Habs Entering a Slippery Slope

For a while this season, the Montreal Canadiens looked like they wouldn’t lose two games in a row. Such a record allowed them to stay amongst the top teams in the Atlantic Division, keeping up with the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. While it would have been foolish to think that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, such performances brought some hope into a fan base in dire need of it. But alas, it seems like the pendulum is starting to swing the other way on the Habs.

Last night’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was their second loss in a row and the team has a 3-4-3 record in their last 10 games. We can look at this the positive way, saying that during that stretch, they’re only a game below .500 but where it gets serious is when looking at how the teams ahead of them are doing.

Have you had a look at who’s leading the Eastern Conference this morning? The Buffalo Sabres, who have won their last 10 games, are tops in the East! Yes, that’s 10 consecutive wins for a team which, not so long ago, was well behind the Canadiens. They are followed closely by the Lightning (6-4-0) and the Maple Leafs (7-3), holding the top-3 spots in the Atlantic.

The Boston Bruins (5-3-2) have been without three of their top-6 defensemen and without Patrice Bergeron for a while and they have the first wildcard spot in the East. The Hurricanes, who edged the Canadiens 2-1 last night thanks to a stellar performance by their goaltender Curtis McElhinney who stopped 48 of the 49 shots in his direction, have now leapfrogged the Habs for the last wildcard spot.

Help coming

Shea Weber had a successful return.

Last night was Shea Weber‘s first game in almost a year and the veteran All-Star defenseman didn’t disappoint. Weber logged the most ice time both teams included with 25:13 minutes. So much for easing him in! He finished the night with one assist, a plus -1 rating, three shots on goal, one hit, two blocked shots and one takeaway. Not too shabby ‘Dad’!

Coincidently (or not), with Jeff Petry slotted back behind Weber, the Habs allowed only 22 shots on goal against the Hurricanes last night, a much better prestation from a team which had been allowing goals and scoring chances like Santa distributing gifts at Christmas. The turning point of that game, in my opinion, was in the second period when Hurricanes’ defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk stole a goal from Jonathan Drouin with an active stick. Had that gone in, it could have been a totally different game.

Reports around Montreal say that Paul Byron is edging closer to a return, he who hasn’t played a game in the month of November. Joel Armia is still several weeks away but both those guys are huge parts of the Canadiens’ all-around game as both are quality penalty-killers and key contributors on the forecheck and defensive coverage.

Defense shuffle

The defensive pairing of Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry was good. While he was clearly out of game shape, Weber was better than expected. But his defensive pairing partner, David Schlemko, was not. And young Victor Mete had a rough night, finishing at minus -2. Here’s what I personally would like to see happening:

Reilly – Weber

Kulak – Petry

Schlemko/Mete – Benn/Ouellet

The Canadiens don’t play until Saturday when they will be hosting the New York Rangers, who are in third place in the Metropolitan division. The next day, the San Jose Sharks, fighting for top spot in the Pacific division, come to the Bell Centre for their only time this season. The Canadiens will complete the week with a home and home with the Ottawa Senators. Go Habs Go! 

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NHL Playoffs Format

NHLplayoffs

A few days off NHL hockey for us, fans, as we await the Stanley Cup finals, provides us with plenty of time to think. You see, many NHL fans are very much like team executives and players in the sense that until the final buzzer has sounded and the Commissioner has been booed to death when presenting the Stanley Cup, hockey is on our mind. For some, it’s a 12 months endeavour. With all of that said, what better time to look at what’s wrong with the current playoffs’ format, right?

With the current format, where the first round of the playoffs is played within the division, the NHL is losing teams who have seeded very well during the regular season every year at the expanse of other teams who have not faired quite as well. So really, aside for allowing the team owners to pocket their dollars and perhaps home ice advantage, what is the incentive for ranking higher in the standings? As Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin always says:

“The goal is always to make the playoffs. Once you’re in, anything can happen.” ~ Marc Bergevin

While some pundits don’t like it as it appears to them as aiming too low (which really isn’t the case), history is proving Bergevin right. It’s often not the best team in the NHL who wins the Stanley Cup, but the hottest team going in, with a bit of luck here and there, and being able to stay relatively healthy. Here’s a look at the teams who have qualified for the playoffs this season, and the matchups:

2018 current

Now let’s have a closer look at the number of points gathered in regular season, as well as in brackets, their league-wide rankings:

WESTERN CONFERENCE 2018

Nashville 117 (1) vs Colorado 95 (16)

This one makes sense.

Winnipeg 114 (2) vs Minnesota 101 (15)

This one also makes sense. So far so good, right?

Las Vegas 109 (5) vs Los Angeles 98 (12)

This is where it starts getting messed up, but since we’re staying within Conferences, it’s also right as LA had fewer points than both the Ducks and the Sharks.

Anaheim 101 (9) vs San Jose 100 (11)

See above comment for the Vegas vs LA series. The NHL  will never revert back to league-wide ranking and get rid of Conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE 2018

Tampa Bay 113 (3) vs New Jersey 97 (15)

That’s actually spot on when looking at league rankings.

Boston 112 (4) vs Toronto 105 (7)

That’s the most messed up. Both teams got the short end of the stick here.

Washington 105 (6) vs Columbus 97 (14)

The Caps got a slightly good deal in that one.

Pittsburgh 100 (10) vs Philadelphia 98 (13)

Not only should the Pens have faced the Leafs, but Toronto would have had home ice advantage! Philly got an easier matchup as they should have faced Ovy and the Caps.

But is this just a one-time phenomenon, right? No, it’s not. In the 2017 playoffs, instead of facing off with the 7th seed in the West (Calgary), the 2nd seed Minnesota Wild lost in the first round to the St. Louis Blues, ranked 5th in the Conference. The Montreal Canadiens, who had won their division, had to face the New York Rangers, a team who finished one single point behind them, and lost. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished with 111 points (2nd seed) and had to face Columbus (3rd seed) who finished only 3 points behind them, while 6th seed Boston played 7th seed Ottawa.

In 2016, the Washington Capitals won the East and should have technically played the 8th seed (Detroit). Instead, they played the 7th seed (Philadelphia). Instead, it’s Tampa Bay (6th seed) who played the Red Wings! Meanwhile, the Penguins (2nd) had to play the Rangers (4th) in the first round. In the Western Conference, the NHL was guaranteed to lose their 2nd (St. Louis) or 3rd (Chicago) seed in the first round as those two faced off against each other!¬†How messed up is that?

FIRST ROUND IMPROVEMENT

As mentioned, there is no way that the Board of Governors and the NHLPA would ever vote to revert back to a league-wide standings to determine first round playoffs’ seeding, where the President’s Trophy winners would be facing the team finishing 16th overall regardless of conference. Too much travel, too costly and a definite advantage for teams happening to face a closer geographical rival.

As the very first step to improve the playoffs, considering that the NHL now has 31 (soon to be 32) teams, the league should revert back to the four divisions instead of six. This means that next season, you would have three divisions of 8 teams and one division with seven teams. That seven team division would be formed with keeping in mind the soon to come expansion of Seattle in the North West.

Then for playoffs, if the league went at the very least with Conference standings, keeping with the Wild Cards, three of the four 2018 playoffs’ matchups would have been different this season. The goal would be to avoid top teams being eliminated in the first round, while still giving Division winners an advantage. Here, have a look:

EasternCO

WesternCO

SECOND ROUND IMPROVEMENT

So far so good, right? I’m not quite done yet. In the current format, you could never see a Stanley Cup finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Edmonton Oilers facing their arch rivals Calgary Flames in the finals. Same goes in the states, as how entertaining would it be to see the Chicago Blackhawks fighting their neighbouring state rivals St. Louis Blues in the finals? Or even better, any of you old enough to remember the hype in Major League Baseball for the 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants? Imagine now the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, within a 40 minute commute between them.

What? It wouldn’t draw enough interest nationwide, you say? And having an expansion team facing the Capitals in the finals is drawing interest outside of Las Vegas and Washington, aside for some curiosity for the Golden Knights? Think again.

But how do we achieve this, will you say? By simply adopting a system that already exists at the international level. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here. Just apply the IIHF format, with a crossover between Conferences, where the highest seed coming out of the first round in the East would face the 4th seed in the West, and the 1st seed in the West facing off against the 4th seed in the East. Just like in the IIHF, the 2nd seeds would cross over facing the 3rd seed team in the other Conference as well.

What? The cost of travel? You mean to tell me that sold out building for a guaranteed 4 home games minimum (two rounds), with all the revenue attached and no players’ salary to pay couldn’t more than cover for that travel for the eight remaining teams?!? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Teams would still fill their pockets, you better believe.

Just for the sake of discussions, let’s assume that all top teams win their first round series. I know, I know, there are always upsets but those are pretty hard to predict so bear with me here and play along. The following would have been the 2018 2nd round matchups based on seedings:

Crossover2018

The goal and hopefully results would be to give more meaning to the gruelling 82-games schedule by rewarding teams who finished with more points, while greatly improving the quality of the product on the ice by having the best teams, for the most part, make it further into the playoffs. Oh there will be upset, there has always be and it won’t change, but at the very least, you won’t see the best series at the start at the expenses of the later rounds.

 

In the meantime, have fun watching an expansion team in the finals, playing for what’s supposed to be the toughest trophy in the world to win. As you do that, I will be doing things outdoors, dreaming of a Leafs/Bruins and Canadiens Stanley Cup finals. Go Habs Go!