After two weeks of play to start the 2020-2021 condensed NHL season in Canada, there has been one constant throughout — rivalry-induced hockey.
The Montreal Canadiens are set to play their home opener on Thursday and will do so with the hopes of tying the Toronto Maple Leafs in points. Currently, Montreal sits two points behind Toronto, however, the Claude Julien-led side has two games in hand over their bitter rivals from Ontario.
With a trio of games on Thursday night set to be played, the north of the border rivalries are bound to grow even more.
Calgary Flames vs. Montreal Canadiens (7:00 PM EST.)
After starting the season playing six games on the road, the Montreal Canadiens (4-0-2) are set to play their home opener on Thursday night when they host the Calgary Flames (2-2-1).
Thursday’s showdown in Montreal is the first of two games the teams will play against one another as the North Division moves into its third week of play.
Calgary enters the two-game set with the Canadiens coming off consecutive losses against the Maple Leafs at home, with forward Matthew Tkachuk spending most of the time in the spotlight, primarily for his involvement in Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell’s leg injury.
Despite the early season controversy surrounding him, Tkachuk has enjoyed success on the ice in the team’s first five games. The forward has found the net three times, joining fellow teammates Johnny Gadreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm as the team’s leading scorers.
Montreal’s reliance on a mix of young and veteran forwards at the top of the lineup has paid dividends in the early goings of the condensed season. After enjoying relative success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens have picked up where they left off, winning four of their first six games.
The Carey Price-led Canadiens have yet to lose in regulation.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Edmonton Oilers (10:00 PM EST.)
The Maple Leafs look to make it four straight wins and three in a row on the road as they visit the struggling Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night.
Mitch Marner played hero for the Maple Leafs (6-2-0) in their last outing against the Calgary Flames, scoring the winning goal late in the third period of a 4-3 thriller.
Edmonton (3-5-0) let an early 3-1 lead slip on Tuesday night as the Winnipeg Jets stormed back to steal both points with a 6-4 win.
The issues for the Oilers in the early stages of the season have come in their own end as their 29 goals against is third-worst in the league, with only the Vancouver Canucks (35) and Ottawa Senators (32) conceding more to date.
Despite the struggles, expectations are Mikko Koskinen will start his ninth consecutive game in the Edmonton net with Mike Smith still sidelined due to injury.
Toronto can attribute much of its current hot streak to its power-play conversion rate through the first eight games. The Leafs are clicking at 41.7 per cent on the man advantage so far, a number bested only by the Dallas Stars dazzling 56.3 per cent.
Each side has one win apiece through the first two meetings this year, with the Oilers coming out on top 3-1 on Jan. 20 before the Leafs bounced back by a 4-2 scoreline two nights later.
With one side looking to create separation atop the North Division standings while the other hopes to get back in the hunt for a playoff spot while the year is still young, there should be plenty of fireworks in the rubber match on Thursday.
Ottawa Senators vs. Vancouver Canucks (10:00 PM EST.)
It’s the third and final game of a three-game series between Ottawa (1-5-1) and Vancouver (4-5).
Both teams were in a slump coming in, but the Canucks have found their stride with convincing wins in the first two games.
Monday’s game finished 7-1 behind a Brandon Sutter hat trick for Vancouver. In Wednesday’s game Thatcher Demko turned away 42 shots, J.T. Miller scored twice, and the Canucks cruised to a 5-1 victory.
Ottawa is winless in its last six and can’t find a save.
Matt Murray allowed all seven goals on Monday and is expected to replace Marcus Hogberg between the pipes Thursday. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has a lowly .862 save percentage and a 1-3-1 record to begin his Senators career.
With only two goals in their last seven periods, Ottawa is looking for an offensive spark as well. The young line of Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk, and Josh Norris – who scored Wednesday – is carrying most of the offensive burden.
Typically, Holtby would man the crease for the Canucks in the second half of a back-to-back, but Demko has stopped 77 of 79 shots in the series. Don’t be surprised if he gets the nod.
Elias Pettersson found his groove with two points on Wednesday after producing that many in his previous eight games. If he’s clicking, that’s bad news for the already struggling Senators.
Can the Senators avoid the sweep? Or, do the Canucks get back in playoff contention with another easy victory?