When the NHL returns from its bye weeks and all-star break, there will be just over 30 games left for each team.
The Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are the only Canadians clubs currently in a playoff spot, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets sit just below the cut line. The Montreal Canadiens have some serious work to do if they’re going to make a post-season return. And in Ottawa, it’s once again wait until next year for the rebuilding Senators.
With that in mind, The Canadian Press takes a look Canada’s seven franchises as the focus turns to the final stretch of the 2019-20 campaign.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS (27-18-4, first in Pacific Division)
Having missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons — and four straight — the Canucks are in a good position. The club sits atop the congested Pacific Division standings, a point up on both Edmonton and Calgary. Vancouver has received terrific goaltending from Jacob Markstrom, while the additions of J.T. Miller, Tyler Myers and the improved play of Jay Beagle and Tanner Pearson have been huge pluses. Vancouver also has a Calder Trophy candidate for the second straight season in Quinn Hughes. And Elias Pettersson continues to show why he took home rookie of the year honours last June. “We still have things we can improve,” Pettersson said. “When we are working, when we are skating, we play our best.”
EDMONTON OILERS (26-18-5, second in Pacific Division)
The Oilers currently occupy a playoff spot thanks in large part to the NHL’s two leading scorers — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The dynamic duo has combined for 151 points in 49 games, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a distant third on Edmonton’s roster with 33. McDavid hasn’t shown any ill-effects from the serious knee injury he suffered last April. James Neal has 19 goals after scoring just seven with the Flames in 2018-19. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have been solid in splitting goaltending duties, while new head coach Dave Tippett has got buy-in on the defensive side. The Oilers, however, know it’s going to be a mad dash to the finish line as the franchise looks to make the post-season for just the second time in 14 years. “Every game is going to have a ton of meaning,” Tippett said. ”That’s what’s fun about it.”
CALGARY FLAMES (26-19-5, third in Pacific Division)
The Flames could have imploded in the wake of the allegations made against head coach Bill Peters that he’d directed racial slurs against a player when both were in the minors a decade ago, and that he had physically abused two others when he was behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench. But the team instead blocked out the noise and has thrived under interim bench boss Geoff Ward. Flames goalie David Rittich will take part in his first all-star game this weekend as an injury replacement. Calgary winger/antagonist Matthew Tkachuk will also make his first appearance at the festivities, and will no doubt be a focus thanks to his bubbling rivalry with the Oilers. “There’s a lot that went on,” Flames centre Sean Monahan said. “It’s been a crazy year.”
WINNIPEG JETS (25-22-4, three points out of a wild-card spot)
The Jets received a gut punch early with the unexpected loss of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien — the situation has still yet to be resolved — after also shedding Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chariot on the blue line over the summer. Winnipeg has managed to hang around thanks to the Vezina Trophy-calibre goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck and a patchwork defence corps, but cracks have started to show with a team that’s now lost four straight in regulation, and six of its last seven. “We’ve done a pretty good job of really not worrying about which player is out there,” blue-liner Josh Morrissey said. ”We’ve been playing as hard as we can defensively and not feeling sorry for ourselves.”
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (25-17-7, four points out of a playoff spot)
The Leafs once again started the season as a Stanley Cup favourite, but a fall swoon was enough to see head coach Mike Babcock shown the door in favour of Sheldon Keefe. Toronto got out to a 15-4-1 under its rookie bench boss, but is 1-3-2 over its last six to sit outside the playoff picture. Keefe called his team “immature” following a disastrous 8-4 loss in Florida and an ugly 6-2 setback on home ice to Chicago ahead of its bye week. Auston Matthews, who’s sitting out the on-ice portion of the all-star festivities in St. Louis with a wrist injury, is on pace to smash the franchise record for goals in a season, but the Leafs will need a lot more from netminder Frederik Andersen. Toronto has struggled minus injured defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, although the latter could be back soon. There’s no doubting the Leafs’ ability to score. It’s whether or not they can keep the puck out of their net. “Everyone’s invested 100 per cent,” captain John Tavares said after a recent setback. ”But when we go out and play and have games like this or have lapses like this, it’s obviously not good enough. It gets in the way of us building what we want to build.”
MONTREAL CANADIENS (22-21-7, 10 points out of a playoff spot)
After coming agonizingly close to making the playoffs last season, Montreal currently sits well back. Two losing streaks of eight games are to blame for the Canadiens, who have failed to gain traction with Carey Price struggling in the crease. The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk has provided a bit of a spark for Montreal, which won four of five heading into the break. ”We just have to be more consistent,” said winger Tomas Tatar said. ”That’s our issue.”
OTTAWA SENATORS (17-23-8, 19 points out of a playoff spot)
It seems like a lifetime ago that the Senators were a goal away from making the 2017 Stanley Cup final. Ottawa’s steep decline has been well-documented, but there’s continued reason for optimism. The club signed star defenceman Thomas Chabot to a big contract extension, while winger Brady Tkachuk, who will replace Matthews at the all-star game, is proving the Senators made the right call at the 2018 draft. The rebuild took a hit when Ottawa was minus its first-round pick last year, but the Senators could have two high selections in 2020 — their own and the one acquired from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal. “We have to continue to play hard,” said rookie head coach D.J. Smith. “We need to continue to get better.”
— with files from Shane Jones in Edmonton, Jim Morris in Vancouver, Judy Owen in Winnipeg, Kelsey Patterson in Montreal and Lisa Wallace in Ottawa.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press