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Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Leafs not yet worthy of favourite status

October 23, 2017 3:04 PM
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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly talks about his teams hot start to the season, their ability to score goals and importance of playing well especially against defensive teams.

Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.

You may have seen the news spread as we headed into the weekend: A gambling site had revised its Stanley Cup odds, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were now the favourites to win it all. They were slight favourites, granted, and still listed at just 8-to-1, but that was enough to put them ahead of the pack.

We all know about the Maple Leafs’ 50 years-and-counting Cup drought. But what’s perhaps even more amazing about the last half-century – and depressing, if you’re a Leafs fan – is how rarely they’ve even been in the serious conversation. The Leafs have had good teams before, in the Sittler ’70s and Gilmour/Clark ’90s and the Sundin ’00s, and they have been to the final four on five occasions since their drought began. But even in those seasons, they were never the favourites. There was always at least one other team with better chances.

Also read: Garret Sparks to start for Maple Leafs against the Kings

In fact, you could make a strong case that there’s only been one time in the last half-century when the Maple Leafs would have actually deserved a spot at the very top of a league-wide power rankings. That would have been at the beginning of the 1993-94 season, when the Leafs roared out of the gates with a 10-0-0 record, setting an NHL record for best start to a season. They were basically a .500 team after that, but for one month at least they really were on top of the NHL.

That’s it. One example out of 50 years. And now, if we’re to believe the oddsmakers, a second. The Leafs are back on top.

But are they? It’s worth pointing out that those odds are influenced by bets coming in, so some of this is a result of all those Leafs fans rushing to get in a wager on their favourite team. And the odds came out on Friday, which was before we watched the Leafs deliver their worst game of the season, getting largely shut down by a far better Senators team.

But one bad game shouldn’t shift our expectations all that much, even this early in the season. So do the Maple Leafs belong on top of a list of Cup favourites? As it happens, our power rankings try to measure exactly that. So let’s head down to the next section and see if our list is on the same page as the oddsmakers.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (6-2-0, +9 true goals differential*): Three impressive wins, then a letdown game. If that’s the pattern for the entire season, Leafs fans will probably take it.

Also read: Eagles find the Giants are the perfect cure for a losing streak

4. Los Angeles Kings (6-0-1, +13): We’ve been slow to climb aboard the bandwagon, and this spot feels like it could be kind of high. But they’re looking good, and just as importantly, the rest of the Pacific is decidedly not.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins (5-3-1, -9): We’re really, really trying to give the two-time defending champs the benefit of the doubt here. But games like this and this aren’t making it easy.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (5-2-2, +10): After starting the season with two weeks in the No. 1 spot, they lose ground after regulation losses to Central rivals St. Louis and Minnesota.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (7-1-1, +13): It’s fair to say there’s an early gap opening between this spot and the rest of the top five.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

It’s generally a bad idea to go against the sharps in Vegas, but we feel reasonably comfortable here. The Maple Leafs are good, and they’re crazy fun to watch. But they’ve still got a ways to go to climb to the top spot, as the Senators helpfully demonstrated on Saturday. Try getting the team save percentage up over .900, then we can talk.

Also read: Canucks score 4 goals in third, beating Lightning

Speaking of Vegas, we’re still playing it conservative with the Golden Knights, even though they’re off to the best start by an expansion team in NHL history. At some point, you have to ignore the pre-season expectations and give credit where it’s due. That point isn’t seven games into the season, though, especially with both goaltenders now hurt. Same goes for the Devils, who’ve already beaten two of our top five teams and are knocking at the door, but will have to show us a little more before we let them in. (If they do, we’ll have to wait for that – they have a full week off, and won’t play again until Friday.)

There are other teams that could make a decent claim on a top five spot, including the Senators, Blues and Flyers. Honestly, you could take about 10 different teams and sprinkle them anywhere from second spot down and the list would probably look OK.

But at least for now, the No. 1 spot isn’t much of a question. The Lightning haven’t had a regulation/overtime loss since the season’s second game, and already own two wins over the Penguins. That includes Saturday’s 7–1 stomping, which sent a pretty clear message as to who’s on top of the East through the season’s first month.

A visit to the league stats page looks a lot like a Lightning media guide. Nikita Kucherov is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the lead in goals. Steven Stamkos leads in points and assists, and is off to one of the best starts in history in the latter category. In his first year as the unquestioned starter, Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the way in wins. Even the Jonathan Drouin trade is working out well, as 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev leads the blue line in scoring.

Also read: Thursday game preview: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs

On top of all that, their next five come against the so-so Hurricanes, surprising Wings, injured Ducks, confusing Panthers and struggling Rangers, so there’s a real chance here to open up a lead over the rest of the Atlantic.

So for now, at least, top spot on our Cup-futures list is all about the Lightning. The way they’re going, it shouldn’t be long before the oddsmakers catch up.

5. Montreal Canadiens (1-6-1, -21): As we’ve said before, we don’t panic when contenders get out to bad starts. But outright terrible starts? Yeah, we can panic just a little bit. More down below.

4. Vancouver Canucks (4-3-1, +1): Beating the Sabres and Red Wings to get to four wins on the year isn’t necessarily impressive. But this team looks better than most of us expected, and it feels like this could be the last time we see them on this list.

3. Colorado Avalanche (4-4-0, +2): After a nice start, they’ve lost three straight and are starting to look a little Avalanche-y again.

2. Buffalo Sabres (2-5-2, -10): Man, they desperately needed Saturday’s big comeback win over the Bruins.

Also read: Nurse scores winner, McDavid has four points as Oilers top Jets in OT

1. Arizona Coyotes (0-7-1, -16): Not a tough pick here. There’s no shame in losing to the Blackhawks, but this start has been an unmitigated disaster.

Welcome to another edition of “supposedly good teams having a terrible start.” Last week, we looked at the Rangers, who were so inspired that they went out and lost two of three. We’ve already penciled the Oilers in for next week. But today: the Montreal Canadiens.

I didn’t stay up for the Habs’ Friday night game in Anaheim. Instead, I went to bed early, then woke up to that uniquely modern-day experience of reliving a game by scrolling through Twitter and reading people’s real-time reactions.

That was… interesting. You had the disastrous first period, in which Montreal gave up two goals in the game’s first four minutes, and finished the frame trailing 3-0. You had a first intermission filled with fans lamenting yet another awful effort and the futility of it all. Then came the frantic second period, in which the Canadiens set a franchise record with a jaw-dropping 30 shots on net while cutting the lead to 3-2. The Habs were back! Claude Julien had obviously peeled the paint in the dressing room with an epic wakeup call, the comeback was inevitable, and the season was saved.

Also read: Kapanen, Sparks help Maple Leafs stretch win streak to five

And then came the third period, and three quick Anaheim goals. One Carey Price tantrum later, the Ducks had taken a 6-2 final. Anguish. Despair. Rending of garments. (And also, it goes without saying, fans of other teams twisting the knife.)

Just how bad is it in Montreal? The loss was Montreal’s seventh straight, and capped off a California road trip in which they were outscored 16–5. They’re dead last in the East, and at -21 they’ve got the worst goals differential in the entire league. They’re also already six points out of a playoff spot, in a league where making up even small gaps often feels impossible.

So is the season already over in Montreal? Is Dave Stubbs right, and the team’s famous torches are about to be supplemented by pitchforks?

Well… maybe. As we wrote last week, hot starts don’t mean all that much in today’s NHL, but cold ones can ruin a season. The Canadiens are treading dangerously close to that territory. The GM was already on the hot seat, the goalie with the new $10-million contract is struggling, and the captain sounds despondent. It’s bad.

Also read: McDavid scores first goal of the season — but Oilers still fall to Bruins

But there are signs that this current stretch can’t last. The team’s even-strength PDO is a laughably low 90.3, last in the league by a mile, which indicates that at least some of this is just plain bad luck. For all the talk about the offence not being good enough, they’re generating lots of shots but shooting under four per cent at even strength, which can’t possibly continue. And we know that Price will be better.

So sure, things are going to turn around in Montreal. The question now is whether it can happen quickly enough to save the season, or whether the hockey gods continue to toy with the Canadiens until they’ve lost too much ground to make up and/or Marc Bergevin is forced into a panic move.

The good news, sort of, is that they’re at home for all three games this week. That includes a Thursday meeting with the surprisingly good Kings, but also matchups against the Panthers (tomorrow) and Rangers (Saturday). That represents a chance to turn things around.

Of course, it’s also a chance to blow a few winnable games and fall even further behind. Get the pitchforks ready, Montreal. Just in case.

• Great news out of New Jersey, where Brian Boyle is reportedly nearing a return after missing the start of the season following a chronic myeloid leukemia diagnosis.

• Alain Vigneault and the Rangers can exhale slightly after earning a crucial win against the Predators on Saturday afternoon. The 4–2 decision snapped a five-game losing streak, and leaves the Rangers with four points in their last three games. That’s not a lot, but it’s four more than they had been getting.

• We got a pair of trades to chew on, thanks to the Red Wings. They sent Riley Sheahan and a fifth to the Penguins for Scott Wilson and a third, and also moved Ryan Sproul to the Rangers for Matt Puempel. They’re not blockbusters, but at the rate modern-day GMs work, we’ll take it.

• Bobby Ryan‘s bad luck with broken fingers continues, as he could miss a month after blocking a shot against the Leafs.

• Calgary’s Jaromir Jagr tied Gordie Howe on the all-time games played list (regular season and playoffs) during Saturday’s loss to the Wild, but left the game with a lower body injury.

• Sidney Crosby was not happy with the officials at the start of Saturday’s game. He was probably not happy with anyone by the end of it.

• The Stars are one of the hottest teams in hockey, shaking off a slow start to win four straight. They’ll head out on a tough five-game road trip.

• Vaguely weird stat of the week: Metro Division forwards Evgeni Kuznetsov and Jakub Voracek have combined for 22 assists and zero goals.

• A minor surprise out of Toronto, where the team has brought back veteran defenceman Roman Polak on a one-year deal. He’d been at camp on a tryout but didn’t initially earn a contract after last year’s broken leg.

• Finally, if you missed it on Saturday, be sure to check out this tribute to a Canadian icon.

Also read: Game Centre: Matthews and the Familiar Four lead Leafs over Wings

Source: sportsnet.ca

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