We’re into the final week of the NHL season, with just six days left on the schedule. At this point, just about every night of action should feature at least a few games worth watching.
But which ones? In the final week, it’s no longer as simple as just looking for matchups between top teams or division rivals. That strategy works fine in December, but this is April. When there’s this little time left on the schedule, different kinds of games require different strategies to ensure an optimal viewing experience.
So today, let’s sort through the various types of games you can encounter in the final week of an NHL regular season, some possible examples from the next few days, and the best way that you as a fan can approach them.
No. 1: The de facto playoff game
The matchup: It’s not a playoff game per se, since, you know, it’s not the playoffs yet. But the way things are playing out, it’s probably not going to be the playoffs at all for one of these teams unless they can pick up a win.
Possible examples: Anything involving the Panthers or any of the Western wild-card teams. But the big one comes on Saturday, when the Blues face the Avalanche in a game that could be for the conference’s final playoff spot.
How to watch it: If you’re a fan of the team that needs the win, consider this practice for the real thing. All post-season superstitions go into full effect. Screaming profanities at officials is mandatory. Screaming at broadcasters, opposing fans and anthem singers is optional but encouraged. Screaming at children and pets is probably overdoing it but nobody’s judging you.
Whichever way you decide to approach it, be ready, because you are in full playoff mode for the next few hours. By halfway through the game, you’ll remember that playoff mode feels awful.
(There’s also the evil cousin of this game: the de facto playoff game between two teams that your favourite team is chasing in the standings. Fun fact: Literally every one of these ever played has mysteriously gone to overtime and become a three-point game.)
No. 2: The possible first-round preview
The matchup: These two teams have a good chance of meeting in the first round. In the old days, everyone knew what this meant: Sound the gong, because it was set-the-tone time. But today’s NHL is a kinder and gentler place, and we typically don’t see much of that nonsense anymore. Instead, these games typically start off feeling like any other. But eventually, depending on how things go, we can still get a hint of bad blood, and maybe even a little bit of message sending.
Possible examples: Penguins at Blue Jackets on Thursday. Bruins at Panthers on Thursday. Devils at Capitals on Saturday.
How to watch it: Talk yourself into disliking the other team, even if you have to really reach to do it. Work your way up to something approaching hatred. Finish off with a degree of loathing you never though humanly possible, and then spend the next few days plotting all the ways you can’t wait to you see your team smite their enemies. Try to look surprised when the matchup falls through on the season’s final weekend and your team ends up playing someone else instead.
No. 3: The possible Stanley Cup final preview
The matchup: This is the offshoot of the first-round preview, because it features two very good teams in different conferences. These matchups are actually relatively rare these days, thanks to a schedule that emphasizes divisional matchups down the stretch. But every now and then we luck into one or two, and when we do it’s hard not to have your mind wander ahead to June.
Possible examples: Predators at Capitals on Thursday. Blue Jackets at Predators on Saturday if we’re feeling generous. Predators at Panthers tonight if we’re feeling really generous, which let’s face it, we are not.
How to watch it: Those are the only inter-conference games between playoff teams left on the schedule, but at least they feature a genuine contender in the Predators. So watch, enjoy, project ahead to that Cup-final matchup, and then try not to think about how this category will probably disappear entirely once we’re back to an even number of teams again after Seattle arrives.
No. 4: The probable Atlantic Division final preview
The matchup: This one is pretty much unique to this season. But it needs its own category, because the Bruins and Lightning are two of the five best teams in the league, and along with Predators/Jets and Penguins/Capitals, they represent one of the best possible matchups we could realistically see in the first two rounds. Also, they’re still fighting it out for top spot in the division, and they really don’t seem to like each other.
If only they played each other this week….
Possible example: Bruins at Lightning tonight. Well, lucky us.
How to watch it: Preferably without any Maple Leafs fans around, because right now they’re going, “Wait a second, we could totally beat either one of these teams,” while everyone nods like when a little kid says he’s going to be an astronaut someday.
No. 5: The battle for seeding and home ice
The matchup: This one doesn’t have quite the same sense of urgency as the do-or-die battles above since both teams involved already know they’re heading to the playoffs. But it still matters, because it could determine who finishes where. And that might even mean home-ice advantage if these two teams cross paths at some point down the line.
Possible examples: Any of the Cup-final preview games. Penguins at Blue Jackets on Thursday. Wild at Sharks on Saturday.
How to watch it: Spend a lot of time telling yourself that home-ice advantage still matters in today’s NHL. Ignore the voice in your head reminding you that it really doesn’t.
No. 6: The Tank Battle
The matchup: Both teams are terrible. Hopeless. So awful that just seeing their logos flash on the screen makes you instinctively feel sad.
And somehow, that makes the game strangely compelling. Because the NHL continues to insist on rewarding failure with increased lottery odds, games between bottom-feeders become some of the most important ones played down the stretch.
Possible example: Senators at Sabres tomorrow. Coyotes at Canucks on Thursday. Canadiens at Red Wings on Thursday.
How to watch it: Briefly feel a sense of cognitive dissonance over hoping your team loses. Immediately abandon that and start openly rooting against said team after the first shift.
It’s the only way that makes sense. Sure, it’s probably poor form to do it out loud if you’re at the actual game, which is a memo that Sabres fans missed a few years ago. But other than that, you’ve really been left with no choice. In today’s NHL, winning the lottery and drafting a franchise player is one of the most effective ways to turn around a struggling franchise. You want your team to win a Cup someday? Getting two points in some meaningless late-season game won’t help. Better lottery odds might.
So watch the game, root for the other side, and hope that some scrub on your team doesn’t pull a Boyd Devereaux. And then remember that there’s a far better way the NHL could do this, and think about how much fun it would be to cheer for wins instead of losses down the stretch.
No. 7: The one game on Sunday night even though you were pretty sure the season ended on Saturday
The matchup: Wait, what?
Possible example: Panthers at Bruins on Sunday.
How to watch it: Look confused. Double-check the schedule. Look really confused. Suddenly remember that January snowstorm that messed everything up. Pretend you knew that all along.
No. 8: The “Please just stay healthy” game
The matchup: Your team is already in the playoffs, and don’t have anything all that meaningful to play for. Wins and losses don’t matter. All you want is to see everyone stay healthy. That’s it. Make it out of the game with the same 20 guys you went in with and no shots of the trainer whispering to a head coach who looks like he’s trying not to cry. Anything else is gravy.
Possible examples: Any games played by the Maple Leafs, Capitals, Golden Knights, Sharks, Jets or Predators.
How to watch it: With WebMD open in three browser windows and a medical dictionary by your side, because before this one is over you’re pretty much guaranteed to see your star player’s kneecap spinning around like Daffy Duck’s beak.
No. 9: The depressing rivalry game
The matchup: It’s two teams with a long history and plenty of bad blood dating back generations. But one or both teams are terrible this year, so this game doesn’t actually matter. It was clearly supposed to – that’s why the schedule-maker saved it until the season’s final days. But it doesn’t, and that’s kind of sad.
Possible examples: Rangers at Islanders on Thursday. Flames at Jets on Thursday. Blues at Blackhawks on Wednesday and then again on Friday. Canadiens at Maple Leafs on Saturday.
How to watch it: This really depends on which side of the tracks your team is on. If they’re terrible, you treat this like any other late-season game, which is to say you feel miserable and just want it to be over. On the other hand, if your team is doing well, these games serve as a good opportunity to reach out and reconnect with old friends. Consider a well-timed text along the lines of, “Hey, hope things are well. Were you aware that your team is absolutely terrible and mine is not?” Maintaining friendships is important.
No. 10: The game that is literally meaningless
The matchup: There are no playoff implications, no meaningful milestones in play, and the two teams aren’t even bad enough for this to qualify as a Tank Battle. There are two teams, some ice and a puck, and you don’t care. That’s really all you need to know.
Possible examples: I tried to check the schedule but my eyes glazed over.
How to watch it: Don’t. Or if you have no choice, gamble. But mostly: don’t. The first round starts in just over a week, and you’re going to be drinking meaningful hockey out of a firehose for two straight weeks. Take a game or two off while you still can.