Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saturday storylines: Last-minute shopping

Tonight brings a packed schedule featuring the maximum 15 games, as the league crams in as much action as possible before shutting down the schedule for three days over the holidays. The Flames are the lucky team that gets the extra night off, while the country’s other six teams are in action, including one all-Canadian matchup. We’ll start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Oilers

When these two teams met in Montreal two weeks ago, we wrote about how their respective struggles had dominated so much of the early season storytelling. That game seemed to represent a chance for one team to earn a big win, maybe even the kind that can launch them down the long road back into playoff contention.

It was the Oilers who got it, thumping the Canadiens by a 6-2 final to earn their fourth win in six games, while sending Montreal to their third straight loss. And while Oilers sputtered to a 1-0 loss in Toronto the next night, they’ve won four of five since and are currently riding their first three-game win streak of the season. Meanwhile, the Canadiens won three of their next four.

Two weeks after the meeting, both teams are largely in the same place they were before, with the Habs chasing the Bruins and the Oilers still looking up at a long list of teams out West. So let’s call this take two. Who needs the win the most? And more importantly, who can’t afford to go into the holidays without a point?

On paper, the Canadiens are still in slightly tougher shape. They’ve lost ground to the Bruins lately, partly due to Boston finally make up some of those games in hand they’ve been holding over the rest of the division. And while Montreal is sitting in fourth place in the Atlantic, they’re now trailing the entire Metro, meaning the wildcard isn’t in the picture for now. They’re also in the midst of a brutal seven-game road trip, and with Shea Weber’s foot injury seeming more and more like it could be a long-term concern, the immediate picture looks cloudy. It wouldn’t take more than a loss or two combined with Bruin wins before that third Atlantic spot started to drift out of reach.

As for the Oilers, they’d need to play at a 106-point pace over the season’s last 47 games to get to the 95-point mark that we typically think of as the playoff finish line. That would be daunting for any team, especially one that’s still plugging along under the .500 mark, but the Oilers have the talent to make it happen. But with six teams to pass, they’re running out of time to flip the switch. Like the Habs, it wouldn’t take much of a short-term slump to torpedo the long-term hopes.

After slow starts, neither team has much of a margin of error to work with here. It’s cliché to talk about games where both teams need a win, as if there are many games where one team would be fine with a loss. But sometimes, both team really need a win, and with a break in the schedule looming, this would seem to be one of those games.

Of course, they’re not the only ones…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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