Weekend Takeaways: Hart Trophy finalists could all be Canadian-based players

One glance at the scoring race could very easily prompt a person to ask the following question: Are we living in a golden age of NHL hockey in Canada?

With fewer than two weeks to go in the regular season, six of the top seven point-getters in the league ply their trade north of the border. Even with both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl being held pointless in the Edmonton Oilers‘ Saturday night victory over the Vegas Golden Knights and Auston Matthews being held out of Toronto’s Sunday night win against the New York Islanders with what the Maple Leafs are dubbing a minor injury, it was a big weekend for scoring whizzes in this country.

Johnny Gaudreau and linemate Matthew Tkachuk both went 2-2-4 in Calgary’s 9-1 blasting of the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night. Gaudreau now ranks fourth in league scoring, with Tkachuk just behind in sixth. Throw seventh-place Mitch Marner in the mix and you have three deadly duos playing at a level that’s matched in precious few places around the league.

At this point, we can probably throw caution to the cold wind and ask, is it possible we see three guys from Canadian teams get nominated for MVP? There are certainly fantastic contenders from the Lower 48. Florida Panther Jonathan Huberdeau could well win the Art Ross;

Nashville’s Roman Josi is pushing to become the first 100-point defenceman since Brian Leetch 30 years ago; Igor Shesterkin is the leading reason some people think the Rangers can win the Cup.

Still, would you be shocked if Matthews (on the verge of our first 60-goal season in a decade), Gaudreau (the NHL’s even-strength points leader by nine) and McDavid (do you really need an explanation?) all wound up as Hart finalists?

Before you ask, I spent a portion of Sunday afternoon combing through Hockey Reference and learned there has been a Canadian sweep before, a mere 67 years ago in 1955. That was when Ted Kennedy beat out Leafs teammate Harry Lumley for the Hart. In third place that season was Montreal’s Maurice Richard. In fact, only five players in 1954-55 received MVP votes and they all played in Montreal or Toronto. (True story: 1955 was the one year from 1951 to 1970 that Gordie Howe did not appear on a single Hart ballot.)

Given that was just before the era when the Leafs and Habs combined to win 13 of the 14 Cups handed out from the mid-50s to the 1970s, I understand how someone could push back on the idea this is the best things have been for hockey in this country. That said, I think we can all acknowledge the 32-team league we watch today is a completely different beast from the Original Six days, or even the wild and crazy stuff that went on in the 21-team circuit we had in the ’80s when Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal claimed six of the decade’s 10 titles.

Regardless of who hung banners years and decades before these current killers were born, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how unique it is to see young stars — I know Gaudreau is 28, but he looks younger than all of them so just go with it — tearing it up like this. And, to be sure, we need to see some playoff results from these teams to truly call this a special time for hockey in Canada. No disrespect to Montreal’s miracle run last year, but it’s been 10 years since the Sedin-era Vancouver Canucks gave this country a real threat to win a Cup.

Three Canada-based players getting MVP nods would be something; two Canadian squads among the post-season’s final four would be something even more in terms of excitement (and, of course, seething anger from fans of those squads’ rival Canadian fanbases) around hockey in this country. Either way, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what we’ve got.

Other Takeaways

• Ho-hum, just another pair of six-goal games for the have-you-no-humanity offensive monsters known as the Florida Panthers. The Cats hung a half-dozen on the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, then put six more past the Red Wings 48 hours later. Florida is now averaging 4.19 goals-per-game, meaning — with eight games left on the sked — the Panthers stand a fantastic chance of becoming the first team to average more than four goals per night since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.

• Speaking of the Pens, Pittsburgh lost a close 2-1 battle to the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday and now have just one regulation-time victory in their past 10 games. I don’t think anybody views this as a panic situation, but it’s hard to call it ideal, either. Tristan Jarry’s save percentage since late March is sub-.900.

• If Vegas does, in fact, miss the playoffs, the Golden Knights are runaway winners for most dissapotning team this year. Quick follow-up: Are the dead-and-buried Jets the clear runner up?

• The early-80s Islanders are my favourite team I never really saw play. Rest in peace, Mike Bossy; you were the finishing touch on one of the best squads ever.

Weekend Warrior

For a variety of reasons, it feels like Nikita Kucherov has kind of flown under the radar since returning to the Tampa Bay lineup early in 2022. “Mr. IR”, as he’s known in anti-Tampa places, had himself a 2-2-4 night against Winnipeg on Saturday, though, and is starting to heat up. Since March 27, only seven players have more than the 17 points put up by Kucherov.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (50-20-6): Two more weekend wins for the Leafs means the Buds now have just one regulation-time setback in their past dozen games.

2. Calgary Flames (46-20-9): Andrew Mangiapane scored on Saturday — I mean, which Flames didn’t in the blowout win over Arizona? — for the second time in three games. Can he keep things rolling even a bit again? The goal Saturday was just his third tally in 22 games after scoring at a 45-goal pace for well over half the season.

3. Edmonton Oilers (44-26-6): A 39-save shutout of the Golden Knights on Saturday was just the latest strong showing for 40-year-old Mike Smith. Ever the battler, Smith has a .976 (!) save percentage in his past five outings, all Oilers wins.

4. Vancouver Canucks (37-28-10): The red-hot Canucks had the first three days of Easter Weekend off, but did get bad news on Good Friday when it was revealed Bo Horvat will be sidelined with an injury after absorbing an Anton Stralman shot just above his right ankle on Thursday. If there’s a miracle playoff push coming out west, it will have to happen without the services of the captain.

5. Winnipeg Jets (35-30-11): The trip through Florida is brutal these days, but giving up six to the Panthers on Friday and seven more to Tampa the next night was not what the desperate Jets had in mind.

6. Ottawa Senators (28-40-7): Tim Stützle had two more goals during the OT loss to Toronto on Saturday, giving the sophomore 20 on the year. More than a quarter of the German’s goals have come in the past five games, as he hit paydirt six times in that stretch.

7. Montreal Canadiens (20-45-11): Carey Price’s return on Friday was a bright spot for this team which — after two more losses on the weekend — is getting pretty close to locking down a bottom-two position in the league standings. After an initial surge under new coach Martin St. Louis, Montreal has but two regulation-time wins in its past 14 outings.

The Week Ahead

• As we mourn the passing of Bossy, another all-time great could join an exclusive club in coming days. Alex Ovechkin scored his 47th goal of the season on Saturday and could register No. 50 as soon as Monday night in Colorado. Whenever he does, he’ll join Bossy and Wayne Gretzky as the only guys to hit the half-century mark in a year on nine occasions.

• It will be nice to see Andrew Ladd — who got a chance to play again in Arizona this year and just returned from a lower-body ailment — suit up for his 1,000th NHL game on Wednesday night. The former Jets captain had a rough go in recent years, playing just 30 NHL contests — to go along with 37 in the AHL — from 2018-19 through 2020-21.

• The Maple Leafs visit Kucherov and Tampa Bay on Thursday night in what is, more and more, looking like a first-round playoff preview.

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