilling Montreal’s Jake Evans in last year’s playoffs.
7. Montreal Canadiens (0-3-0) Tough results aside, it’s easy to feel great for Jonathan Drouin. The Habs winger has scored twice this season after speaking publicly about the anxiety struggles that forced him to step away from hockey last spring.
Hat trick for Connor McDavid on Saturday night? Surprise, Surprise.
Alex Ovechkin (27). Evgeni Malkin (12). Sidney Crosby (11).
— NHL (@NHL) October 17, 2021
The Week Ahead
• The reigning Rocket Richard winner will make his season debut on Monday, as Auston Matthews is set to return to the Leafs. This tilt versus the Rangers marks Toronto’s first skirmish with a United States-based club since it lost a winner-take-all Game 5 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the preliminary round of the 2020 bubble playoffs.
• Jesperi Kotkaniemi — who departed Montreal via an offer sheet a short time ago — returns to Quebec with the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. Are you ready for some social media trolling?