Opinion

Thirteen games. Twenty-six Zoom media conferences. And countless storylines in a season like no other.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/1/2021 (267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Thirteen games. Twenty-six Zoom media conferences. And countless storylines in a season like no other.

From dramatic first goals and big comebacks to overtime thrillers and COVID-19 concerns, I took a tour of the National Hockey League on Thursday night. The best part? I didn't have to dust off my passport, hit the road and worry about pandemic protocols. All of the "work" — I use that term loosely since watching and covering hockey games is a hell of a lot of fun — was done from the comfort of my home office.

Here in Canada, fans are lapping up the excitement of the North Division, with the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators doing battle a whopping 196 times over a four-month span.

To quote the legendary Bob Cole: "Oh, baby!"

It's enough to make you forget there's a whole other hockey world out there, with the 24 American teams in three other temporarily re-aligned divisions south of the border. No worries. I have you covered, thanks to one of the busiest nights on the 2021 calendar and the ability to check in on every club with the click of a mouse as part of this "new normal."

Join me as we travel to Arizona, Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Minnesota, Montreal, New Jersey, Vancouver and Washington without so much as packing a single bag.

***

The reigning Presidents Trophy winners in Boston have picked up where they left off. Bruce Cassidy's bunch improved to 5-1-1 on the year with a 4-1 home-ice victory over Pittsburgh, now 4-3-1 after playing their first game since general manager Jim Rutherford shocked everyone by stepping down earlier this week.

But as Cassidy stepped to the post-game podium, scribes wanted to talk about the next one, a Saturday date with long-time captain Zdeno Chara and his Washington Capitals.

"He bled black-and gold here for the Bruins for years. I think he's going to want to show his teammates and everyone in the organization that he can still bring it. I would expect nothing less. It's going to be good to see him. It's going to be odd to see him in a different uniform. He's a good person. I've always liked Z. Hopefully we'll have a friendship down the road," said Cassidy.

*click*

Speaking of "Z', the league's oldest player showed there was still some gas in the tank as he helped rally the Capitals to a 6-3 victory over the New York Islanders, who built an early 3-0 lead and then collapsed. Despite missing four key players for a fourth straight game due to violating COVID-19 protocols — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov — Washington improved to 5-0-3.

Zdeno Chara (right) scored his first goal for the Washington Capitals.

Zdeno Chara (right) scored his first goal for the Washington Capitals.

"When we scored the first one you just felt the momentum building up, After that we went on a roll," said Chara, who scored his first goal with his new club. "I think it's all about the team. I'm not here to improve my stats. I just want to help the team."

The mood was bleak in the visitor's room, as Barry Trotz watched his team fall to 3-4-0. The lone highlight was the first NHL goal from rookie Oliver Wahlstrom.

"This is a punch in the mouth and an uppercut to the jaw and you've just got to pick yourself up off the floor," said Trotz.

"Look, it's a tough time to have a bad start. There's no excuse for that. We've got right this ship right away. You hate to lose a game like this. We have no choice but to learn from it and come back stronger," said Islanders captain Anders Lee.

*click*

New York Rangers forward Alexis Lafrenière

New York Rangers forward Alexis Lafrenière

Speaking of first goals, Alexis Lafrenière couldn't have picked a better time to get his. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, who had struggled at times through seven pointless games to start his career, notched the dramatic winner in a 3-2 victory over Buffalo. The Rangers improved to 2-4-1, while the Sabres fell to 3-3-2.

"I'd had a lot of good chances. Just keep going, keep grinding. It's pretty crazy. Overtime, game-winning goal. It was really special. I'll never forget this moment for sure," said the 19-year-old.

His coach, David Quinn, said he wasn't concerned by the rookie's slow start.

New York Rangers coach David Quinn

New York Rangers coach David Quinn

"Think about it. He's been the projected No 1 pick for a long long time. The draft's in Montreal and the whole thing blows up. The pandemic hits and he's not able to experience what most kids dream of experiencing. He shakes it off, he's not bothered by it," said Quinn. "He got better and better as the first few games moved forward. He had chances and he was snakebit, He never let it rattle him. It just speaks to his mental toughness and his perseverance as a human being."

*click*

A COVID outbreak that shelved six players meant a 10-day gap between games. But it was worth the wait for Carolina, which shut down the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 1-0 overtime victory in their delayed home opener.

Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek

Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek

Martin Necas notched the winner while Petr Mrazek had the 32-save shutout as the Hurricanes improved to 3-1-0. Tampa Bay fell to 3-1-1.

"Obviously when you're facing a great team you're going to face some great opportunities, I was lucky on a few of them. To be off for nine days or so, we just had to battle through it. I think we came really hard and showed in the first period we were ready," said Mrazek.

*click*

All eyes were on Columbus Thursday night, as Jack Roslovic made his Blue Jackets debut following last weekend's blockbuster trade with the Jets. While the 24-year-old didn't factor on the scoresheeet — he played centre, with 14:19 of ice time and going 4-for-8 in the faceoff dot — his team came out on the winning end of a 3-2 shootout over Florida.

Alexandre Texier stole the show with a superb one-handed winner against goaltender Chris Driedger, a Winnipeg product. And Max Domi and Mikko Koivu notched their first goals with their new team. Columbus is 3-2-3, while Florida suffered its first loss of the young season, now 3-0-1.

Columbus head coach John Tortorella

Columbus head coach John Tortorella

"(Texier) has been a real good player. Probably our most consistent guy. He turns one over and it costs him a goal, I'm glad he got an opportunity to redeem himself. And it was a great goal," said Columbus coach John Tortorella.

As for his verdict on Roslovic?

"You can see he can skate. I want to look at the tape. You get so involved in the game. I'll give you a better assessment in the next couple games that he plays. You can see that he can skate, that he can make some plays. There's no sense in me going any further than that. I want to watch him play a few games."

*click*

Lindy Ruff's 1,500th career game wasn't a particularly memorable one, as his New Jersey Devils fell 3-1 in their own barn to the surging Philadelphia Flyers.

"The message is just to stick with it," Ruff said of his rebuilding club. "But effort, energy, the way we skated, that's probably the best we can play in the first 40 minutes. There's better things to come."

New Jersey is now 3-3-1, while Philadelphia looks like the real deal at 5-2-1.

*click*

Back to Canada we go, where the Montreal Canadiens look unstoppable. A 4-2 victory over Calgary in their home opener has them on top of the division with a stellar 5-0-2 record. The Flames are scuffling, now just 2-3-1 on the year.

Montreal's Shea Weber

Montreal's Shea Weber

"Guys are excited, guys are playing with passion right now. It's different right now with the all-Canadian division, we haven't had a chance to see a lot of teams. At the same time it's an opportunity for us to keep growing and getting better. It's a short season. It's going to go fast. Just got to keep our foot down and keep going," said defenceman Shea Weber, who scored his second of the year.

Over on the Calgary side, a glum Mark Giordano said his team's "structure and details" aren't where they need to be. Jets fans are no doubt hoping that continues, with four straight games against the Flames starting next week.

*click*

The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings are already getting sick of seeing each other. Playing for the fourth time already this season, Minnesota improved to 3-1-0 (and 5-3-0 overall) with a 5-3 victory. Los Angeles is 3-3-2 after playing for the fifth time in eight days, with plenty of travel mixed in.

Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan

Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan

"You play the hand you're dealt, and we weren't dealt a very good one tonight," said Kings coach Todd McLellan. Expect to hear plenty of that this year from NHL coaches due to the condensed schedule. Winnipeg, for example, just finished a stretch of five in seven, and six in nine.

After losing to the Kings Tuesday night, Minnesota came out swinging — literally — with an early fight, and an early goal, to get the adrenaline pumping.

*click*

Memo to all teams in the NHL's new-look Central division: Stop taking penalties against Dallas.

The Stars are scorching, with a perfect 4-0-0 start that was delayed by the league's biggest COVID outbreak, one that saw 17 players infected. A 7-3 rout over sad-sack Detroit included the club's 10th power-play goal of the season.

Dallas rookie forward Ty Dellandrea

Dallas rookie forward Ty Dellandrea

Forward Ty Dellandrea became the third rookie of the night to notch his first career goal while also adding an assist.

"There was a lot of emotion. When I saw it going in I was pretty pumped. It was a pretty incredible play by Miro (Heiskanen). Emotions just took over," said Dellandrea.

Coach Jeff Blashill sounded like a man who had run out of answers for a Red Wings team now 2-5-1 with a minus-13 goal differential.

"I've said it 100 times, at the end of the day we've talked as a staff, who else can fill those roles. I don't know who else can. Is there somebody else that can do a better job? That's what we have to keep looking at. Ultimately those guys get out there. They're just not getting the job done. Those guys have to picks their games up or somebody else has to do the job," he said.

*click*

The Colorado Avalanche can play run-and-gun with anyone. But they can also grind out a victory if needed, as was the case in a 3-0 win over San Jose. They are 5-3-0, while the Sharks are 3-5-0.

Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer

Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer

Philipp Grubauer stopped 21 shots for the shutout as his high-flying team showed it can play a little defence, too.

"It's always nice to get into those kinds of games because that's what playoffs are going to be like," he said. Now his sights are set on four straight games against Minnesota that begin this weekend.

"It's going to be interesting. Either it's going to calm down or get really physical. We're just trying to focus on our game and try to stay out of the scrums and the crap after the whistle," he said.

The Sharks, meanwhile, are looking forward to going home. They have been forced to play their first 14 games on the road due to COVID-19 restrictions in their home county, but they learned this week they can finally start skating at SAP Center as of Feb. 13.

*click*

There's nothing like a timely goal to grab a valuable two points. And Arizona forward Christian Dvorak did just that, scoring a power-play tally with just under five minutes to play for a 3-2 victory over Anaheim.

The Coyotes improve to 3-4-1, while the Ducks fall to 3-3-2.

"It's just about bearing to the net, getting to the net, getting pucks to the net. Everybody has a little bit more confidence. They tie it up, but we find a way to win," said Dvorak.

*click*

I'm starting to think the Ottawa Senators might not make the playoffs. After fooling us with a season-opening win over Toronto, Ottawa has dropped seven straight games. That includes a three-game swoon in Vancouver this week, getting outscored 16-3 in the process.

The Canucks began the week in panic mode with just two wins in seven games, but are now 5-5-0. The Senators are 1-6-1 after Thursday's 4-1 loss, which follows Wednesday's 5-1 defeat and Monday's 7-1 drubbing.

Ottawa coach D.J. Smith

Ottawa coach D.J. Smith

"We played like a team tonight," said Ottawa coach D.J. Smith, grasping for a silver lining. "I thought we worked hard. We did. We stopped on pucks. We played the right way. I thought we played winning hockey. We didn't win tonight but that's our best effort of the three games for sure. We don't win tonight, but if we play that hard every night, we're going to start to win games."

Good luck with that.

Vancouver's Brock Boeser (left) and Quinn Hughes

Vancouver's Brock Boeser (left) and Quinn Hughes

Over on the Vancouver side, it was all smiles as the Canucks got to pad their personal stats in a big way. Brock Boeser leads the team with six goals, while defenceman Quinn Hughes already has 10 helpers,.

"It was huge. We knew it was an important series, especially before a road trip and after our start. To get back to .500 and play well, I think it's huge and gives our group confidence going on the road," said Boeser, whose team will play the Jets Saturday night at Bell MTS Place

"It's been a good week," added Hughes.

*click*

The final game of the night was a fun back-and-forth affair, with the Toronto Maple Leafs getting a late power-play goal by Auston Matthews to take a 4-3 victory in Edmonton.

Toronto is an impressive 7-2-0, while the Oilers are 3-6-0. The usual culprits, as in defence and goaltending, have reared their ugly heads.

"We have to hang in there. We have to get better and we'll start winning. I'm 100 per cent sure that will happen," said netminder Mikko Koskinen, who gifted the visitors a goal with a major blunder early in the game.

Edmonton's Connor McDavid

Edmonton's Connor McDavid

All this losing is clearly taking a toll on Connor McDavid, whose league-leading 14 points (teammate Leon Draisaitl is second with 13) are going for naught.

"I thought our game wasn't where it needed to be," he said. "It's definitely not easy to chase games. I liked how we were able to find ways to get back to even. But when we get it to even we've got to hold it there, keep building on that. It's tough to play catch-up all the time."

*click*

There was actually supposed to be a 14th game on this night, with Alex Pietrangelo and his new Vegas Golden Knights (5-1-1) teammates hosting his old club, the St. Louis Blues (4-2-1), at T-Mobile Arena.

But another virus outbreak, which began with the Vegas coaching staff and now apparently includes Pietrangelo himself, caused a last-minute postponement. They joined Winnipeg (5-2-0), Chicago (2-3-3) and Nashville (4-3-0), who all had scheduled off-nights Thursday.

For all the fun and games, all the juicy storylines and plot twists, it's yet another reminder that COVID-19 is still calling the shots here.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Mike McIntyre’s email newsletter, On Sports