Can you believe that we’re a quarter of the way through the 2021 season?
Well, not every team, just the ones who haven’t had games canceled due to the pandemic. It’s especially crazy considering we haven’t even hit the one-month mark of the campaign, but that’s where we stand.
The highlight of the week, unfortunately, was the number of postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases. Since last Monday, 17 games were put on hold, with no new dates announced just yet. Buffalo, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Jersey were the teams hit the hardest, and it’s just a matter of time until we hear of more postponements.
It’s a bummer for those teams and their fanbases, but it’s an inevitability of the world right now. Let’s turn gears for a second and focus on some of the other big storylines from the past seven days around the NHL:
Habs continue to show staying power
If we pretend that 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators didn’t happen, the Montreal Canadiens have had quite the past little bit.
The Habs went 3-1 in four games against Vancouver and Ottawa, outscoring their opponents 15-8. Sure, both the Canucks and Senators have played some atrocious hockey, but the Canadiens truly look like a legit threat for the top spot in the North Division this season – and as the team sits just one point behind the Leafs for first overall, the Canadiens look mighty hot right now. Montreal has lost just twice in regulation over the past 12 games, including that surprisingy loss to the Senators. To Ottawa’s credit, it was their most complete game of the season and they did a great job of limiting Montreal’s chances after taking a late first-period lead.
But otherwise, the Canadiems have looked like a force to be taken seriously. The Habs play Toronto in three of their next four matches with a meeting with Edmonton thrown in for good measure, so the easy wins against some of the weaker teams will have to wait. Through 12 games, five players – including defenseman Jeff Petry with 14 – have at least 10 points this season. Nick Suzuki has been incredible as a sophomore, Josh Anderson has been a fantastic addition since acquiring him from Columbus over the off-season and Jonathan Drouin is off to yet another hot start. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is finally starting to look like the player the Habs wanted from the start and while players such as Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen and Corey Perry haven’t had a ton of luck finding the scoresheet, scoring depth hasn’t been that much of an issue thus far.
If you told me before the season that, 12 games in, the team would be second in goals for with 48 and first with a positive goal-diffential of plus-17, I’d truly question the strength of the North Division. And, frankly, I am, because even with players such as Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews, there’s been a lot of reasons to criticize the overall hockey being played in the division. Would the Canadiens be able to beat on opponents in other, more well-rounded divisions? Probably not, but that’s not the name of the game this season so all other scenarios don’t matter.
If you’re a Habs fan, you’re getting a nice look at the future with many young stars taking center stage. It’s been a rough past decade, so enjoy it.
The Canucks are a mess
It’s not uncommon for fans of struggling franchises to call for jobs to be lost come February – but that’s usually way past the halfway point of the NHL season.
For the Canucks, it might feel like a long road already. Just a few months removed from an impressive playoff performance that saw them one win away from the Western Conference final, the Canucks find themselves with a 6-9-0 record through a North Division-leading 15 games. Only the last-place Senators have a worse goal differential (-24) than Vancouver. The Canucks have allowed five or more goals a whopping NINE times – 60 percent of the season so far – and four games in a row to Toronto and Montreal.
It’s been brutal watching this team try to string together any momentum. But what happened? Losing forward Tyler Toffoli and goaltender Jacob Markstrom to division rivals was a killer, especially Toffoli, who has scored eight of his nine goals this season against the Canucks.
Poor cap management has been a staple of GM Jim Benning’s tenure in Vancouver and following a lifeless 5-1 loss to Toronto on Saturday, #FireBenning was trending across Canada. At some point, you have to wonder when enough is enough for a team with some talented young players to boot – how do you prove to guys like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes that you’re serious about improving this franchise before their contracts come up?
If the Canucks continue to struggle this week, we might be talking about the Canucks making a move on the management front. Fans have every reason to be frustrated in a group that is clearly underperforming and made mistakes over the past two years that led to some key departures. It’s no longer too early in the season to be worried – the clock is ticking.
Sergei Bobrovsky’s struggles continue
The 2019-20 season was a bit of a disaster for one of the highest-paid goaltenders to ever play the game of hockey. After signing a seven-year, $70-million pact last summer, Bobrovsky was one of the worst goaltenders in the NHL last season in Florida – a complete 180 from his time in Columbus.
But the 2021 season was seen as a chance to bounce back and show why he earned that contract in the first place. Bobrovsky has seen a bit of improvement through his first four games, with his .907 5-on-5 save percentage and -0.68 goals-saved above average in four games besting his .872 SP and -4.09 GSAA from the start of last season, but that doesn’t instill much confidence in the fanbase, does it?
On the flip side, Chris Driedger, Mr. Ol’ Reliable as an NHL backup, has actually been one of the league’s best goaltenders this season. Through five games, Driedger holds a .953 SP and 4.89 GSAA, good to be in the top three in both categories. Driedger has a 3-1-1 record and while the quality of starts can definitely be a talking point, but he hasn’t really had many dud performances and is doing exactly what he needs to do.
At this point, you should be worried about Bobrovsky’s play if you’re a Panthers fan. We know he can be a superstar – he has two Vezina Trophies, for goodness sakes. But his tenure in Florida has been anything but sunshine and rainbows and the Panthers will need to consider having a serious talk with Bobrovsky about waiving his no-movement clause to be exposed to Seattle at the expansion draft.
David Pastrnak is back, baby
When the Boston Bruins started without David Pastrnak to kick off 2021, they knew scoring would be a bit of a challenge. Even-strength scoring was a real challenge early on, but Pastrnak came back from off-season right hip arthroscopy to record an assist in his debut against Washington on Jan 30. But since then, PAstrnak has followed it up with another seven points over the past three games, including a three-goal, four-point night on Feb. 3 against Philadelphia.
When he’s healthy, Pastrnak is clearly one of the league’s top forwards offensively. Pastrnak has three 40-plus goal season to his credit in as many years, including a career-high 48-goal, 95-point run in 70 games last year. At his current rate, Pastrnak is on pace for 61 goals and 98 points in 49 games – an unrealistic total, but a clear sign of just how good Pastrnak is.
At points, it still looks like Pastrnak isn’t at full 100 percent, but that makes his play seem even better. Over his past 82 NHL games dating back to the end of the last full season in 2018-19, Pastrnak has 60 goals – the most of any player in that span. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here because Boston’s scoring hopes really rely on Pastrnak to be superhuman – and so far, that’s exactly how he’s performing.
Rapid testing is coming
The NHL has had way too many players miss time and games canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – as long as there’s no bubble format, that’s bound to happen.
And while rapid testing won’t change that fact, it’s nice to see that the league is planning on implementing it to help get quicker answers regarding player health and potentially curb the spread a little bit. The current format sees all players and personnel taking one normal PCR test a day, but the turnaround time isn’t immediate.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the league has been working to secure more rapid testing stations that can be used for testing on game days to indicate health concerns in a much quicker manner. The issue with rapid testing is while the results come quicker, there’s a better chance of a false positive. A deeper PCR test is studied in a lab and presents a much more accurate reading, but if it takes as long as it does, you risk players spreading the virus unknowingly.
There’s no perfect scenario, but we’re dealing with a viral infection right now. Nothing about this is easy.