So, you’re saying there is a chance?
There’s a chance that we might see four teams from Canada get into the playoffs?
Toronto is coming out of the Eastern Conference.
That seems clear.
It is also possible that Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton all come out of the West this year, but for the Oilers in particular, the hope among their fans seems to be dimming a little bit more with each additional loss.
As jostling for position intensifies with the All-Star Break approaching, I’ll pick three games featuring Canadian teams and heightened stakes.
Winnipeg Jets at Boston Bruins
Saturday, January 22 – 3 PM ET
The Winnipeg Jets are going to need more ice packs in their locker room. After playing the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators on Tuesday and Thursday, Winnipeg travels to Boston for a bruiser against the Bruins on Saturday.
The Washington-Nashville-Boston trio is a Who’s Who of the heaviest teams in the league, and they play a physical brand of hockey that makes life miserable for their adversaries. In related news, Winnipeg has one point in the two games.
It appears the Bruins could be playing without superstar wing Brad Marchand, which drains their rush game of one of hockey’s greatest artists with the puck. When Marchand left the game against the Capitals on Thursday night, Patrice Bergeron and Craig Smith joined forces with Jake DeBrusk, and the result was a simplified, more grinding game that still resulted in a lot of offensive zone time. They outshot Washington 4-1 in their 4:40 of ice time.
The Bruins’ analytics are fantastic and the reason is their defence. They are first in the NHL in expected goals against and high-danger chances against. Their offence isn’t at that level, but they compensate with shot volume. Boston leads the NHL in shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Given the Jets’ recent puck management woes, this could be a recipe for disaster. If Winnipeg coughs up the puck in the neutral zone and on breakouts against Boston, this game could get away from them quickly.
The best way to attack the Bruins is to force turnovers from their defencemen below the goal line and distribute the puck to shooters from behind the circles. Boston is extremely good at getting in the shooting and passing lanes, but it is hard to defend when the puck is being passed out of the goaltender’s sightline.
At a minimum, the Jets need to look to shoot from everywhere. The Bruins sent their best goaltender, Jeremy Swayman, to the minors and are stuck with two potentially lesser options in Tuukka Rask and Linus Ullmark.
Goaltender seems like an area where the Jets have an advantage since, on the season, their goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck, has strong numbers. But in his last six games he has been downright bad, posting a -3.17 GSAx.
Without Nikolaj Ehlers in the lineup, the Jets are essentially a one-line team. The Bruins are at home so they can match Bergeron’s line against the Pierre Luc-Dubois line, and it frees up the David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall line. That sounds like a disaster. I’ll take the Bruins’ money line.
Pick: Bruins -170
Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Islanders
Saturday, January 22 – 7 PM ET
The Toronto Maple Leafs are leaking goals. Okay, perhaps gushing would be more appropriate.
On Saturday, the Leafs will conclude their six-game road trip. In three of their last five contests, they have allowed five or more tallies.
Toronto’s 5-on-5 underlying numbers directly synch up with those before the road trip when they were not hemorrhaging goals. The Maple Leafs’ expected goals against has stayed exactly the same. They actually have improved in the rate of high-danger chances they allow. Their penalty kill has been good, and the only game where they were gashed was against Vegas. So, what’s wrong?
The simple answer is Jack Campbell. In his last four starts, Campbell has a dreadful -5.77 GSAx. He has certainly not been at the calibre that helped him earn an All-Star Game nomination, but it also isn’t all on his shoulders. The players in front of him are failing in several key ways.
Toronto is having trouble sorting out its defensive coverage. Opponents are preying on the Maple Leafs’ slow switches and are challenging them to defend in the low slot. Opponents have thrived at creating opportunities from behind the goal, and Campbell has been slow moving from post to post. The Maple Leafs’ loss to the New York Rangers was the latest example of them leaving Campbell to fend for himself as their opponent managed to get behind or below layers of Toronto defensive coverage.
The Islanders are an ideal opponent for a team working through complications with its defence. Only the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes have lower goals per game than New York. The Islanders’ offence is surprisingly reliant on the rush, but aside from Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson, there is a striking lack of dynamic puck-handlers and playmakers.
This is especially tantalizing for the Maple Leafs, who play at such a high pace that their defencemen and forwards always leave themselves exposed against good transition offences when they are trying to recover. If the Islanders are too leaden to capitalize on a ratcheted-up offence that takes liberties on the cycle and unabashedly uses a four-man rush, this could spell a multi-goal deficit for New York in quick order.
The most delicious part of this matchup is that the Islanders are playing on Friday night. That could mean New York is fatigued from the night before, and it also likely means Ilya Sorokin won’t be in goal. Goaltender Semyon Valamov isn’t bad, but he doesn’t pose the same threat to steal the game as Sorokin.
Even on the road, I love this line, and it being affordable at a money line price is a beautiful thing.
Pick: Maple Leafs -165
Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers
Saturday, January 22 – 10 PM ET
It’s uncanny, but at almost the same moment in December, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames started to nosedive. Since Dec. 5, Calgary has won three of its last 11 games. Only one of those defeats yielded a loser point.
Starting Dec. 3, the Oilers lost six straight, won two in a row, and have since dropped their last seven games. If either team is going to make the postseason, the turnaround needs to begin immediately.
I view this matchup as an energy-versus-aptitude problem. In the case of Calgary, as TSN’s excellent Travis Yost highlighted, its team defence has cratered. Opponents have controlled the neutral zone to their advantage. Gaps have loosened and turnovers have proliferated. The Flames’ goaltending has fallen off. And the goals against and expected goals against Calgary have shot up.
Is there an explanation? Flames Coach Darryl Sutter has mentioned a slow recovery for some of his players after leaving COVID protocol, and given the effect of the virus on the body, it seems plausible the Calgary roster has seen its execution flag because of the lasting effects of the illness.
Whether COVID can be linked to the Flames’ deteriorating performance, the win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday flashed many positive signals. Calgary looked like the team from October and November. Admittedly, there is danger in overvaluing one game, but the Flames have only played two games in the last two weeks. The circumstances of this season can make recency bias unavoidable.
Against Florida, the Flames were physical on the forecheck and zipping passes to Johnny Gaudreau in transition. On the Blake Coleman goal, the Flames forced consecutive turnovers in the neutral zone before three forecheckers outhustled five Panthers skaters to propel the puck into the back of the net. Florida has the best rush game in the NHL, but on Tuesday, Calgary’s forwards were back-checking and helping their defencemen keep tighter gaps.
Edmonton played Florida on Thursday and started off the game funneling shots on net. To the Oilers’ credit, at 5-on-5 they finished the first frame with five high-danger chances to the Panthers’ two. But the aptitude issue with Edmonton gnaws. With Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins removed from the lineup, a thin forward group is stretched in grotesque fashion.
To be clear: The Flames have exploitable weaknesses. If the Oilers can hem them in, Calgary’s puck management has been highly problematic. Against Ottawa on Jan. 13, the Flames were ham-fisted with the puck, leading to a 4-1 loss. The Oilers aren’t deep at forward, but after Calgary’s first line, there is a notable talent drop off that Edmonton could seize on with last change on home ice.
Nevertheless, I think the Oilers’ flaws are too substantial to overcome. Since Dec. 3, only Mackenzie Blackwood and Philipp Grubauer have worse Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) than Mikko Koskinen. And with Oilers goaltenders Stuart Skinner and Mike Smith injured, one would expect Koskinen to get the start again on Saturday.
Still, pinning all the blame on the Oilers’ goaltending is a mistake. The Oilers’ defensive group is shaky, and they get little-to-no help from their forwards. I think the Flames could win this game at 5-on-5, but their trump card is a frisky Flames power play against an Edmonton penalty kill that is getting hammered. I’ll ride with Calgary on the road.
Pick: Flames -105