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: Down in Flames
OK, maybe we were just a little premature on the whole “Western Conference final” thing.
That pick, from late January, had the Flames and Jets as the final two teams standing in the West. And half of the equation has held up pretty well. The Jets are rolling, with one of the league’s best records and a shiny new toy from the trade deadline to plug into an already loaded lineup.
But the Flames… man. At the time, they’d won seven straight, climbing as high as fifth in the West. They didn’t have much of a cushion to work with, with only four points separating them from ninth. But they were clicking, with the offence averaging nearly four goals a game during the streak and the goaltending looking solid, and they had all the momentum.
That all feels like it was a very long time ago. Today, the Flames wake up four points back of a wild-card spot, and it’s more like five since they don’t hold the tie-breaker. They’ve lost three straight, including the weekend’s unforgivable loss to a Rangers team that’s basically given up the season. And their playoff odds have plunged from over 60 percent during the streak to just over 15 percent today. Flames fans are coming to grips with the reality that this team – one that’s packed with young talent in their prime and that loaded up in the off-season in an effort to make the leap to true contenders – looks like it’s really going to blow this thing.
So what happened? Unlike most mid-season collapses, this one isn’t all that hard to figure out. It starts with that seven-game streak back in January, which was interrupted by perhaps the worst-timed bye week imaginable. All that momentum vanished over their league-mandated vacation, and they returned in time for that tough matchup against the Jets. They played OK in that one but dropped a 2–1 shootout decision. But then came a home loss to the lowly Sabres, and the losing streak was on. They’d drop six straight, wiping out just about all of the gains from the win streak.
Things seemed to get back on track with back-to-back wins over the Blackhawks, and a 3-2 win over the Islanders on Feb. 11 was their fourth in five games. But that’s the game that saw Mike Smith limp off with one second left on the clock; while there was early hope that the injury wasn’t serious, he hasn’t played since. The team chose not to acquire a veteran to plug the gap, riding with David Rittich and Jon Gillies instead, and while neither has been awful, they’re not Smith.
Realistically, the Flames need to play at a roughly 112-point pace the rest of the way to get to the 95 points that we typically use as a playoff cutoff. With three teams ahead of them, even that might not be enough if someone gets hot. The situation is dire. And it’s hard not to think ahead to the off-season and wonder what happens if a team with this much talent misses the playoffs. Will the team’s brain trust shrug it off as the result of bad luck and injuries – in addition to Smith, they’ve missed Micheal Ferland and Kris Versteeg – or do they respond with significant changes?
That’s getting ahead of ourselves, of course; as our next section will remind us, teams can sometimes go from write-offs back to contenders relatively quickly. But it’s fair to say that time is running out in Calgary. They’ve got a tough one tonight in Pittsburgh, but the schedule gets easier after that, including games this week against the Sabres, Senators and Islanders. Moral victories like Friday’s 51–shot performance against the Rangers won’t cut it — they need to bank some points, and soon. If they don’t, then the season is over. And the hard questions will be just beginning.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (42-18-5, +45 true goals differential*): Yesterday’s win over the Devils snapped their losing streak at a season-high three games.
2. Nashville Predators (42-14-9, +46): Yesterday’s overtime win over the Avs made it eight straight and leaves them just one point behind the Lightning for first place overall while holding a game in hand.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
It’s a long season, and we tend to be reluctant to write too many teams off completely. The numbers tell us that even falling a few points out of the playoff race early in the season probably spells doom, and common sense tells us that the loser point often works against its stated goal of keeping bad teams in the race. But we’re all optimists at heart, and it seems wrong to declare a team dead if they still seem to have a plausible path back to contention. So we wait as long as we can.
The flip side of that coin is that once you’re out, you’re out. There’s only so much attention to go around, and once the hockey world has decided you’re going to be a non-factor, your job is to fade off into the background until next year.
The Florida Panthers appear to have missed that memo.
On Jan. 25, the Panthers dropped a 4–2 decision to the Capitals. It was their third straight defeat, coming on the heels of a 6–1 blowout against the Stars, and their sixth loss in eight games. The next morning, they woke up in 14th spot in the East, ahead of only the Sabres and Senators. They were 12 points out of a wild-card spot with six teams to pass.
In other words, they were done. But then the schedule served up some hope, with an eight-game stretch that saw them mostly facing other also-rans. They took advantage, winning seven of eight, and by Feb. 17 they’d climbed past Montreal and Detroit to move to within six points of a wild card. Not bad, but still a long way to go, and road losses in Winnipeg and Toronto seemed to put the brakes on any hope for a late-season miracle – especially with the Capitals, Penguins and Leafs up next.
The Panthers won those three games and two more after, and by the end of Friday’s win over the Sabres they were just one point back of the wild card. That set up last night’s showdown with Philadelphia as one of the games of the weekend. And the Panthers dominated, taking the lead three minutes in and coming within four minutes of shutting out the Flyers on the way to a 4–1 win. That temporarily moved them into sole possession of the final wild-card spot. And while Columbus moved one point past them hours later with a win over the Sharks, the Panthers still hold three games in hand on the Blue Jackets as well as the Hurricanes, Rangers and Islanders. They look like they might really do this.
In hindsight, maybe none of this should be especially shocking. The Panthers have plenty of talent, and they came into the season expected to contend for one of the lower playoff seeds. Some of their mid-season struggles can be blamed on Roberto Luongo‘s injury, and he’s been fantastic since returning in mid-February. And if they pull this off, we might have to find a way to add Aleksander Barkov into the already-crowded MVP conversation.
So now what? With the Devils building a cushion and bringing in deadline reinforcements, there might be only that one spot left in play in the East. The Panthers were rumoured to be in on Ryan McDonagh and other big names at the deadline, but didn’t land any. But the other teams they’re in the mix with didn’t do much either, so this one looks wide open.
And this is where the schedule gets interesting again. The Panthers’ next action comes tomorrow in Tampa, which will be tough. But after that, they’ve got five straight at home, and four are against teams that have basically thrown in the towel on the season in the Habs, Rangers, Sens and Oilers. From there it’s on to Montreal and Ottawa, and they’ve also got meetings left with Arizona and Buffalo. That’s a whole lot of winnable games.
On the flipside, they’ve also got four Bruins matchups crammed into their last 15 games. But that may not be as bad as it looks; the way the top of the Atlantic is shaping up, the Bruins could be locked into second spot and more focused on staying healthy for the playoffs.
So yeah, they just might pull this off. And while it’s getting ahead of ourselves, if the Panthers do end up claiming that last wild-card spot, look who’ll probably be waiting for them in the first round: the cross-state Lightning. We’ve never had a post-season Battle of Florida before, and the Panthers would be heavy underdogs in the first one. But as we’ve learned over the last few weeks, it’s a bad idea to ever count these guys out.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
4. Vancouver Canucks (24-32-9, -35): They’ve lost five of six, but three of those have been in OT and plenty have been high-scoring. The Canucks are bad, but they might be a sneaky-fun team the rest of the way.
3. Arizona Coyotes (20-34-10, -51): With seven wins in nine, including Saturday’s over the Senators, they break out of our bottom two for the first time since opening week, and only the fourth time in the last two seasons.
1. Buffalo Sabres (20-34-11, -56): They’ve got the Leafs tonight in one of four remaining games on the schedule between two teams that will someday have one of the best rivalries in the league. Until then… ouch:
Something odd happened in Vancouver on Friday night. The Predators’ 4–3 overtime win over the Canucks was a decent game, but wasn’t especially memorable apart from Ryan Johansen pitchforking Erik Gudbranson. The biggest headline from the game was probably the season debut of Mike Fisher, as the veteran centre made his return to the lineup and scored a goal.
But the more interesting news may have been who wasn’t in the lineup. The Predators went into the game without four regulars, as Roman Josi, Scott Hartnell, Craig Smith and Yannick Weber all sat out. It’s not unusual for teams to be missing a few names at this time of year, but what made the Predators’ lineup noteworthy is that all four guys were listed as healthy. They could have played. The team just decided to rest them instead.
(For what it’s worth, there’s some question over whether Josi was actually resting. He sat out again yesterday, and this time was listed with an upper-body injury. But the team insisted he was healthy on Friday.)
Resting multiple players is relatively unusual in the NHL, where teams rarely choose to give anyone a night off aside from goalies, at least until the season’s final days. They certainly don’t rest three or four at a time. It’s a far more common strategy in the NBA, so much so that the league had to change its rules to discourage teams from benching multiple starters. Given that we typically think of the hockey season as a far more demanding grind, it’s odd that we don’t see NHL teams following the NBA’s lead.
Maybe this is the year that changes. Having a team like the Predators rest players — and crucially, still pick up two points in the process — could lead to other teams following suit.
This year could offer up more opportunity than most, since there are more bad teams that have nothing left to play for and could represent easy wins. This time last year, only the Coyotes and Avalanche were at least 10 points out of the playoff hunt; this year, there are six teams in that situation, many of whom have all but raised the white flag on their season. And with eight teams having already wrapped up playoff spots and several more just a few wins away, there will be plenty of matchups on the schedule that present a perfect opportunity to give a player or two a well-deserved night off.
Maybe it doesn’t happen. NHL players still have the whole “If you can walk, you can play” mentality drilled into them. But if one of the league’s best-run teams can get away with it, expect others to at least poke at the idea. It won’t be a game-changer by any stretch, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as a season lacking the usual level of suspense winds down.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Saturday’s outdoor game saw the Capitals smack down the Maple Leafs by a 5–2 final in a game that was interrupted by a power failure. Alex Ovechkin scored his 40th of the season (and 598th of his career), while Frederik Andersen was pulled for performance reasons for the first time all year.
• The Jets held off the Hurricanes last night thanks to two early goals by Patrik Laine and a third-period marker from Paul Stastny. Laine’s pair moved him ahead of Steve Yzerman into sixth spot on the all-time goal-scoring list for teenagers.
• Boston’s win over the Canadiens made this the first time since 1995 in which the Bruins have swept the season series. But the Bruins lost Charlie McAvoy with a lower-body injury, and at this point there’s no word on serious it might be.
• The Rangers won three straight on their Western Canada road trip despite giving up 143 shots in the process. That actually leaves them just five points out of a wild-card spot, despite their trade-deadline selloff.
• Celebration of the week: Jamie Benn goes Bo Jackson after an OT winner against the Blues.
• Saturday’s 3–2 loss to the Penguins was the Islanders’ sixth straight, and 15th in their last 21 games. But don’t worry — Garth Snow will probably do something big before the trade deadline.
• It’s getting ugly in Chicago as the Blackhawks got lit up again in a 6–3 loss in Anaheim. They gave up 19 goals in their four-game road trip, losing three. Pretty good scrap between Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kessler, though.
• Speaking of the Ducks, this week’s “Good job, good effort” award goes to Cam Fowler, who had the right idea but might need some fine-tuning on the targeting system.