Five questions to answer before end of NHL’s regular season

Colby Armstrong and Caroline Cameron discuss the race for the Norris Trophy between John Carlson and Roman Josi.

The last day of the regular season as currently scheduled is Saturday, April 4, meaning we have a little less than four weeks to go. The playoffs would begin the following Wednesday.

But there’s still so much to be figured out.

The playoff races, for one, are the main focus right now. Toronto, who was a Cup pick for many before the season, are just one point up on the Panthers and could fall out altogether. The Canucks are struggling and if they don’t find their footing again soon (aka, getting Jacob Markstrom back), they could miss the post-season.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

Here, then, are a few big questions that still need to be answered by the time the playoffs get underway.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

WILL THE NEW TIE-BREAKER BE USED?

For a number of years, all eyes at this time of the season were on ROW — regulation and overtime wins. That’s because, in the case of a tie in standings points, ROW was the first tie-breaker used. This season, it’s the second stat we’d turn to in case of a tie.

That’s because this year regulation wins are the first tie-breaker. This was done to put even less emphasis on 3-on-3 overtime determining who finishes where since you’ll not see that kind of action in playoff overtime.

In the East, we mentioned how the race for third in the Atlantic is close, but five teams fighting for the two wild-card spots are separated by five points, with various games-in-hand situations. First place for the Metro is still up for grabs, too, with one point separating Washington and Philadelphia.

In the West, both the Central and Pacific Divisions are still up for grabs and six teams that could wind up in the wild card are separated by five points. It may be that we get a tie in there somewhere and the number of regulation wins would become extremely important.

As far as wild card teams go, in the East interestingly Florida and the NY Rangers (the two teams furthest down at the moment) have the most regulation wins with 30 apiece. In the West, Minnesota’s 30 regulation wins would give them the leg up on prospective wild card teams at the moment, while Calgary’s 25 are lower than any other team on contention.

WHO IS CALGARY’S GOALIE?

Speaking of the Flames, if they do end up in the playoffs it’s no longer clear who their Game 1 starter would be in net.

As Andrew Berkshire explored last week, the choice between David Rittich and Cam Talbot is not so easy. Rittich may have started out as the No. 1 and playing up to the task early in the season, Talbot has been the better netminder for some time now, though the number of starts has mostly still been in Rittich’s favour.

That may be starting to change, though. Rittich has earned just one of four starts in March, while Talbot has won three games and turned aside 95.7 per cent of the shots he’s faced in that time. Just who winds up being the Game 1 starter — if Calgary reaches the post-season — will likely be determined by who finishes the best and arrives at the post-season with the hotter hand.

WHICH TEAMS WILL FINISH THE STRONGEST AND BE UPSET CANDIDATES?

Whether or not you believe “peaking too early” is a legitimate concern, getting to the playoffs on a hot streak is most definitely a positive.

Last season, only one team that won 50 per cent or less of its last 10 games advanced beyond the first round — and that was San Jose (3-6-1), who ousted a Vegas Golden Knights team that wrapped up 3-5-2, so someone was moving on from that.

In fact, the Sharks are the only team that’s moved past the first round after winning less than half of its final 10 games since 2017. It’s not that a team can’t win a round following a slow finish, but “peaking at the right time” certainly appears to be a factor.

With games still to go, we should mention who the hottest teams are right now. The Philadelphia Flyers have won nine in a row, while Vegas and St. Louis are 8-2-0 in their past 10.

As far as wild card-bound teams go, the surprising Minnesota Wild are surging with a 7-3-0 mark in their past 10. Winnipeg (6-3-1) and the NY Rangers (6-4-0) get honourable mentions.

On the flip side, the NY Islanders (2-5-3), Vancouver Canucks (3-6-1) and Toronto Maple Leafs (4-5-1) are slipping to the point where they may all fall out of the playoffs. In fact, it may take a strong finish for any of them to get in, so a greater urgency to end the year could be a blessing in disguise. We’ll see.

Last year, all four wild card teams won their first-round series and the “worst” finish among them was Carolina at 6-4-0, but they entered the playoffs on a three-game winning streak.

HOW ROSY WILL OTTAWA’S DRAFT PICTURE GET?

With playoffs off the table, the Sens are already looking excitedly to the off-season and how potentially franchise-changing the draft could be for them.

The Detroit Red Wings have wrapped up dead-last in the league, meaning they’ll have the best lottery odds for the first overall pick, but Ottawa is currently sitting second-last, tied with a Los Angeles Kings team that’s won six in a row. One point ahead of them are the San Jose Sharks, whose first-rounder Ottawa owns from the Erik Karlsson trade. It’s extremely possible, if not likely, that Ottawa heads to the lottery with the second- and third-best odds to pick first and nab Alexis Lafreniere. They could even land the top two picks.

And it doesn’t end there. The NY Islanders are falling fast, winners of just two of their past 10 games. They’re out of a playoff spot right now, though hold three games in hand of Columbus, who is only two points up on the Islanders. They’re not out by any measure, but their recent run is concerning. And they’re currently going through Western Canada.

If the Islanders miss the playoffs, the Senators will have a third high pick (that will only go back to New York if it’s in the top three). In this scenario, Ottawa would walk into a deep 2020 NHL Draft with three picks inside at least the top 15. If that happens, the outlook would be entirely optimistic on the ice.

WHAT IMPACT WILL CORONAVIRUS HAVE?

This is easily the biggest question in all sports right now.

After Monday night’s announcement that Santa Clara County in California was banning all gatherings of 1,000 people or more, San Jose Sharks games have been called into question. They don’t return home until March 19, but when that time comes we’re now looking at the very real possibility that they have to play that game in front of an empty arena, or at some other site outside of the county.

And beyond that, there’s no telling where we could go from here.

Playoffs in Switzerland have been postponed and a number of international tournaments, including the Women’s World Championship in Nova Scotia, have been called off. Italy is shut down and we’ve seen soccer games cancelled or played in front of nobody across Europe. If coronavirus continues to spread, we could soon see the NHL impacted far more than it has been to this point.

What toll that takes on the schedule — if games go on without spectators or if they have to be cancelled outright — is not something anyone can predict at the moment. We’re in a wait and see mode to see what governments and leagues alike decide to do.

But, for now, there is no bigger story in sports.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.