NHL Weekend Takeaways: Race for second in North heating up

The Hockey Central Panel breaks down the Montreal Canadiens win over the Winnipeg Jets and how the team found their groove in a big way against the Jets.

If you want to make yourself a figure of ridicule in 90 per cent of Canada, comparing the Toronto Maple Leafs to vintage Tiger Woods or the 1990s Chicago Bulls is an efficient way to do it. But don’t worry, Anti-Leaf Nation, we’re just here to pay the Blue and White a quick compliment before moving onto the up-for-debate question of, who is No. 2 in Canada?

Despite a 4-2 loss in Vancouver on Saturday, the Leafs are a lock to win the Canadian Division. That means everyone else is playing for second, the way PGA golfers were when Tiger had it cranked up 15 years ago and every other NBA club was when Michael Jordan’s squad was in flight.

Teams two, three and four in terms of points percentage in the North right now are Winnipeg (.646), Montreal (.609) and Edmonton (.577). Had the Jets dusted the Habs for a fourth time this season on Saturday, they would be staking a real claim to unimpeachable second-best status. Instead, the Canadiens waxed Winnipeg 7-1.

Had the Oilers — coming off a miserable week in which they got pantsed three straight times on home ice by Toronto — fallen at home to Calgary on Saturday, we’d be wondering if they deserved to be lumped in with the Flames, Canucks and Senators, each of whom are under .500 and tote negative goal differentials. But of course, Connor McDavid came through with a three-point night, including the game-winner in the waning moments of a third period that ended with Edmonton on top 3-2.

So here we sit, with an open argument over the next-best club in this country. Its most recent setback notwithstanding, Winnipeg — unlike Edmonton and Montreal — doesn’t have any real rough patches on its record and has gone 6-2-0 in its past eight games as newcomer Pierre-Luc Dubois is starting to find his place. That said, 15 of the Jets’ 24 contests this season have come against Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa, otherwise known as the weakest teams in the division. Winnipeg also continues to surrender high-danger scoring chances at a troubling rate.

Could Montreal’s big win key a return to early-season form? New coach Dominique Ducharme is seeing some of his lineup tweaks and tactical shifts pay off; Carey Price has slightly distanced himself from his struggles by allowing just one goal in each of his past two starts and the trio of Phillip Danault between Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar — the go-to unit for Montreal the past couple seasons before an inexplicable fall-off this year — looked like one of the best lines in hockey again on Saturday. On the flipside, the Canadiens have two wins in eight tries against Winnipeg and Toronto this year — not exactly a ringing endorsement for how they respond to the best competition.

Edmonton was on an 8-1-0 run before getting outscored 13-1 in those three losses to Toronto. Maybe the Oilers really can’t hold a candle to the division’s top club; maybe it was a week from hell. Either way, it was impressive watching them erase two one-goal deficits in the victory over a motivated Calgary squad playing its first outing since coach Geoff Ward was given his walking papers.

With a hair over half a season to go, the race for runner-up in Canada is getting very interesting.

Other Takeaways

• The East-leading New York Islanders beat the Buffalo Sabres on both Saturday and Sunday, running their record to 6-0-0 versus Buffa-low this season. Yes, they’ve dined out on the division’s worst team, but I’m just going to keep clapping for this greater-than-the-sum organization. Mathew Barzal is turning into a nuclear weapon; Jean-Gabriel Pageau — traded for and inked long-term at last season’s deadline — is scoring at a 30-goal pace as a 3C; the Russian tandem of Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin has combined to give the Isles the third-best save percentage in the league and second-year blue-liner Noah Dobson is starting to show why he was pegged for stardom. Take a bow, Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello.

• Are we already just playing for playoff seeding in the Central Division? Sunday’s results saw the Tampa Bay Lightning down the Chicago Blackhawks 6-3, while the Carolina Hurricanes toppled the Florida Panthers 4-2 and there’s every chance those will be your first-round post-season matchups.

Fourth-ranked Chicago holds a six-point cushion on Columbus, with both teams having 26 games in the bank. The reeling Jackets got pumped 5-0 by the Stars on Saturday and have lost six of their past eight. Yes, Dallas has a handful of contests in hand on everyone, but the defending Western Conference champions have somewhat predictably had a rough go this year. With their overtime loss to Nashville on Sunday, the Stars are now a miserable 2-7-2 in their past 11.

While everyone wants to push as high as they can, Tampa, Florida, Carolina and Chicago may be able to exercise some load management down the stretch of this hectic schedule.

• I know it’s a dangerous game trying to climb into other people’s minds, but Washington tough guy Tom Wilson may as well have had “Inflict Damage” tattooed on his forehead as he approached Boston Bruins defenceman Brandon Carlo on Friday night. No part of me was surprised to learn this earned him a seven-game suspension.

• Any time I was at a Leafs game and Walter Gretzky was shown waving to the crowd on the big screen, I involuntarily blurted out, “Wally!” in the press box. I was never not excited to see Canada’s Hockey Dad smiling and soaking it in. What a gentle gem.

Weekend Warrior

Noel Acciari — a 20-goal scorer last season — hadn’t found the net since Feb. 27 of 2020 before going off for the hatty against Nashville on Saturday. That’s how you bust a slump, friends.

The Week Ahead

• Monday is International Women’s Day, so start it off with Emily Sadler’s Big Read about the 25 Most Powerful Women in Hockey.

• If the Jets want to have something to say about us declaring the Leafs destined to win the Canadian Division, now is the time to do it. Winnipeg will play three straight in Hogtown this week, beginning on Tuesday night.

Patrick Kane is set to play his 1,000th NHL game on Tuesday in Dallas. Kane, who won’t turn 33 until November, is a very good bet to retire as the highest-scoring American player in league history. In the midst of an MVP-calibre season, he sits 331 points behind Brett Hull.

• After the Flames dropped two games on the weekend, I think it’s safe to suggest they’ll be playing hard for new coach Darryl Sutter when they host the Canadiens on Thursday.

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