A quick scan of the NHL’s overall standings following game played through Oct. 20 revealed something rather startling.
Tied atop the standings were none other than the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers. And if that isn’t shocking enough, tucked in right behind the Canucks and Oilers in third place was none other than the Montreal Canadiens.
That’s right, one season after none of the seven Canadian-based teams made it to the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is good reason for hope in the land of snow and cold.
The surprising Canucks shot out of the gate with victories in their first four games, with just four goals against, while the Oilers, led by their 19-year-old captain Connor McDavid along with newcomer Milan Lucic, appear to be legitimate playoff contenders.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, were riding a two-game winning streak having welcomed superstar goaltender Carey Price back after a bout with influenza and had yet to suffer a regulation time defeat.
And that’s not all. The Ottawa Senators were off to a good start with three wins in four games; the Winnipeg Jets were 2-2-0 and the Toronto Maple Leafs were 1-1-2 in four games and had points in each of their first three starts.
Only the Calgary Flames were stumbling in the early going. After losing their first three games, including a 2-1 shootout defeat to the Canucks, the Flames beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 in overtime Oct. 18 before losing 4-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes two nights later.
Now we all know it is early in the season and there is plenty of time for any or all of the Canadian-based teams to slip. However, with parity ruling the day in the NHL these days, it is at least encouraging that Canada’s teams are off to great-to-decent starts, the Flames notwithstanding.
It is important for the NHL to have its Canadian teams doing well, if only from the perspective that when there are none in the playoffs, interest in watching the games on television takes a monster hit. That was evident last season when announcers at Rogers Sportsnet, who own the rights to Hockey Night in Canada, could have dropped curse words during games and hardly anybody would have noticed.
There is plenty of excitement in Canada this season. With the arrival of Loui Eriksson in Vancouver, the Sedin twins have a running mate who can keep up with them and match their creativity. The Canucks were picked by The Hockey News to finish seventh (last) in the Pacific Division, but have been a pleasant early season surprise.
McDavid, who was third in scoring with four goals and eight points in five games, gives the Oilers legitimacy. After years of spinning their wheels despite having so many high draft picks (including three first overall picks from 2010 through 2012), Edmonton has turned a corner. The welcoming back of Wayne Gretzky into the organization is the icing on the cake.
The return of Price is huge for the Candiens who did a belly flop off the high diving board last season when he went down with a groin injury. The 29-year-old stopper just may be the single most important player to his team in the NHL.
The Senators may not be the NHL’s sexiest team, but they are quietly efficient and if Craig Anderson has a good year, they will be that much better. Defenseman Erik Karlsson may be high-risk, high-reward, but he is also one of the game’s most entertaining individuals.
The Jets showed a lot of moxy by bouncing back from a 4-0 deficit to defeat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime on the strength of three goals (including the OT winner) by rookie Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft behind Auston Matthews who was chosen by Toronto. Laine has superstar written all over him which should help Winnipeg continue in its ascent toward credibility.
The Maple Leafs remain a work in progress despite having the best coach in the game in Mike Babcock. Toronto has elected to go with six rookies to start the season, including Matthews who remarkably scored four goals in his NHL debut so there will be growing pains.
It was a painful start to the season for the Flames who lost 7-4 and 5-3 to the Oilers, their provincial rivals, in their first two games to kick off the season. That said, the Flames are better than their start is indicating and have two of the game’s brightest young scoring stars in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
All in all, fans of Canadian-based teams have reason to smile for now.