As the condensed NHL season approaches its halfway point, who the contenders and pretenders are has become more clear.
In Canada, one team in particular has emerged as a true contender with its play over the last two weeks — and that’s the Edmonton Oilers.
But is it sustainable? And do the Oilers pose a real threat to the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs?
The Leafs vs. non-Canadian Divisions
Toronto remains atop the North Division, but questions regarding how the team would stack up against the rest of the NHL have become prominent.
There is no denying the Leafs possess one of the best scoring duos in the sport — Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Through the first 21 games of the condensed campaign, Toronto has relied on the former first-round picks from 2015 and 2016, respectively, to provide the majority of the offensive production.
But as the halfway mark of the schedule approaches, the first-place Maple Leafs have the luxury of comparing their team-productivity to other top teams in the NHL. Case in point — the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bruins and Lightning are both teams that Toronto is familiar with from the Atlantic Division. Particularly with Boston, the Leafs’ recent playoffs matchup’s with Massachusetts’ team only bring back bad memories — but maybe that page has been turned, and Toronto should feel confident if the familiar matchup comes to fruition in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoff.
Boston has outscored its opponents 51-43 through its first 17 games. On the contrary, the Maple Leafs have scored a whopping 74 goals combined against their North Division foes.
If a matchup between the Bruins and Maple Leafs became a reality in 2021, then the key matchup would be special teams — specifically, Toronto’s elite power play versus Boston’s top-end penalty kill.
A first-line battle between the aforementioned Toronto duo against the outstanding Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrknak and Brad Marchand would surely be the main selling point to the series.
But whether or not the Maple Leafs can stay disciplined will be the first step in ensuring it truly is a new era in the Toronto-Boston rivalry.
For now, it’s all hypothetical. The Maple Leafs may never face off against a team not located in Canada for the entire season — but when a team looks like the best compared to its limited competition, it’s only natural to think about how they would stack up in a normal year.
However, unfortunately for the hockey world, it simply isn’t a normal year.
Habs fire Claude Julien, what’s next?
Since starting the season with a 7-1-2 record and being proclaimed as legitimate contenders to win the Canadian division, the Montreal Canadiens have two wins in their last nine games.
It began with a 3-2 loss to the lowly (maybe not so lowly anymore) Ottawa Senators and reached a pinnacle with the firing of head coach Claude Julien and long-time assistant Kirk Muller this Wednesday.
How did the Habs get here?
Offseason additions Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, and Jake Allen have excelled to start their Canadiens’ career. It’s actually goaltender Carey Price, the longest-tenured player on the roster, who’s been the focus of Montreal’s fall from grace.
Price has a 5-4-3 record, with a .888 save percentage and a 3.13 goals-against-average – numbers that pale compared to his .917, 2.50 career averages.
“I just gotta be better,” said Price after a 6-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. “I just think maybe I’m overthinking things.”
With Price questioning himself amid his poor performances, perhaps new Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme should lean on Allen, who has four wins and a .932 save percentage in seven starts this season.
Outside of the crease, scoring has slowed down, and a lack of comparable star-talent to top teams in the division (Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg) might be the difference. Still, the club is filled with depth and has the capability to turn things around.
The Canadiens high expectations came from a strong start to the season where they overachieved, and they’ve since underachieved. Going forward, expect something in between – a team that competes hard with the best in the division, but without the ability to challenge for the top spot.
Mike Smith the saving grace in Oil Country?
Winners of eight of their last nine games, the Edmonton Oilers are the hottest team in the NHL’s North Division at the moment.
The emergence of some secondary scoring —namely Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi— has helped lighten the load placed on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the early stages of the season.
Power-play efficiency is also trending in the right direction for Edmonton, scoring six times on the man advantage in its last three contests, bringing its conversion rate up to an impressive 27.2 per cent on the year.
While the reinforcements on offence have certainly helped the Oilers find their feet of late, it has been goaltender Mike Smith who’s been the real difference-maker during their jump up to second place in the divisional standings.
The 38-year-old netminder began the year on injured reserve but has since emerged as a genuine starting option for head coach Dave Tippett. Smith is 6-0-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage and a rock-solid 1.73 goals-against average through seven appearances.
Although the numbers might be tough to sustain for an extended period of time, Edmonton doesn’t need their goaltender to steal games on a night to night basis, as their 79 goals-for leads the league in that department.
If Smith can continue to provide stability between the pipes down the stretch, the Oilers should see no reason why they can’t push Toronto for first place in the North Division.