This past weekend was a great time to be a hockey fan.
A pair of outdoor games in a beautiful, unique setting (but direct sunlight is a detriment to holding an outdoor game – who knew?). A couple of stars making the rest of the North Division look bad. Some great inter-division games between big-time rivals. If there are any positives to take out of a global pandemic, it’s having more time to watch hockey to distract us from the world at large.
Let’s recap the latest happenings from the NHL:
Matthews continues to give McDavid a run for his money
Auston Matthews is incredible at hockey – who knew?
Matthews was the obvious choice for the NHL’s first star of the week after recording seven goals and 12 points in four games. That includes consecutive four-point games, only to be outdone by a five-point night by Connor McDavid on Saturday evening.
McDavid is still the MVP favorite with 37 points in just 20 games – good enough for a 104-on-pace season. But Matthews leads the way with 18 goals in 18 games, including goals in 12 of his past 14 contests. It’s simply crazy to see the rate at which Toronto’s top player is performing at, marking the best run of his NHL career.
If the Leafs continue to be the top of the standings, Matthews’ fight to win the Hart Trophy will be more apparent. McDavid has still proven to be the best player in the league, but Matthews’ goal-scoring exploits have been huge for Toronto’s success and why they sit atop of the division at this stage in the game.
The Habs are back on Earth
A month into the NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens were starting to look like the real deal. The team was near the top of the league standings, scoring wasn’t an issue and the goaltending was good enough to get the job done. But even with a rest, the Canadiens looked slow against Toronto and Ottawa over the weekend, dropping both games and falling to 2-4-1 since Feb. 4, scoring more than two goals in just one outing – a 5-3 loss to Toronto on Saturday.
What happened? The easy answer: the team simply outperformed what was expected of them and took advantage of slow starts to Edmonton and Vancouver. The Canadiens made some good moves to bring in the likes of Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, but that’s not enough to take a team that finished 12th in the Eastern Conference a year ago and make them a contender.
One thing to note is that while Carey Price hasn’t been terrible this year, he hasn’t been saving games for the Canadiens, either. Jake Allen, on the other hand, has some of the best stats in the entire league while Price finds himself in the mid-pack among goalies with at least five games played. Price has been getting the better starts, but the man that is usually tasked with being a workhorse for the Canadiens simply hasn’t been good enough in tight games.
The Habs currently sit fourth in the North Division and haven’t looked great in recent weeks. This is more on par with what was predicted of them, but they may just need a bit of a jolt to get back into the fray.
Lake Tahoe was fun, but…
When the NHL announced that a pair of games would take place with the beautiful Lake Tahoe as a backdrop, many people were ready for what was going to be a memorable outdoor game. Instead of the standard, bland format of playing at a football or baseball stadium, we got to see what hockey in front of a lake and mountains looked like – and it was stunning, as expected.
But the games themselves were… not totally ideal. The opening game between Colorado and Vegas needed multiple breaks to fix the ice before the sun’s rays eventually forced a seven-hour delay before the second period. Putting the game at midnight eastern didn’t help television numbers on the east coast (although the game, played in the west coast, featured two west-based clubs) and the beautiful scenery was a bit muted with the darker conditions. The second game between Boston and Philadelphia went off with fewer issues, but like all outdoor games, the ice conditions were far from ideal.
Seriously. An NHL game getting delayed because the sun came out. Did the NHL not have a way of preventing a stoppage due to the sun, of all things?
It was nice to see an outdoor game with a beautiful, natural setting, but it’s not a good sign when the weather is warm enough to start melting portions of the ice surface. The reason why a game in such a different setting worked so well is because fans aren’t allowed in a majority of NHL venues – the league makes a bucket load of money out of Winter Classic events featuring anywhere from 35,000-100,000 spectators in attendance. But is this something we could see again somewhere else? Say, Banff or Jasper in Alberta where the sun’s heat won’t be an issue in a much colder climate?
I hope the NHL explores more opportunities for outdoor games outside of typical NHL markets and in more unique settings. A regular Winter Classic game has little appeal for fans outside of the respective markets but that didn’t seem to be the case in Lake Tahoe where the backdrop was half the reason anyone cared to tune in.
Jack Eichel’s situation in Buffalo is worth keeping an eye on
Unless the Sabres can somehow get the French Connection back together, the team is set to miss the playoffs for a 10th-straight season.
How in the world can a team bearing an elite-level talent in Jack Eichel not figure out how to make this team better? Buffalo is a proud hockey city that is passionate about the franchise and they deserve so much better. And Eichel does, too. A year after recording a career-high 36 goals and putting himself into the NHL MVP conversation, Eichel has found the net just twice in 14 games and while he has 13 points in that span, he’s been inconsistent at points.
Now, rumors have suggested that Eichel could be trade fodder for a team that’s been in a rebuild for his entire career. Eichel’s $10 million AAV is a challenging one to move, but he’s one of the best players in the league – the suitor’s list won’t be short. My guess before the season was that if the Sabres couldn’t make the post-season, they’d move on from their star center and put the focus on building around defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
Instead, that process may start earlier. If a team like Los Angeles, with an incredible prospect base that can be used as trade bait, comes calling, would the Sabres make the move right now? That’s a big question right now, because, in an ideal world, they don’t. But if Eichel is frustrated about the team’s inability to ice a competitive roster, do they do it to just move on?
Keep an eye on this evolving situation. It’s rare to see a player of Eichel’s caliber available and if he’s moved, it could change the landscape of the receiving team’s fortunes for a long time.