Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Canucks contending again?

Cory Schneider and Mike Smith had rough nights while the Maple Leafs and Canucks were on cloud nine

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: Meet me halfway

Give yourself a pat on the back, everyone. We’ve made it to the halfway mark.

Well, some of us have. A few teams actually hit the midway point last week, while others arrived over the weekend. Others still have a few games to go, and won’t make it until the end of this week. The NHL schedule is weird this year.

But still, enough teams are there that we can go ahead and say it’s close enough. So we’re halfway home. Great. What does that mean?

For one, it means we should expect to see the standings start to solidify somewhat, as the constant churn of the early going gives way to something slightly more stable. There are still plenty of teams fighting for playoff spots, and three of the four division titles remain up for grabs. But we can at least start to draw some firm conclusions about the teams at the top. And while nobody’s going to mathematically clinch anything for a while now, the top six or eight teams can already start looking ahead to the playoffs.

Hitting the halfway mark also means that it’s officially acceptable for teams at the bottom of the standings to throw in the towel. Struggling teams like the Avalanche, Coyotes and Islanders made it this far while still looking like they were trying, so nobody can accuse them of going full tank mode. But there comes a point where a good dose of realism can do a franchise some good, and any team that finds itself facing a double-digit playoff gap can safely throw in the towel any time now.

And that leaves the third group of teams—the ones who are stumbling around in the middle of the standings, winning about as often as they’re losing and bouncing in and out of a playoff spot. In the age of parity, that’s going to be the biggest group, and there aren’t enough post-season slots for everyone.

That means it’s time for pre-season favourites like the Lighting, Stars and Panthers to figure out exactly what they are, where they should realistically expect to end up, and what moves they need to make to get there. Early in the season—we’re constantly reminded—is no time to panic. But once you’ve hit the halfway mark, time isn’t on your side anymore, and it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and make some tough decisions.

On that note, we’re now just 50 days away from the trade deadline. With a tight playoff race and a looming expansion draft, it’s going to be a tricky one for general managers to navigate. Some will find a way, and others will find excuses. Which category your favourite team’s GM falls into may go a long way to determining how the rest of the season plays out.

We’ll be back tomorrow to hand out some mid-season mark awards. In the meantime, on to this week’s power rankings.

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

5. New York Rangers (28-13-1, +38) – They’re still tied for second in the Metro, but the Pens and Caps will finally get to make up some of those games in hand over the coming days as New York gets its bye week.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (25-12-5, +12 true goals differential*) – Coming out of the Winter Classic, the schedule served up four straight home games against non-playoff teams. So far, they’re 3-0-0, moving back into top spot in the Central.

3. Minnesota Wild (24-9-5, +38) – The dreaded three-game California road trip yielded a 2-0-1 record. Now they get a few days off before hosting Montreal.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-8-5, +29) – Yesterday’s 6–2 win over the Lightning was, oddly, the Penguins’ first action of 2017. Next up are the Caps on Wednesday, which starts a streak of nine games in which the Pens won’t get more than a single day off at any point.

1. Columbus Blue Jackets (28-7-4, +46) – A letdown after the end of The Streak was probably inevitable, but they clipped a two-game mini-skid yesterday by beating the Flyers in overtime.

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

So now that the Blue Jackets are mortal again, let’s check in with where things stand in the league’s toughest division.

A month ago, the Metropolitan was running over the rest of the league, holding down five of the top seven spots in the overall standings.

Those five teams were all riding long win streaks, and each had grabbed a firm hold on a playoff spot. That was important, because it all but ruled the Atlantic teams out of a wild-card spot, and created some odd situations where teams that were tied in the standings found themselves in very different playoff-chase scenarios.

Today, the division is still the league’s best, but things have settled down enough that we’re starting to get a clearer picture of where things may end up.

The Metro’s big five have slimmed to a big four, with the Flyers going cold over the last month. That still leaves the division well-represented at the top of the standings, with the Blue Jackets, Penguins, Rangers and Capitals all holding down spots in the NHL’s top seven, and all four teams also appearing in the league’s top six in terms of goal differential.

But Philadelphia has stumbled, and that could turn out to be important, because by falling back to the pack they’ve put one of the conference’s wild-card spots back into play.

The Flyers’ regression could open the door for a team we’d written off, like the Hurricanes, who are now just five points back with two games in hand. And it gives a cluster of Atlantic teams, like Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida, one more spot to chase down, leaving them with a path to the playoffs that doesn’t necessarily involve catching Boston or Ottawa.

(And if we really want to get ahead of ourselves, an Atlantic team earning a wild card could also open up the possibility of Montreal getting a first-round matchup with a rival like Boston or Toronto. Let’s file that one away for now.)

Of course, it’s possible the Flyers heat up again, and we end up right back where we were a month ago. But in a conference where it had recently looked like six of eight playoff spots were already locked down, a little bit of uncertainty will probably be welcome – at least by fans outside of Philadelphia.

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.

5. New Jersey Devils (16-17-8, -27) – With hope fading, they get the Panthers at home Monday night, then head out on a tough four-game Western road trip.

4. Detroit Red Wings (17-18-5, -20) – They lost two of three, but the win came in regulation, which makes this a good week. It was just their fourth regulation win in their last 33 games.

3. New York Islanders (15-15-8, -9) – While they picked up two points in the process, losing back-to-back games to the Avalanche and Coyotes is just about the worst weekend you can have at this point in the season.

2. Arizona Coyotes (12-22-6, -45) – They finally snapped a nine-game losing streak by beating the Islanders on Saturday.

1. Colorado Avalanche (13-25-1, -50) – We’re apparently into the part of the season where we’ll get trade rumours about a different member of the Avs’ core every few days. This week it was Gabriel Landeskog, who may be drawing interest from the Bruins.

Fans who were having trouble figuring out that whole Blue Jackets win streak thing probably felt like the world made a little more sense after it finally ended on Thursday. That feeling would have lasted until they checked to see which team had the new longest win streak in the league: the Vancouver Canucks.

That steak is over now too, having come to an end on Saturday in Calgary. But it reached six games before it did, making the Canucks one of the league’s hottest teams and moving them right back into wild-card contention. Today, Vancouver wakes up just one point back of the Kings for the West’s final spot.

It’s been a strange year in Vancouver. They emerged as the consensus pre-season pick to be the league’s worst team, then started the year with four straight wins. That dose of optimism didn’t last long; they lost their next nine, and by the end of the month the questions was when, not if, they’d finally realize that it was time to blow it all up and start over.

By the Christmas break, they were sitting 28th overall, seven points out of a playoff spot. They were done.

But six-game win streaks have a funny way of turning things around, and now the Canucks are contending again. Or are they?

They’re not as close to a playoff spot as they may seem – with the exception of Calgary, everyone they’re chasing has games in hand, and they won’t hold the ROW tie-breaker on anyone. The math guys don’t like their odds, with sportsclubstats giving them just a 12 per cent chance of making it.

So if you’re a Canucks fan, you can take the optimistic view and see this streak as evidence that the team isn’t as far away as all the naysayers swore they were. Or you can go pessimist, and chalk this up as a classic case of a bad team having the sort of meaningless mid-season hot streak that doesn’t earn them anything other than a worse draft position.

We won’t know the answer for a few more weeks, and it may take until the end of the season to sort it all out. That’s not where this team seemed to be headed just two weeks ago. But as the Blue Jackets reminded us, a well-timed win streak can change everything.

Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league

• The biggest news of the weekend was Jets rookie Patrik Laine getting hammered by a clean hit from Jake McCabe. The hit resulted in a concussion, and at this point there’s no word on when he may be able to return.

• This is a weird one. After two years of missing the post-season, the Bruins are hanging in the Atlantic playoff race, currently holding down second spot in the division. Yet here’s GM Don Sweeney openly speculating about a coaching change. That’s… unusual.

• Wayne Simmonds managed to escape any supplementary discipline for this blindside collision with Tampa Bay’s J.T. Brown.

• Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan was a healthy scratch on Saturday due to what coach Guy Boucher later called a “complex” issue. He returned to the lineup last night.

• Tough weekend for goalies handling the puck, as Arizona’s Mike Smith and New Jersey’s Cory Schneider coughed up embarrassing goals. Maybe take a few lessons from Calvin Pickard, boys.

• Bruce Boudreau made his return to Anaheim last night, facing his former team for the first time since his firing at the end of last season. The Wild came away with a 2–1 win.

• Nothing seems to be going right for the Stars this year, so maybe it’s no surprise to hear that they were forced to make an emergency landing Sunday morning due to smoke in the cockpit. Nobody was hurt, and the team continued the trip on another plane.

• We had another fun emergency backup goalie story on Friday, as the Panthers were forced to turn to an account executive after Roberto Luongo got hurt in warmups.

• Speaking of emergency backups, Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves (who actually got into a game for a few seconds last week) had his own merchandise available at Sunday’s game.

• Finally, let’s end with easily the strangest scene of the weekend: the AHL’s attempt at an outdoor game, one that ended up being played in pouring rain.