Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Atlantic crown back up for grabs

Los Angeles Kings analyst Jesse Cohen proposes a scenario where the Edmonton Oilers should trade for Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Jack Johnson and move him to forward which got an interested response from Patrick O'Neal. (Video courtesy of Fox Sports)

Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.

Opening faceoff: Crossing the Atlantic

Hey, remember how the Atlantic Division race was all sewn up, the Lightning were walking away with the top seed, and we could all get to work on our Bruins/Maple Leafs round one previews?

Yeah, hold that thought.

For maybe the first time all season, the Lightning are starting to look mortal. They’ve lost three straight by a combined score of 14–4, including Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Wild that kicked off a brutal eight-game road trip. They’re already missing Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos hasn’t scored in eight straight, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is struggling badly, giving up at least four goals in five straight starts. Their coach says they’re “out of synch,” and while you can blame the bye week for some of that, their best players aren’t leading the way anymore. At some point, it’s going to be fair to start wondering if this team deserves the dreaded “peaked too early” label, and had things a little too easy during a first half where everything seemed to be clicking every night.

That mini-slump has opened the door for the Bruins, and they’re making a hard run at it. They’ve won three in a row and have points in 16 straight. When they last lost a game in regulation, way back on Dec. 14, they were 14 points back of the Lightning. Now the gap is down to just three, and the Bruins hold a game in hand.

That’s not bad for a race some of us had written off just a few weeks ago. (Yes, guilty as charged.) And it creates a fascinating stretch run. The two teams have met only once all season, a 3-2 Bruins win in November. But they play three times in the season’s final dozen games, and now those look a lot like the ones that could decide the division.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are hanging around as the division’s awkward third wheel. They’d been fading out of contention thanks to eight straight without a regulation win, but snapped that streak with Saturday’s third-period comeback in Ottawa, a result that felt like it could be bigger than two points for a young team that was starting to turn on itself.

The Leafs didn’t lose any ground to the teams chasing them during their slump; in fact, they gained some on them thanks to some shootout luck and the loser point. But they certainly haven’t looked anything like a Cup contender, and it’s led to the first real wave of criticism Mike Babcock has faced since arriving in Toronto. Being on the right end of a third-period collapse for once will quell that for at least a few days, but things don’t get any easier with the red-hot Avalanche in town tonight.

For now, the Leafs seem more locked into third spot in the division than ever. But now it’s an open question as to who they’ll play. And maybe more importantly, who they should want to face.

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Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Winnipeg Jets (28-13-7, +27 true goals differential*): Last night’s 1-0 win over the Canucks wasn’t pretty, but it moves the Jets back into top spot in the Central.

4. Nashville Predators (28-11-6, +20): Make it five straight wins, all by one goal. Next up is what should be a fun matchup with the Lightning tomorrow night.

3. Vegas Golden Knights (31-11-4, +34): Well now, look who’s moved up into first place overall. Why not? Nothing makes sense anymore.

2. Boston Bruins (27-10-8, +37): After losing to the Bruins for the third time in a week, Claude Julien’s thoughts on the Patrice Bergeron line were priceless:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-12-3, +43): By the way, Vasilevskiy’s slump comes immediately after a stretch in which he allowed two goals in five starts. The lesson, as always: goaltending is voodoo.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

The Lightning continue to hold down top spot in our rankings for the thirteenth straight week, even though the Knights have passed them in the standings. But beyond that, there’s been some serious top-five turnover over the last little while. The Blues spent six weeks in second spot earlier this season, but they’ve faded lately. This week marks the third straight in which they’re not on the list at all, and their fans are starting to get antsy:

But while St. Louis hasn’t been in the top five lately, at least they’ve still been holding down a playoff spot. The same can’t be said for another team that was pushing for top spot during the first half: the Los Angeles Kings. They got as high as second in our ratings at the end of October, and held down third spot on five other occasions before dropping off the list. I’m guessing they’re not too concerned about that, since they’ve got bigger problems right now. They might miss the post-season altogether.

That seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. By mid-November, the Pacific was shaping up to be theirs for the taking. Sure, the Knights were hanging right there with them, but we were all still in denial over just how good an expansion team could be. The Coyotes imploded immediately, the Oilers were falling apart, the Ducks were hurt, and the Flames and Sharks were just OK. It was hard to envision a scenario where this didn’t end with the Kings as the top seed. Rob Blake and John Stevens had turned the ship around, and the old Cup-contender Kings were back.

On Jan. 2, the Kings beat the Oilers to move to 53 points on the year. That was three back of Vegas, but seven up on the Ducks and Sharks and an 11-point cushion over the Flames. But then came a disastrous second-period in Calgary, followed by a home loss to the Predators. Four more losses have followed, including two to the Ducks and one to the Sharks. Worse, all six losses have been in regulation, so they haven’t even collected any loser points as consolation.

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Add it all up, and the Kings woke up today sitting outside of a playoff spot altogether. The Knights have pulled away. The Sharks had blown past them. More impressively, so had the Flames; their win streak and the Kings’ losing streak wiped out that entire 11-point gap in just six games.

The Kings snapped the losing streak last night with a 4-2 win over the Rangers, because these days just about everyone beats the Rangers. Even that was looking dicey after one period, with New York holding a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission. But Jake Muzzin got the Kings on the board 30 seconds into the second period, the first of four unanswered goals, and Jonathan Quick held down the fort the rest of the way. The win allowed the Kings to stay even with the Wild (both teams have identical 25-17-5 records) and move into a tie with Colorado, but the Avalanche hold two games in hand and own the ROW tie-breaker.

So what’s gone wrong? You can’t blame injuries; they’re still missing Jeff Carter, but he was out when things were going well, and he’s the only major name on their injury list. Their possession numbers have dropped, but only a little and they weren’t all that strong to start with. Defensively they’re as sound as ever, ranking second in the league in goals against. The power play had been a problem, with just one goal during the streak, but may have turned around with a three-for-three performance last night.

Just about every team goes cold at some point during a long season, and two bad weeks is no reason to panic. But for a Kings team that few had as contenders heading into the season, the question is whether we’re watching a temporary blip or an admittedly harsh regression to what we thought they might be. That’s an important question to figure out for Blake as he heads toward his first deadline as an NHL GM. We’d assumed he’d be among the league’s buyers, but now maybe not. And while Kings fans won’t want to hear it, we have to ask: If the second-half spiral continues and the team does miss the playoffs yet again, does that put Drew Doughty and his expiring contract back into play when the off-season rolls around?

Time will tell, but for now the team just needs to string a few wins together. The schedule sure doesn’t do them any favors; they head out on a four-game road trip that starts tomorrow, return home for two, then embark on a monster seven-game trip that includes stops in Tampa, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg. By the time that stretch ends, we’ll be less than a week away from the trade deadline, and the Pacific picture will probably look a whole lot clearer. Even if it doesn’t look much like it did a month ago.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.

5. Montreal Canadiens (19-22-6, -28): Another Julien quote: “We’re not good enough.” That’s the sort of soundbite that will turn up the heat on a GM.

4. Vancouver Canucks (18-23-6, -29): Last night’s loss was their eighth straight against Canadian teams. At least somebody’s trying to get this country’s teams into the playoffs.

3. Ottawa Senators (15-20-9, -32): Mark Stone can just about do it all: score, play in his own end, win faceoffs. Hitting old-timers? Uh, not so much.

2. Arizona Coyotes (11-28-9, -51): The good news is they give up top spot. The bad news is that they appear in our bottom five for the 37th straight time, dating back to the second week of last season. And they’ve been in the No. 1 or 2 spot in 35 of those weeks. In the age of parity, it feels like that shouldn’t be possible.

1. Buffalo Sabres (11-26-9, -58): Can you still feel embarrassment after a season like this? Because if so, Saturday’s 7–1 loss to the Stars was embarrassing. And they’re getting roasted for it.

Friends, we’re gathered here to say goodbye. We do that a lot around the bottom-five section — goodbye to a team’s playoff chances, to optimism, to fired coaches and GMs, to a sense of hope.

But this is different. Today, we’re saying goodbye to the Colorado Avalanche. But instead of feeling like a funeral, it’s more like a graduation.

Last year, Colorado spent 16 weeks holding down top spot in the bottom five, including the last 13 weeks straight. By the end, nobody was even challenging them. They screwed up the trade deadline, one of their best players wanted out, and they became the first team to ever finish dead last and then lose the draft lottery three times and end up picking fourth. It all ended up being quite possibly the worst season in salary-cap history, at least up until this year’s Sabres and Coyotes said “Hold my beer” and then immediately spilled that beer down the front of their own pants.

This year, Colorado started the season as the consensus top pick again, then held down a spot on the list through the season’s first month. They were the go-to team for the bottom-five section. This was their house.

But not anymore. Our terrible Avalanche are all grown up. Or at least, grown up enough to steamroll the league for the last three weeks or so. The Avs ran their win streak to nine games with Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Rangers, boosting their record to 26-16-3 and keeping their hold on a Western wild-card spot.

There are various factors behind the turnaround — it turns out Jared Bednar is a pretty good coach when you give him more than a few days to implement a system — but most of the attention lately has focused on Nathan MacKinnon. He’s been red hot, racking up 19 points over a nine-game scoring streak. He’s gone from Hart Trophy non-factor to dark horse to outright favourite, at least if he can help the Avalanche get back to the playoffs.

The other key factor has been the much-delayed Matt Duchene trade. That deal earned some solid reviews from a Colorado perspective, but everyone assumed it would me a move that would pay off someday down the line. Instead, the Avalanche have gone 17-11-3 since the trade, and MacKinnon’s transformation into an elite force largely coincides with Duchene leaving town. (As does the Senators’ season derailing, but we’re trying to stay positive here.)

Colorado still has a way to go to wrap up a post-season spot, especially with teams like the Wild, Ducks and Hawks right behind them. But the fact that they’re even in the conversation this late in the season is a stunning turnaround. And it’s why it feels like this will be the last time we get to mention them down in this section for at least a little while.

Run free, Avalanche. This place won’t be the same without you, but we’ll always have 2016–17. Nothing lasts forever, and everybody outgrows their bottom-five roots eventually.

(Except you, Arizona. You’re not going anywhere.)

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Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• The hockey world was stunned by the sudden loss of Jim Johannson, the longtime USA Hockey executive and GM of the country’s 2018 Olympic entry. Johansson was 53. Tributes quickly poured in from a who’s who of American players and staff.

• We also said goodbye to legendary hockey writer Red Fisher, who passed away on Friday at the age of 91. Plenty of his fellow writers shared their memories; some of the best were from Mark Spector, Dave Stubbs and of course Michael Farber. The Canadiens paid tribute to Fisher’s memory prior to Saturday’s game.

• The Jets needed a shootout to beat the Flames in Saturday’s conference-final preview. That snapped the Flames’ win streak at seven games, and let the Sharks sneak past them for second spot in the Pacific.

• The Flyers have won seven of eight and are back in a wild-card spot after yesterday’s win over the Capitals. That nudges the Penguins into a tie for the last spot with the Rangers, who hold two games in hand.

• We had a weird scene in Chicago when the lights went out in the middle of play. And yes, we were all thinking the same thing.

Keith Yandle was feeling tricky on Saturday:

• The Blackhawks are in trouble. They were blown out 7-3 by the Islanders and are now five points out of a playoff spot. Unless Stan Bowman can pull off a move soon, Corey Crawford‘s absence might spell the end for Chicago

• The Blue Jackets are in Las Vegas to face the Knights tomorrow, and coach John Tortorella has some interesting thoughts on how to handle potential distractions.

• I knew Mitch Marner‘s goal against Ottawa looked familiar…

• Finally, last week we touched on the impact of bye weeks on teams returning to action against foes who weren’t in the same situation. So how’d they do? It was close to break even, with bye teams winning six out of 13. That’s not great, but it’s better than last year, and might buy the concept another season.

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