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The NHL is just two weeks old but already parity prevails, especially in the all-Canadian North Division, and it’s likely to remain that way until the end of the 56-game regular season.
The Montreal Canadiens have been the most impressive team to date and until Wednesday’s 6-5 overtime loss in Vancouver looked like the best of the North Division. Montreal is much improved with the addition of young defenceman Alexander Romanov, and backup goalie Jake Allen provides Carey Price with reliable relief, a trademark of championship hockey clubs.
Newcomer Josh Anderson, acquired in the Columbus trade for Max Domi, can fly and score goals, and he reminds me of a more talented version of rugged Washington forward Tom Wilson.
Montreal also added free agent Tyler Toffoli, a former 30-goal man, who netted a hat trick Wednesday and gives the Habs much more scoring depth. Make no mistake, the Habs should be in the hunt for first place right to the very end of the season.
The Calgary Flames should also be in the championship chase. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom is the best in the division, and defenceman Chris Tanev certainly upgrades the blue-line and more than makes up for the departed T.J. Brodie, who is now with Toronto. Right now, it’s a toss-up between Montreal and Calgary for top spot in the division.
In my column of two weeks ago, I suggested that Toronto Maple Leafs could be first or maybe fourth. The Leafs were outplayed badly in their opener and were fortunate to beat Montreal 5-4 in overtime, but I don’t like their defensive play early in the season.
They’ve showed the same symptoms of the ills that plagued the club last season. Brodie was supposed to be a big improvement over Tyson Barrie, but so far in his own end he’s missing white gloves and a whistle. Some nights the Leafs look completely disinterested, and that’s a bad sign for a team that management thinks can contend. They were sleepwalking in Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Edmonton and need help defensively.
They’ll make the playoffs, but a long playoff run is doubtful.
Edmonton’s goaltending was a question mark at the start and it still is, and their offence, even with Connor McDavid, is very inconsistent. Winnipeg and Vancouver are certainly in the playoff picture and Ottawa, with its abundance of young talent, can beat any of these clubs on any given night. Is Ottawa a playoff club? It’s not out of the question.
The Toronto Blue Jays made a giant step towards 2021 post-season play by signing highly touted free agent George Springer, the 2017 World Series MVP with the Houston Astros. He had 39 home runs and 96 RBI in 2019, the last full season.
The Blue Jays appeared to be set in the outfield with Randy Grichuk in centre flanked by Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. but the Springer signing will result in less playing time for Grichuk or a possible trade. My only concern with the Springer signing is the fact the Jays are predominately a right-handed hitting club and perfect opponent for a crafty right-handed pitcher. Now that the Jays have improved offensively, they should spend spring training working on their atrocious base-running, which plagued the club last summer.
Harness racing continues today at 12:30 p.m. at Red Shores at the Charlottetown Driving Park with a 13-dash card.
The $2,800 open mares goes in Race 9 with Woodmere Skyroller leaving on the outside against a good field that includes Robin Burke’s Roselily, Woodmere Chella, Filly Forty Seven, Sophist and Largon Legacy, a new purchase by Luke Beck, Arnold Weeks and Stu MacLure. MacLure, the ex-Sandys Royals hockey standout from the early 1960s, last raced a horse here in the 1960s with Phil McGee. The winner’s circle location has changed from the old days, so hopefully Stu knows where to go if he wins. Welcome back Stu.
There’s also a competitive $2,850 top class with Bugsy McGuire, Chocolate Swirl, Winter Blast, Hunger Pangs and Rockin Indy.
At the recent Meadowlands Mixed Sale, prominent Maritime owner Arnold Hagen shelled out $67,000 for Wayside, a four-year-old daughter of Somebeachsomewhere, a full sister to millionaire Sandbetweenurtoes, p,3, 149.1, aged pacer of the year in 2017. The purchase also includes a breeding to Sweet Lou. At the same sale, Jeff Lilley’s Bettim On The River changed hands for $6,000.
At Yonkers Raceway, Lisburn was eighth earlier this week in 1:54 in a $14,000 pace.
The NFL conference championship games are set for Sunday.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3) – Up until last weekend, Tampa Bay had beaten just one playoff club, and that was a pounding of Green Bay in Week 6 in Florida. I wagered against quarterback Tom Brady once in my life, last week versus New Orleans, and it cost me in my bank account. Brady wasn’t great last week, but good enough to win, and we know he has plenty of experience playing in cold weather in New England. The big question is what about his teammates in the chilly winds and snow expected at Lambeau Field. Betting against Brady is not for me.
- Buffalo Bills (13-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) – The Bills were very fortunate to get past the Cleveland Browns last week and now they visit Kansas City where QB Pat Mahomes may not be 100 per cent. He suffered a concussion and neck injury last week which could hamper his running game. Buffalo’s offence is all pass but, in this game, quarterback Josh Allen may decide to showcase his own scrambling ability. Too many unknowns for me to bet, so my money stays in my pocket.
Fred MacDonald's column appears every Saturday in The Guardian. He can be reached at [email protected].