Monday, January 2, 2017

Weekend wrap: That was fun

It was a big weekend in the NHL. The arrival of the new year meant the official start of the league’s 100th anniversary celebrations, and the weekend was headlined by the Centennial Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.

We’d seen these two teams take it outside once before – this was the first rematch in NHL outdoor game history – and neither is sitting in a playoff spot right now.

And after two periods, it looks like the league might have delivered a dud, as a lackluster 1-0 game dragged into the third without much in the way of highlights.

But that's when things got a little crazy, as the Leafs poured home four straight to build a 4-1 lead, only to watch the Red Wings mount a furious comeback to tie the game with a second left on the clock. That set up a back-and-forth overtime, one that Auston Matthews ended with his first career overtime goal.

It was all a lot of fun, and the weekend in Toronto even included a memorable alumni game—one highlighted by a ridiculous Mike Palmateer save, some good-natured toque-theft by Chris Chelios, and a decidedly not good-natured exchange between Kris Draper and Gary Roberts.

We also had the St. Louis Blues/Chicago Blackhawks alumni game—one featuring Wayne Gretzky's return to the ice, and we'll get the real thing Monday afternoon when the Winter Classic goes in St. Louis.

But despite all the hype that comes with the league's various outdoor events, the highlight of the weekend was probably a game that nobody paid any attention to when the schedule was released. That was Saturday's contest between the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, a meeting of two teams riding double-digit win streaks.

It was a history-making matchup, marking the first-ever game between teams riding win streaks of 12 or more across all of major North American pro sports.

And despite various attempts by both teams to remind us that this was still just a regular season game, it felt like something bigger. Maybe that's because fans are finally giving these two teams some respect. Or maybe it's because we were just waiting to see whether one would be exposed.

Either way, the game managed to live up to expectations, delivering an entertaining game that ended with a 4-2 Blue Jackets win. We got some nice goals, a few big saves, and even a couple of scraps. It all played out in front of a loud Minnesota crowd, giving the whole thing a true big game feel.

So… did we just see a Stanley Cup Final preview?

That still seems like a stretch; June is still a long way away, and you can bet that teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Blackhawks will have a thing or two to say along the way. But at least a few fans may be holding out hope, given how Saturday night's meeting played out.

And if you prefer to keep things a little more realistic, we'll at least get a regular season rematch in early March.

The game snapped the Wild's streak at 12, and gives the Blue Jackets 15 straight. That's tied for the second longest streak in league history, and they'll have a chance to break the record this week with games against the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (23-11-5, plus-13 true goals differential*) – The Wild are getting all the attention right now—and rightly so—but the Blackhawks are technically still the Central's top seed.

4. New York Rangers (26-12-1, plus-37) – They closed out 2016 with a pair of road games against the league's worst teams, putting up a half-dozen goals on both the Coyotes and Avalanche.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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