Fittingly, the Canucks and Canadiens are Canada’s flagship franchises in the NHL this season.
The brunt of the load has fallen on the Canucks as Montreal has stumbled in recent weeks, and Vancouver has responded to the challenge of carrying a country’s Stanley Cup hopes.
Here’s a look back at how the NHL’s six Canadian teams have been faring – and a look ahead to what’s coming up.
Looking back: The Canucks are Canada’s lone feel-good NHL story at the moment, riding a seven-game winning streak and boasting an 11-0-1 mark in their past dozen contests. Vancouver is the only Canadian club securely holding down a playoff spot; for good measure, the Canucks are fighting it out with Detroit for first place in the Western Conference. In fact, Vancouver’s only loss in nearly a month was a 5-4 overtime defeat against the Wings on Dec. 22. What are the Canucks doing that’s working so well? Name an area of the game, and chances are Vancouver is excelling: goaltending, scoring, team defense, special teams, depth support… It’s all coming together on the West Coast.
Looking ahead: The Canucks host the lowly Oilers on Friday and the mighty Wings on Saturday.
Looking back: The Canadiens spent most of the first half of the season building on their breakout playoff run last spring. Montreal sat atop the Northeast Division for much of October and November, and were one of the top seeds in the East. All looked well in la belle province. Then, holy Christmas, the Habs went sideways. Montreal has won just two of its past eight games, and three of its past 12. Instead of locking down a postseason berth, the Canadiens have fallen down the standings, clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. After a brilliant two months, Carey Price(notes) has struggled in net, but he’s far from alone. The scoring has dried up and the defense corps has been exposed. Management even made some moves in the hopes it would wake up the team, sending agitator Maxim Lapierre(notes) to Anaheim and obtaining two-way defenseman James Wisniewski(notes) from the Islanders.
Looking ahead: The Canadiens host the rival Bruins, who have taken over first place in the Northeast.
Looking back: How’s this for a sad state of affairs in the Great White North: the Flames are languishing in 14th place in the 15-team Western Conference – but they still rank as the third-best Canadian NHL team. Has the whole hockey world gone topsy-turvy? In a nutshell, here’s how the Flames have been playing recently: three straight losses, four straight wins, two straight losses. The desperately needed winning streak came too late for Darryl Sutter, who was replaced by Jay Feaster as the team’s GM on Dec. 28. Sutter officially resigned, although team president Ken King said he asked Sutter to step down. Apart from Feaster and a couple of Flames players, including Jarome Iginla(notes), no one in the organization has apparently heard from Sutter since – including his brother, Brent, whom Darryl reportedly wanted to fire but was overruled. It’s a tough time for the Sutters, Alberta’s First Family Of Hockey.
Looking ahead: Calgary hosts the Red Wings on Friday.
Looking back: Jason Spezza(notes) is likely out for another month after sustaining a shoulder injury against Pittsburgh on Dec. 28. Goalie Pascal Leclaire(notes) hop-scotches from groin injury to groin injury. GM Bryan Murray wouldn’t give coach Cory Clouston a public vote of confidence in a press conference earlier this week. Alexei Kovalev has played a good chunk of the season down on a depth line due to his offensive ineffectiveness. Heck, even consummate pro and captain Daniel Alfredsson(notes) has struggled. The good news? They’re better than the Leafs – oh, except for being trounced 5-1 by Toronto last Saturday.
Looking ahead: The Sens visit Chicago on Friday and host Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Looking back: Toronto dropped six of eight contests over the holidays, and has lost four straight games at home. The most entertaining aspect of recent home games has been coach Ron Wilson’s fiery press conferences afterwards. (There might not be any quit in Wilson, but there plenty of quips.) Only the New York Islanders and shockingly bad New Jersey Devils trail the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings. Starting goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) is once again on the shelf with a chronic groin injury, with the netminding duties falling to backup Jonas Gustavsson(notes) and minor league call-up James Reimer(notes). GM Brian Burke said he’s looking to make a move to bolster the roster, but it’s not like the Maple Leafs have an abundance to offer contending teams. On paper, the Leafs’ defense corps is one of the best in the league; on the ice, it isn’t. Mikhail Grabovski(notes) continues to be Toronto’s best and most consistent offensive contributor, but he’s really a No. 2 center masquerading as the team’s go-to forward. Phil Kessel(notes), Toronto’s lone gunman, has scored in only three of his past 17 games; even worse, he’s last on the team with a minus-14 rating.
Looking ahead: Toronto skates into Atlanta on Friday night.
Looking back: Last and, well, least, are the Oilers. Edmonton took a seven-game losing streak into Thursday night’s game against the visiting Islanders, and had lost nine of its past 10 games, scoring more than three goals only once in that span. Top defenseman Ryan Whitney(notes) suffered a freakish ankle injury that, knowing the Oilers’ luck, will be long-term. Captain Shawn Horcoff(notes) was already out with an MCL injury in his right knee, while rookie Jordan Eberle(notes) also twisted his knee – and needs an appendectomy as well. At least Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) is healthy and playing well, and rookie Taylor Hall(notes) leads the team with 12 goals. Ales Hemsky(notes) has returned to action, giving Edmonton a much-needed bona fide offensive threat. The Oilers appear to own the keys to the basement in the West, and only New Jersey is below Edmonton overall. It’s going to be a cold winter.
Looking ahead: Edmonton travels to Vancouver to take on the Canucks on Friday.