A season after every Canadian team was shut out of the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1970, two teams north of the border are off to strong starts.
The Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers made major moves in the offseason that have panned out so far, helping them build the largest divisional leads in the league.
Montreal began the season 9-0-1, creating a cushion in the Atlantic and re-establishing itself as a contender in the Eastern Conference. Edmonton won seven of its first eight, shooting to the top of the Pacific and making a rare appearance atop the Western Conference standings.
”It’s great that we’ve created a buzz back in Canada, where hockey is the No. 1 sport,” Oilers winger Milan Lucic told The Associated Press. ”There’s definitely a buzz in Edmonton, where it’s been a long time since fans have been able to root for a team that has won.”
Connor McDavid has made the Oilers relevant again, restoring pride to a five-time Stanley Cup-winning franchise that has endured a 10-season postseason drought. The 19-year-old center was named the NHL’s first star in October after opening the season with three points in each of his first two games, scoring two game-winning goals and having 12 points in nine games.
McDavid played in his 14th game of the season Tuesday night at Pittsburgh, a year after a breaking his left clavicle 13 games into his rookie season. He was out for nearly three months last season but didn’t miss a beat when he returned, finishing with 48 points in 45 games.
He draws attention from opponents like he’s already a superstar and responds like a savvy veteran, giving up the puck to open teammates as he did to set up a winning goal Sunday night in Detroit. McDavid, the No. 1 pick last year, simply shrugs his shoulders and gives aw-shucks answers when asked to explain his knack for knowing when to shoot and when to pass.
”I’ve done it my whole life,” he said.
Even though McDavid hasn’t played an entire season yet, Oilers coach Todd McLellan doesn’t hesitate to say he’s one of the NHL’s top players.
”The way teams are paying attention to him, checking him, and making him a focal point, I think that would indicate that a lot of the league agrees,” McLellan said.
McDavid can’t win alone, though.
Lucic has provided an instant return on the franchise’s $42 million, seven-year investment in him during free agency over the summer, giving the team an established veteran to lean on in his 10th season. Every good team needs at least a solid goaltender and the Oilers have one in Cam Talbot, who is in his second season with the team and fourth in the league.
The Canadiens might have the best goalie in the world, and he’s healthy again and so is the team’s outlook. A blockbuster trade that went their way has helped, too.
Price missed much of last year with a knee injury, tuned up for the season with a World Cup-winning performance for Canada and looks like he did when he won the Vezina Trophy two years ago.
Shea Weber has never won the Norris Trophy, but this might be the year he’s recognized as the league’s top defenseman in his 12th season after being acquired in a jaw-dropping deal with Nashville for P.K. Subban. Weber was named the league’s second star of October after leading all defensemen with 10 points, including a 10-day stretch in which he scored a league-high three game-winning goals last month.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said Weber, ”changes everything,” for the franchise.
”What he brings, you obviously see it on the ice, but off the ice, in the room, everywhere, it’s his attitude, his behavior, the little details that show he’s a real leader,” Bergevin said.
The defending Western Conference-champion San Jose Sharks snapped a three-game losing streak by opening a six-game road trip with a 3-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. It was the kind of game coach Peter DeBoer wants to see from his team.
”Our foundation is being hard to play against and not giving up too much,” DeBoer said. ”We haven’t scored, but we don’t want to play a 6-5 game. I think even on the stretches where we didn’t score last year, you could always rely on that foundation.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
Montreal will get tested perhaps more than it has been this season Sunday night on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won six straight going into Wednesday night’s game at St. Louis.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larrylage