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The 2021 NHL season began Wednesday but hockey starved-fans are wondering if the league will be able to complete the projected 56-game schedule as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in major cities across Canada.
In opening night play, Toronto edged Montreal 5-4 in overtime and Vancouver trounced Edmonton 4-1, suggesting the playoff spots in this all-Canadian division will be very competitive. This year, the western Canadian teams will not have to face the likes of Colorado, Las Vegas or St. Louis and, for that reason, I expect they will do well against the less-talented Eastern clubs. Here’s what the final standings could look like:
- Toronto – The Leafs finished 36-25-9 (81 points) last season and have the firepower to finish first in this division. They have upgraded their goaltending with a reliable back-up in Jack Campbell. They’ve added grit and scoring in veterans Wayne Simmonds and T.J. Brodie. This is by no means a lock, as they could be first or fourth.
- Edmonton Oilers – Any team that has Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, plus a recharged and mature former Finnish junior star Jesse Puljujärvi and slick centre Kyle Turris, has more than enough scoring to contend for top spot. The Oilers, who were the top Canadian team in 2019-20 with a 37-25-9 record (83 points), also added high-scoring defenceman Tyson Barrie, but lost minutes-eating D Oscar Klefbom. If goaltending duo holds up, the Oilers will challenge for top spot.
- Calgary Flames – The Flames had 79 points last season and have added a great goaltender in ex-Vancouver playoff standout Jacob Markström, plus defenceman Chris Tanev. Milan Lucic was great in the playoffs, but can he continue the rebound? No worse than third, and in a three-way hunt for top spot.
- Winnipeg Jets – The Jets had 80 points last season, have standout veterans in Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, plus highly talented Patrick Laine, Nik Ehlers and top goalie Connor Hellebuyck. All they need is a player or two to surprise and the Jets are playoff bound and possibly near the top.
- Montreal Canadians – The Habs, who went 31-31-9 (71 points) last season, have improved and they needed to if they hope to make the playoffs. Their core players are a year older and I am wondering if age will catch up with them. The Habs are better than last season and much is expected of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and rookie defenceman Alexander Romanov. The trade for Josh Anderson paid immediate dividends as he scored twice and looked great Wednesday.
- Vancouver Canucks – Elias Pettersson was sensational in the playoffs for the Canucks, who went 36-27- 6 (78 points) last season, and they’ve got a perennial all-star in defenceman Quinn Hughes. Training camp standout Nils Höglander, plus the addition of goaltender Braden Holtby and ex-Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt suggests this club will be tough to beat. Two or three of the teams I rated higher have serious question marks. The Canucks are an up-and-coming squad and I will not be a surprise if they make the playoffs.
- Ottawa Senators – This club is loaded with young talent starting with blue-line quarterback Thomas Chabot. Brady Tkachuk is another on the road to stardom while their third overall pick Tim Stüetzle was sensational for Germany in the world juniors. The Sens (25-24-12, 62 points in 2019-20) had nine points less than Montreal last season and they’ve improved.
Live harness racing continues today at 12:30 p.m. with a 14-dash card. The $2,900 open mares goes in Race 9 with Woodmere Skyroller and Woodmere Chella leaving from the outside in the eight-horse field.
With Ontario dark, former P.E.I. horsemen Patrick Shepherd and Mitch Tierney have moved their operation to Northfield, Ohio. Patrick had a handful in Tuesday while Mitch Tierney’s Silver Beast was a close third in 1:52 over the half-mile track in the $13,500 open handicap. Prestige Seelster was fourth in 1:54:1 in an $8,500 conditioned pace.
Brett MacDonald has also moved to Northfield is driving for Teesha Symes, who has moved her stable there. David Miller and Mitch Kakaley have moved to Pompano Park.
At Yonkers, ex-Maritime star Windemere Frank was eighth in 1:54:1 in a $14,000 overnight race.
The race game lost another former owner and breeder with the sudden passing of Kingston’s Clifford Green, who raised standardbreds and sold quality hay for many years to Charlottetown horsemen. A very successful farmer, a great friend and neighbour and one of the biggest Toronto Maple Leafs fans in the province, so sad. My condolences to Nick, Richard, Jenny and all connected to this gentleman.
Last week, the Sports Prophet went 6-for-6 in NFL forecasts, laying some folding stuff on the L.A. Rams, Baltimore and, yes, Cleveland. Will there be upsets this week? Of course, let’s take a peek.
- L.A. Rams (10-6) at Green Bay (13-3) – The Rams have the best defence in the league and the Packers have the best offence. If Rams defensive star Aaron Donald is 100 per cent, the Rams can upset, but quarterback Jared Goff has to be sharp and not turn the ball over. The Rams are from seven- to 10-point underdogs and that is a figure worth taking. Take the points and bet the Rams, especially if Donald plays.
- Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Buffalo Bills (13-3) – The Ravens are red hot, peaking at the right time, while the Bills struggled last week. Josh Allen is a great young QB, but he’s up against a terrific talent in Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, whose club is three-point dogs. Only a major Buffalo snowstorm will stop the Ravens, who will cover and likely win outright.
- Cleveland Brown (11-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) – Cleveland’s Cinderella story comes to an end here. The Browns have a porous pass defence and against Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs air firepower, it’s goodbye Browns. The Browns are 10-point underdogs, which is not for me.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (12-4) – The Bucs had the easiest schedule of any NFL team with one win versus a playoff team. Sure, they’re playing better recently with wins over Washington, Carolina, Detroit, Atlanta and Tom Brady is sharp right now. Tampa Bay played the Saints twice this year and lost both, 34-23 and 38-3. I don’t see much of a change this week. The Bucs are only three-point dogs and that’s very surprising. It should be at least seven, but it’s certainly not for me.
Fred MacDonald's column appears every Saturday in The Guardian. He can be reached at [email protected].