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: Final fantasy
It’s too early to start thinking about Stanley Cup final matchups. Way too early. Like, ridiculously early.
And yet… it’s impossible to sit through another league’s championship showdown without being tempted to look ahead at what the NHL might serve up. Yesterday’s Falcons/Patriots Super Bowl ended up being an all-time classic, even though it wasn’t exactly a matchup stuffed with history or storylines. So while hockey fans know that we’re still in for plenty of twists and turns as the rest of the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs play out, it’s hard not to peak ahead and wonder… what if?
For example, a matchup between the top teams in each conference right now would mean Minnesota facing Washington. There isn't all that much NHL history between the two cities (although there's a little). But the pairing would give us a matchup between Bruce Boudreau's current team and the one he first made his name with. That would give us a chance to relitigate every moment of Boudreau's tenure with the Caps, including his alleged feud with Alexander Ovechkin. And as an added bonus, Boudreau might have to go through his other former team, the Ducks, in the conference final to get there.
We could also get a matchup between the Wild and the Blue Jackets, which would represent a meeting of two expansion cousins who entered the league together in 2000. Or maybe the Blue Jackets face Jeff Carter and the Kings, their old trading partners. Or perhaps Minnesota could face Pittsburgh, which would be a quasi-rematch of the 1991 Penguins/North Stars series that gave us some memorable moments. Then again, it also gave us a Minnesota team that was being broken up in a dispersal draft days after the series ended, so maybe we should stay away from that one.
If you'd prefer a more recent Cup final rematch, Pittsburgh/San Jose looks like it's in play. So is Kings/Rangers, as well as Bruins/Blackhawks, although that last one is hanging by a thread as Boston struggles. Or we could reach back to 1992 for Blackhawks/Penguins, which seems like it would pretty much be the league's dream series in terms of the teams they like to promote.
From a Canadian perspective, the standings say that our best bet would be Montreal/Edmonton. Those two franchises combined to appear in eight straight Stanley Cup finals from 1983 to 1990, but somehow never actually faced each other. Then again, you could probably get more excited for a McDavid/Crosby showdown between the Oilers and Penguins. And of course, there's always the outside chance of a Montreal/Nashville series that might generate just a little bit of spotlight on a certain pair of defencemen.
Will we actually get any of those matchups? Probably not — there are dozens of realistic possibilities, and like we said, it's too early to start narrowing down the field all that much. After all, as the Patriots and Falcons reminded us yesterday, a lot of unexpected things can happen before everything is said and done.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (33-13-5, +42 true goals differential*): This is their lowest ranking since first breaking into the top five back in early December. Could they be headed off the list altogether? See below.
4. San Jose Sharks (33-17-3, +22): Despite a weekend overtime loss to the lowly Coyotes, they remain the league's hottest team over their last 10, with eight wins and seventeen points.
3. Minnesota Wild (34-12-5, +53): With a four-point lead and three games in hand, they're pulling away from the Blackhawks, and Wednesday's showdown looms as the biggest game of the season so far. The Wild are at home, but play on the road the night before while Chicago will have three full days of rest.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (33-13-5, +36) – Sidney Crosby keeps rolling, and should hit the 1,000-point mark for his career this week.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Huh. So after a week off for the all-star break, the power rankings return, and they're pretty much the same as they were two weeks ago, except for the Sharks and Blue Jackets have swapped spots. Despite a nearly unprecedented amount of churn in the middle and bottom of the standings, the top seems to have largely settled in.
The question is whether this group stays together next week. More specifically: Are the Blue Jackets fading?
Since their near-record win streak notched its 16th-straight win on Jan. 3, the Blue Jackets are just 6-8-1 and have won just four of 15 in regulation. They've only managed to win back-to-back games once in the span, and have dropped games against non-playoff teams like the Hurricanes, Panthers and Islanders. On Saturday, they got pumped 5–1 by the Devils, of all teams.
In that time, they've seen the Capitals blow by them in the standings; Washington has turned a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead in a month. But otherwise, the Blue Jackets have largely hung tight in the Metro battle. They currently sit tied with the Penguins for second place, with both teams sporting identical records right down to the ROW tie-breaker. Their division title hopes might be dimming, but they remain a virtual lock for the playoffs.
So is there any reason to worry in Columbus? On the surface, not really. The win streak was one wild ride, but we knew it had to end eventually, and at least a minor letdown afterwards seemed inevitable. Besides, if nobody was ready to anoint the Blue Jackets as the league's next great dynasty based on 16 good games, nobody should be writing them off after 15 lukewarm ones.
Still, there are at least a few areas of concern. The power play, which was clicking at a historical rate over the first half of the season, has turned mortal, generating just one multi-goal game since the end of the streak. Maybe more worrying, the team hasn't drawn any power plays at all in three of their last five, and have had more than two just once in their last seven.
On top of that, a few of their key players have gone cold. Sam Gagner has gone from being the season's best comeback story to a guy who can't score, failing to notch a goal since before the Christmas break. Brandon Saad also slumped, going pointless in 10 of 11 before bouncing back with a three-game point streak. And Sergei Bobrovsky has hit his first extended wobble of the season, giving up four goals in four straight losses after not doing it more than twice in a row all year.
Slumps happen. And we already knew the Blue Jackets would come back to earth somewhat; we flagged their unsustainable PDO even before the win streak took off. But Columbus was always going to face more skepticism from the hockey world given their history and lack of pre-season hype. And barring a crossover wild-card scenario, the Blue Jackets' path out of the Metro is going to be a tough one, likely involving both the Penguins and Capitals.
That's still a better place to be than any Blue Jackets fan could have expected heading into the year. But what was shaping up as a dream season is slowly but surely giving way to a reality that isn't quite as much fun.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they're headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft lottery simulations.
4. New Jersey Devils (22-21-10, -28): They're home for five straight and eight of their next nine, which takes them right up to the trade deadline. If there's any last hope of a playoff push, now's the time.
3. Vancouver Canucks (23-23-6, -29): With three straight losses, the Canucks have fallen five points back of a playoff spot. Now they head out for a six-game road trip.
1. Colorado Avalanche (14-33-2, -68): Saturday's win over the Jets snapped a nine-game losing streak. Also, none of their players had any post-game quotes where it sounded like they wanted to cry. So... progress?
As we've been doing since the start of the season, we're presenting a list of five for the bottom end of the power rankings. But really, at this point it's a bottom two — Arizona battling it out with Colorado to be the worst team in the league — and then a traffic jam of mediocre teams that stretches all the way up into the middle of the league standings.
That means that if you're a Canucks or Devils fan who doesn't think their team belongs on the list, you've got a good case. And if you're a Lightning fan breathing a sigh of relief over not seeing your floundering team, don't bother. The gap between 28th-overall Tampa Bay and 11th-overall Ottawa is just eight points, meaning literally 60 per cent of the league is within one good or bad week of each other. The NHL is obsessed with parity; this year, they may be getting more than ever.
That's going to have ramifications that go far beyond making power rankings difficult. The playoff race is shaping up to be one of the more crowded ones we've seen in years. Other than the Avalanche and Coyotes, the entire league is within seven points of a playoff spot, with 25 teams within five. That doesn't mean that everyone is actually still in the running — seven points is a ton at this time of year and games in hand are sprinkled in everywhere. Sites that measure playoff probabilities make clear that teams like Detroit and New Jersey are effectively done.
But in today's NHL, actually being in the race doesn't seem to be as important as being perceived to be in the race. If a GM can convince his fans — and let's face it, his owner — that his team is only one four-game streak away from a playoff run, that might be enough to keep his job.
And all of that could have a major impact on the next big date on the calendar: the March 1 trade deadline. This is the time of year when the teams that have thrown in the towel on the season and turned their attention towards the future hook up with teams that want to win right now, either because they're on the playoff bubble or think they're legitimate Cup contenders. But you need sellers to make that work, and a league with only two is going to make for an awfully unwieldy market.
That could be a problem. But it's also an opportunity, since any team that does decide to sell is going to be entering a market stacked in their favour. The Devils may be there already, moving Vernon Fiddler to the Predators for a pick on Saturday, and you can bet that other teams will follow. We just don't know which ones.
That may be the biggest story to watch over the next few weeks at the bottom half of the standings – which GMs can acknowledge reality and take advantage of a chance to build towards a brighter future, and which ones will insist on playing make-believe right to the bitter end?
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Get ready for another round of worry over the future of the Coyotes, as a new arena deal appears to be falling apart. The team insists that it has other options in the area and insist they're "committed to the Valley for the long term."
• Nashville's Mike Ribeiro has reportedly asked for a trade. He was on waivers over the weekend and cleared, so the next move is up to David Poile. Ribeiro, who turns 37 this week, has 25 points through 46 games.
• Panthers' owner Vincent Viola has withdrawn his name from consideration to be Donald Trump's choice as Army secretary. In other Panthers news, they welcomed Jonathan Huberdeau back to the lineup for the first time all season in Friday's win over Anaheim. Aleksander Barkov, who'd been out over a month, also returned.
• The toughest loss of the weekend may have belonged to the Jets, who followed a promising three-game win streak with a 5–2 loss to the dead-last Avalanche. That game also featured the weekend's biggest hit:
• Mikael Granlund notched his first career hat trick on Saturday, potting three in the Wild's win over the Canucks.
• Congratulations to Islanders forward Jason Chimera, who played in his 1,000th career game on Friday.
• The Frank Corrado era appears to be over in Toronto. The beleaguered Leafs' defenceman cleared waivers over the weekend and was demoted to the AHL, and will see his spot on the roster taken by Alexey Marchenko, who was claimed from the Red Wings.
• Finally, the NHL's new rules around goaltender pants came into effect over the weekend, with all goalies now required to be using the new equipment. So when you see scoring skyrocket over the rest of the season, you'll know why.