Monday, November 11, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Early-season surprises slow down, Caps and Blues stay hot and Don Cherry thoughts

If there was a theme to the first months of the season, it was “Wow, the top of the standings are crazy.” We always expect to see a few surprises over the first few weeks, but this year seemed extreme. The Hurricanes were in first place through two weeks, which made some sort of sense because we all figured they’d be decent. But right behind them, we had teams like the Sabres, Oilers and Ducks. Soon enough, the Canucks joined the party too.

Those four teams had missed the postseason by a combined 52 points in 2018-19. And yet here they were, all sporting the kind of records that said they weren’t just playoff teams, but actual contenders. The question was, could it last? Or maybe more accurately, who could it last for?

Well, not the Sabres. They’ve lost five straight (with the last four coming in regulation), including both games in Sweden against the Lightning. Since only the loss against the Caps was a blowout, we’ll hold off on any cliched “same old Sabres” storylines. But after an 8-1-1 start gave them a nice cushion, Buffalo has already dropped all the way out of a playoff spot.

Things aren’t much better for the Sabres’ expansion cousins in Vancouver, where four straight losses have derailed an impressive start. This week should have been an opportunity to bank points against opponents like the Hawks and Devils, but a dynamic offense has suddenly gone cold and left the Canucks teetering on the edge of the wildcard race. That’s not a terrible place for a young team to be; it’s just not where things seemed headed even a week ago.

Then there are the Oilers and Duck, who hooked up last night. Anaheim headed into that one having lost five of eight after a 6-2-0 start, while the Oilers came in having lost six of ten after coming out of the gate 7-1-0. The Oilers rolled in that one, earning a 6-2 win powered by a Connor McDavid hat trick. It was their second straight impressive win, while the Ducks have now lost three straight, and scored two or less in eight of ten.

The Oilers are still in first place in the Pacific, and the other teams mentioned are all still in the thick of the playoff race. You’d have to think that if you asked fans of all four teams before the season if they’d be happy with a first quarter that played out like this, they’d all take it. But it’s a reminder that this is a long season, and sometimes a hot streak to start the year is still just a hot streak. All four of these teams may be better than we thought, but it will take a while to figure it out for sure.

As for the Hurricanes, well, we’ll get to them down below. Let’s move on to this week’s rankings …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Fair warning: This week’s top five is getting a little East-heavy. That’s not the end of the world and will sort itself out over the course of the season, but it’s going to look a little weird. I’m sorry, but after two weeks the Predators are getting put into timeout because I can’t have anyone on the list in a week where this happens.

Should that mean the Avalanche take their place? Maybe, but after a five-game losing streak, we’ll want to see a bit more before they’re back in the circle of trust. Instead, we’ll welcome a new team to the top five.

5. New York Islanders (12-3-1, +13 true goals differential*) – We said they were close to the top five last week. Since then, the win streak came to an end, thanks to a third-period collapse against the Penguins. But they still got a point in that one and then rebounded nicely on Saturday against the Panthers, and with the Predators surrendering their spot that leaves the Islanders with a solid case to slip in. Now the question is whether they can get any higher, or whether they’ll top out right here just like they did last season.

Time will tell. Next up: John Tavares and the Maple Leafs are in town on Wednesday, which is always fun.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (8-5-2, -1) – Two wins in Sweden means that for once, the Lightning are making it easier instead of harder for me to keep them in the top five. They get a bit of a break and then close out the week with the Rangers and Jets, so there’s some potential for a winning streak heading into a showdown with the Blues in a week. Hey, speaking of whom …

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