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Intelligent Hockey: Three struggling teams on the hunt for redemption

Montreal Canadiens celebrate Montreal Canadiens celebrate - The Canadian Press

It stings to lose a game, but a prolonged slump is miserable.

The Montreal Canadiens got beaten handily by the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night, but they have at least won this week. For the Carolina Hurricanes and Seattle Kraken, the taste of victory is fainter. In their last three games, the Hurricanes have recorded zero victories. And the Kraken’s last victory was before American Thanksgiving.

This weekend, I believe all three teams earn redemption, albeit with Montreal I’ll take the puck +1.5 puck line in the event they lose in the overtime 3-on-3 or skills competition.


Montreal Canadiens at Buffalo Sabres
Saturday, December 9 – 7 PM ET

For the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, all talk of the present is in consideration of how the team is progressing for the future. In other words, the playoffs would be nice, but are a best-case scenario. What matters is the young players and how they are developing. Also, which veterans are worth keeping to support the young nucleus. 

Buffalo has been riddled with injuries to key players, but even with forward Alex Tuch and defenceman Rasmus Dahlin out of the lineup on Thursday night against the Boston Bruins, the presence of Tage Thompson, recently back from injury, made a tremendous difference.

Thompson can spearhead the rush. He can strike as a shooter off a turnover forced from the forecheck, as exemplified by his goal against Boston. The Sabres had a high-powered offence last season that could shell its opponents. Unfortunately, the defence got comparably gashed, as the Sabres managed to allow a higher goals against even while posting 3.57 goals per game.

This season, Buffalo is more forecheck-centric as it strives to tamp down goals against. Overall, this plan hasn’t really worked, considering the offence is 25th in the NHL and the goals against remain bad, far outpacing the goals for. Yet, on nights like Thursday, the Sabres can wreak havoc against a Stanley Cup contender as they outshot the Bruins 18-5 at 5-on-5.

But even with Thompson back and Dahlin possible for Saturday, I think Montreal can hang with Buffalo. In Thursday night’s game, the Los Angeles Kings took a multi-goal lead due to the Canadiens’ inability to contain their adversary’s speed and power off the rush. Yet Montreal produced chances when the game was still competitive and was able to advance the puck into the offensive zone, forcing Kings goaltender Cam Talbot to make saves. Despite being badly outmatched in talent in many matchups, underestimating Montreal has proven costly for many opponents.

The Sabres are vulnerable in their own end and the Canadiens can make them work. The Canadiens want their opponents to have to defend them below the goal line and contain their motion. They make a concerted effort to facilitate plays along the wall in the offensive zone and use interchanges to confuse defences.

The Canadiens are 10th worst in high-danger chances against, but Buffalo ranks worse in that metric. If the Canadiens can employ a quick transition game, they can catch the Buffalo forecheckers beneath the puck, much like Carolina used the area pass to prey on the Sabres last Saturday. Montreal has received an expected windfall of scoring from its defencemen, and it will need the blueliners to be active against Buffalo on Saturday night.

The Sabres have won only seven of their 27 games this season by two or more goals. I think Montreal can win or force extra time.

Pick: Canadiens Puck line (+1.5) -154


Carolina Hurricanes at Vancouver Canucks
Saturday, December 9 – 10 PM ET

All is not well with the Hurricanes right now and coach Rod Brind’Amour isn’t one to dull the edges on his message. Interviewed mid-game as they lost 6-1 on Wednesday night, Brind’Amour said, “I’ve never seen our team play this brutal.” The coach quipped that the Hurricanes were on their way to losing 50-0.

Carolina followed that sad performance with an even more disheartening result. The Hurricanes had a multi-goal lead entering the third period against the Calgary Flames and lost, allowing three unanswered goals as Hurricanes’ goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov torpedoed Carolina.

And yet, the Hurricanes won the competitive Metropolitan Division the last two years because of their consistency. Over the course of 164 games over those two seasons, the Hurricanes lost four or more consecutive games only three times. 

Unlike in prior seasons, Carolina is not ruling the division, as the New York Rangers lead the Metropolitan by more points than any other division leader. Heck, the Philadelphia Flyers have more points than the Hurricanes right now in the same amount of games. Feeling more urgency, I think the Hurricanes are primed to grind out their first victory of this road trip.

Stylistically, we know how this game will be played. Carolina’s goaltending struggles mask how good this team is defensively. Entering the contest against Calgary last night, the Hurricanes were second best in the NHL in odd-man rush chances allowed per game, and currently they rank in the top four in the NHL in expected goals against and high-danger chances against. In offensive zone time spent and least amount of time in the defensive zone, the Hurricanes lead the NHL.

But a through line in the games on Wednesday and Thursday night was the Hurricanes’ difficulties against the opposing forecheck. Carolina’s defencemen turned over way too many pucks on the breakout, especially on their first pass beneath the circles. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary both succeeded at spreading the Hurricanes out in the defensive zone and then preying on their man-on-man defence by winning the races from the outside to the middle. Make no mistake: the Vancouver Canucks will be looking to utilize a similar game plan, and Carolina will need to be able to do a better job defending the backdoor cut and power moves into the low slot.

The Canucks have a goaltending advantage. Thatcher Demko has been awesome this year and, with Casey DeSmith playing on Thursday, Demko is likely to get the nod. With no Frederik Andersen available for Carolina, the Hurricanes are left to choose between two bad options, as Kochetkov has been terrible, but Antti Raanta somehow has an even worse Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx).

Still, if any team can keep the puck almost entirely in the offensive zone, it is Carolina. It is a shot volume team that loves the high-slot tip and relishes hemming opponents in. In the Minnesota Wild game on Thursday night, the Canucks played a dreadful first period and looked helpless against the Minnesota forecheck. The Hurricanes will want to steal some of the Wild’s tactics; they should draw Quinn Hughes above the circles and make Vancouver defend the pass into the slot when the puck is behind the net.

Pick: Hurricanes Moneyline -120 


Tampa Bay Lightning at Seattle Kraken
Saturday, December 9 – 10 PM ET

Groucho Marx famously said he never wanted to be in any club that would accept him as a member. The Seattle Kraken may not have directly made a bid to be in the eight-win club, but that is the company they are sharing right now with the Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, and Chicago Blackhawks. At a gathering so deflating would you even bring balloons?

After reaching the second round of the playoffs last season, this year everything seems to have gone wrong for Seattle. Regression has played a role in drying up the 5-on-5 scoring. The goaltending has been poor. Centre Matthew Beniers has had a tough sophomore season. And now the Kraken have lost a half-dozen games in a row and have not led during that six-game stretch. Playoff hopes may be dashed, but at least for this Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, I like the Kraken’s chances of ending the losing streak.

The Kraken outshot the Devils 38-17 on Thursday night, but that really isn’t an accurate representation of the game. They did not dominate in all three periods. Once the Devils went up 2-1, New Jersey went into a more defensive posture and Seattle started accruing shots, especially in the third period.

That said, what worked for the Kraken offensively was reminiscent of the team that vanquished the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s playoffs. Seattle created offence from below the circles and used the pressure that resulted to hit a shooter in the middle-to-high slot. Seattle has speed, and when applied properly the forecheck can gin up offence, like on the Tye Kartye goal against New Jersey. They haven’t been a fount of offence, but Seattle’s defencemen are aggressive on the forecheck, pressing the opposing wings to force turnovers.

Saturday’s opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are an ideal foe for the Kraken to implement this strategy against. The Lightning have been crippled by breakout issues this season, coughing up pucks and allowing a scoring chance shortly after. Tampa Bay has also had difficulty defending passes from behind the net and into the slot.

On Tuesday night against Montreal, the Kraken were ghastly with their puck management, committing a bunch of foolish turnovers on zone exits. On Thursday, Seattle fed the Devils’ counterattack with more turnovers, with some of the worst in the neutral zone. Against the Lightning, I expect a simple plan. Get the puck deep. Shoot, retrieve, and shoot again.

It is paramount that Seattle plays this game at 5-on-5. The Lightning have a deadly power play (second best in the NHL), so it is incumbent for the Kraken to keep the puck in their offensive zone with Tampa Bay chasing defensively.

Losing seven straight games is a big deal. Even the woeful Blackhawks haven’t done that this season. With the Lightning playing their third game in four nights on the road, where they have a 4-8-2 record, I like Seattle to claim victory.

Pick: Kraken Moneyline +104