HNIC Coast To Coast: Leafs Ride Robertson Wave Into Winnipeg

Leafs Ride Robertson Wave Into Winnipeg

Jeff Veillette

October 21, 2022

HNIC Coast To Coast: Leafs Ride Robertson Wave Into Winnipeg

Welcome to HNIC Coast To Coast! It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup-type series, but I’m excited to bring this one to the masses. Every week, we’ll take a look at the weekend’s games featuring whichever of the seven Canadian teams are hitting the ice (this week, it’s all of them!), with a particular focus on the Hockey Night In Canada headliners. We’ll also try to touch a bit on some of the storylines surrounding the teams going into said games. Let’s get after it!

7:00 PM HNIC Headliner: Toronto Maple Leafs @ Winnipeg Jets

One of the most surprising benefits that we got from the 2020/21 season, which temporarily re-aligned the NHL’s divisions to mitigate troubles with the COVID-19 pandemic, was the brewing of an infrequent but potent rivalry between the city that calls themselves the True North, and the city that calls themselves the Centre of the Universe. While neither team is overly imposing in most of their games, recent matchups against each other have been physical and fast paced, with some dramatic results. Mark Scheifele perhaps hammered the point home the hardest last December with his “Is there anything better than beating the Leafs?” quip in the Winnipeg dressing room, which went viral and became a point of fame & infamy. Going into Saturday, both teams will enter Bell MTS Centre with early-season results that aren’t quite alarming, but do trail what each team expects for itself.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, hoping to finally break their playoff series victory drought this year and go on the deep run that their lineup projects them to eventually have, have gone 3-2 to start the year, with their losses coming against last year’s last-place Montreal Canadiens, and this year’s expected last-place Arizona Coyotes. This has led to quite a bit of tension in the market, including several days of drama regarding Sheldon Keefe calling out his “elite players” atop the core following the Arizona loss, then doing an unimpressive job of following up the comment within the media, clarifying it in a way that made matters worse. Winning makes issues like this go away, though, especially when they come with feel-good stories, and Nick Robertson came to the rescue on Thursday against the Dallas Stars. Robertson, Toronto’s 2019 second-round pick, started the season in the AHL due to salary cap and roster restraints, but an injury to Matt Murray allowed the Leafs some flexibility and the 21-year-old made the absolute most of it, scoring two goals including the overtime winner to earn the game’s first star. If he keeps playing like this, there is little doubt that Toronto will have to value talent over flexibility in making their next big roster decision.

On the Winnipeg side, the Jets enter this year somewhat unsure of what they are – too good to tank for Connor Bedard, but seemingly too fractured within to make a serious run for the top of the standings. Part of fixing that was supposed to be a new face behind the bench in Rick Bowness, but as fate would have it, Bowness has missed much of the start of the year with a case of COVID-19. To the Jets’ credit, they’ve managed to go 2-2-0 without him, though this includes allowing two more goals than they’ve scored. Nevertheless, he appears all set to return to his team and finally make his regular season Jets debut on Saturday night, which is the kind of storyline that’ll likely be a focus for Ron McLean and the HNIC panel on the broadcast. Looking at the Jets roster, Danish winger Nikolaj Ehlers appears to be a game time decision after missing Winnipeg’s last two games. Ehlers is currently the only Jets player producing at over a point-per-game clip, so while the sample is small, they’ll likely want him back sooner than later.

10:00 PM HNIC Headliner: Buffalo Sabres @ Vancouver Canucks

Heading into Saturday’s late night game, only four teams in the NHL – none of whom are their Canadian peers – have spent more time playing with the lead than the Vancouver Canucks. Through five games, Vancouver has spent 152:15 of the ice time, or about half of all available play, up at least one goal, and for half of that time, up multiple goals. This all sounds great, until I hit you with another crazy fact: the Canucks are the only team left in the league that is yet to win a game.

Yes, the Canucks have held the lead, lost it, and lost the game in all five of their appearances so far, including coughing up a multi-goal lead in four consecutive games, the first time any team in the NHL has ever done that, let alone in the first four games of the season. Now, coughing up leads like this isn’t a complete abnormality, as the average team does it somewhere between 12 and 15 times in a given season. Sometimes, that distribution comes in bunches, as last year’s Toronto Maple Leafs can tell you, having done it just twice in their first 32 games, before doing it four times in their next five. All the same, it certainly doesn’t cool the waters on debate as to whether the Canucks are really ready to start pushing upwards, as opposed to spending a bit more time rebuilding.

As well, it’s getting hard not to be frustrated with JT Miller, who’s eight-year contract extension seemed like a misevaluation of timeline when it was signed, but is already feeling hard to defend before the clock even starts on it. Miller has been on the ice for 13 of Vancouver’s 22 goals against to start the season, and while that in itself can often be luck-driven, he also carries the team’s worst shot-attempt differential at 5-on-5, as well as one of the worst expected goal differentials of any forward in the entire NHL. Simply put, when he’s not generating offence, he’s been a liability, and clips like the above where he seemingly gives up on the defeat-causing play have already been a frequent reoccurrence. He’s going to have to come out with a huge night in a hurry, or he’s in danger of losing any good will he built up with the fanbase leading up to his extension.

The Canucks will be taking on the Buffalo Sabres in this one. The Sabres are obviously not a Canadian team, but they live close enough to us that we tend to respect them, and they respect us back by playing O’ Canada before their home games even when we aren’t visiting them. They’re also playing some really fun hockey right now, having a similar aura of uncertainty of their next steps but taking it in stride. In particular, Rasmus Dahlin has regained some of the poise that he showed coming into the league, becoming the first defenceman to ever start his season with goals in four consecutive games. With that said, they’re still a team with imperfections and limited game-breaking talent, and no matter how frustrating Vancouver’s losses are, positive shot share and having leads to begin with makes you think that they’ll likely snap out of this spell soon enough, so don’t be too shocked if this is the game where they get a W on the board. Either way, it should be one worth staying up for!

Afternoon Matchup: Arizona Coyotes @ Ottawa Senators (4:00 PM)

Ah, the pesky Sens, better known currently as the team that every insider or panelist will claim to be their “dark horse” team, despite the fact that one can’t be a dark horse if everyone says it. How’s it going for them so far? Well, so far, so mid, and that’s probably fine. Ultimately, I still think this is a team that’s made dramatic improvements in recent months but isn’t quite ready to make the great leap forward, so the real victory is in respectability. Bouncing back from losing their first two games to Buffalo and Toronto, to beat Boston and Washington? That’s the good stuff. Doing so with twelve goals in those two games? Exactly what everyone in and out of Ottawa wanted to see from this group.

It seemed very fitting that the first goal of their home opener came from Claude Giroux, the offseason signing who is having a bit of a homecoming with this group. He’s put up four points in his first four games and that’s a very welcome sign. Alex Debrincat, Brady Tkachuk, and team leader Drake Batherson are also flying above the point per game mark, and there’s a lot of excitement around 26-year-old Artem Zub, who has proven to be a second quality member on the Sens blueline where someone beyond Thomas Chabot was desperately needed. I also thought that honouring Eugene Melnyk at the home opener was a nice touch – while his time as owner was far, far from perfect, grudges can be left behind in passing and his intentions mostly felt in the right place over the years. Closing the book this way was a nice gesture and a way for everyone to find peace in a new generation.

Back to Saturday, the Sens will be taking on the Arizona Coyotes, who’s lone win this year comes in the aforementioned shocker against the Maple Leafs. After that, they got two days off in Montreal (aka, Vegas Flu North), and got whooped by the Canadiens on Thursday, so you have to imagine the effort will be somewhere in between. At the end of the day, the Yotes are probably the league’s weakest team on paper, but they’re still an NHL team and the players still want to win, so it’s hard to entirely count them out, especially after a humbling the game before.

Afternoon Matchup: St. Louis Blues @ Edmonton Oilers (4:00 PM)

I’m going to be honest – I’m starting to wonder a little bit about Jack Campbell. The 30-year-old new start of the Oilers has done enough to get wins in two of his first three games, but a save percentage of 0.874, a goals against average of 5.08, and an unceremonious pulling in the Battle of Alberta has you raising your eyebrow a bit.

For most, you can shrug it off as a non-elite goalie going through peaks and valleys, and that’s probably in large part still true here. But given Campbell’s 0.896 save percentage after November last season, it’s getting hard to not feel like the strong start to his Toronto tenure may have been his plateau, and not his normal. That’s especially concerning if you’re in Year 1 of a 5 year agreement with the netminder, which the Oilers are. Campbell is a goalie who seems to rely a lot on personal confidence, and injuries and this extended cold spell have seemingly put a dent in both of those. The good news though, besides it being early in this year, is that the Oilers are still talented enough to score away poor starts, Campbell himself has closed out both games that he finished quite well, and he is playing in a market that subscribes to the Grant Fuhr “money goalie” mantra, so this could be a good spot for him to sort it out.

It’s likely that he’ll have his next chance to do so on Saturday afternoon against St. Louis in what will be a 2PM start back in Edmonton. This will be a bit of a challenge as the Blues, albeit with only two games played, remain the NHL’s last unbeaten team, and are experts at moving the puck around and pulling goalies out of position. Edmonton’s solution will likely still be to send Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl over the bench to see if they can maintain their paces of over two points per game, which, fair enough, I’d so the same.

Evening Matchup: Dallas Stars @ Montreal Canadiens (7:00 PM)

I’m not always a fan of poking fun at players’ names because they aren’t English-sounding, but Arber Xhekaj earning the nickname “WiFi” in the Habs dressing room because his surname resembles a password is instantly one of my favourite monikers ever. Xhekaj made the team as an undrafted free agent invited to training camp, and while I don’t know if he sticks out the full 82 games with the big club, he’s certainly bringing the entertainment, be it with his nickname, his own personality, or feeding Zack Kassian his lunch.

Montreal comes into this game hot off the heels of smacking around the Arizona Coyotes at home, perhaps best encapsulated by the Nick Suzuki penalty shot above that brought back shades of Linus Omark (who did it before Pavel Datsyuk – sorry, most of Twitter). But as mentioned before, that’s the Coyotes, and two days off in Montreal is scary for any road opponent, so we’ll see how they fare against the Dallas Stars who will be coming in with just one gap day, and more hunger after an overtime loss to Toronto on Thursday. The Habs will likely need their top young offensive players (Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach) to keep producing, and they’ll need whichever of Jake Allen or Samuel Montembeault goes in goal to continue channeling their inner Carey Price, as both have had surprisingly good starts to their years.

Late Night Matchup: Carolina Hurricanes @ Calgary Flames (10:00 PM)

Last but not least, we end our Canadian tour on the team that had the biggest roller coaster of an offseason, losing their two star skaters and managing to turn lemons into lemonade. Out went Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, in came Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri, and all three have been productive to kickstart the Flames to a 3-1 start to their season. The underlying numbers back up their record as well, with a 56% share of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 58% share of the shots on goal and expected goals. Impressively, Darryl Sutter’s team appears to have not lost much of a beat, though they’ll face a strong test on Saturday night in the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Canes were First Overall threats for much of the 2021/22 season and hope to repeat that success this year, matching Calgary’s 3-1 record with an even better goal differential going into the game. An unfortunate name to see on the Injured Reserve for them is Ondrej Kase, who has proven to be a valuable middle six piece to just about every team he’s played for when healthy, but repeatedly seems to suffer with head-related injuries. Another collision early in the week has him listed as day-to-day for now, but you have to start wondering about the 26-year-old’s future, and hopefully he’s got people around him looking out for his best interests.

Back to the Flames, a surprising issue for them so far has been between the pipes, with usually-excellent Jacob Markstrom starting the year at just an 0.862 save percentage through two games. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Flames look to Dan Vladar for this one, as his season has been better thus far and he just signed a two-year contract extension this week worth $2.2 million per season.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday

Throughout this series, we’ll also be looking at Sunday matchups involving Canadian teams. This weekend, we’re just letting you know, as they all crammed themselves into Saturday! Maybe take Sunday to focus on some NFL betting action.

Where To Watch HNIC Games

Want to tune into these games? Of course you do that’s why you’re here. Worry not, we’re here to help you with that!

The headliner games – Toronto and Winnipeg, Vancouver and Buffalo, in case you forgot – will be on CBC on your television screen, and if you’re in Canada, you’ll also be able to stream them for free straight off of the CBC website. Score! Senators/Coyotes will be on TSN in the Ottawa region along with TVA in French, Canadiens/Stars will be on Sportsnet East, TVA, and CITYTV, Oilers/Blues will be on regular Sportsnet, and Flames/Hurricanes will be on Sportsnet East, West, and CityTV. For streaming, the official route for these games will be to use the Sportsnet Now app, as they’ve taken over league streaming for this year (a subject for another day).

Saturday Night NHL Lines

As always, there is plenty of action to be had on these games. We’ve checked in with our friends at NorthStar Bets to see what the current lines are, and you can find them below:

If you’re looking for another book to bet at, we’ve also got you covered – check out or Best NHL Betting Sites guide for more info!

Author: Adam Rodriguez