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: What we know, what we don’t
One week. That’s all that’s left in the 2016–17 regular season. And with a busy seven days ahead that will see some teams playing as many as five times, it feels like the big picture is starting to come into focus. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re getting there.
Let’s start with what we do know.
Out West, the Blackhawks have wrapped up the top seed. The slumping Wild will almost certainly limp into second in the Central, giving them home ice in the first round. And with the Kings officially eliminated last night, we know who the eight playoff teams will be.
In the East, we can pretty much pencil in the Habs as the Atlantic winner, which also means we can go ahead and book them into a first-round matchup with the wild-card Rangers. (They may also finish with more points than New York after all, which should take some of the heat off of the playoff format.) The Capitals have a stranglehold on the Metro after last night’s win in Columbus, and that means a first-round showdown between the Blue Jackets and Penguins.
And while we’re not there quite yet, we’re getting dangerously close to being able to say that we know that the Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs. After last week’s brief bout of Frederik Andersen panic, the Leafs won three straight and got their goalie back, and even briefly moved into second place in the Atlantic.
The Senators look reasonably safe, too, although maybe slightly less so than Toronto given their recent struggles and injury issues.
And the Bruins got a huge win yesterday in Chicago, giving them five straight and bumping them past Toronto and Ottawa into second place (although both those teams have two games in hand).
If the Leafs, Senators and Bruins are all in, that leaves all of the Eastern spots accounted for, freezing out the Lightning, Islanders and Hurricanes. All three of those teams are still technically alive, but each would need to virtually run the table in the final week and get help from elsewhere.
At the other end of the standings, we know the Avalanche will have the best odds in the lottery, and that the Golden Knights will slot in at No. 3. The two-spot is still up for grabs, with the Coyotes at risk of losing their grip after last night’s win.
As far as individual honours go, Connor McDavid has all but clinched the Art Ross, and Sidney Crosby is closing in on doing the same for the Richard. Auston Matthew hasn’t quite wrapped up the rookie goals and points title, but Patrik Laine will need a big game or two to close the gap there, and Erik Karlsson‘s injury may have closed the door on catching Brent Burns in the blueline points race.
So that’s what we know, or are reasonably close to knowing. What’s still up in the air this week are most of the first-round matchups, including whether we’ll get new chapters in the Battles of Alberta and Ontario.
Home ice in the various two-vs.-three pairings is still a question mark everywhere outside of the Central. The top of the Pacific is a mess. And we still don’t know who’ll win the Presidents’ Trophy, or whether they’ll remember to pretend that they care.
With that, let’s move on to the power rankings. Last week, we couldn’t find anyone who seemed like a good pick at the number five spot, so we settled on the Canadiens almost as a placeholder. Did anyone else do enough to jump up and grab that spot this week?
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Edmonton Oilers (44-25-9, +32 true goals differential*): Huh. Well then. Let’s discuss further down below.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (49-21-8, +59): They’ve lost five of seven, including two against the Caps and one against the Blackhawks. For a team that can still be hard to picture as truly elite, that hurts.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (48-19-11, +46): They get the Blue Jackets next, hosting them tomorrow night. If the standings stay unchanged, they’ll host them in the first round, too.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (50-22-7, +34): They’ve dropped four of seven since a five-game win streak ended. The big question: Are they slumping, or just coasting with nothing to play for?
1. Washington Capitals (52-18-8, +79): Yesterday’s win over the Blue Jackets didn’t come easy, but it was enough to move them past the Hawks and back into top spot.
*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.
So, yeah. The Oilers. Here we are.
On the one hand, maybe this shouldn’t qualify as much of a surprise. There was a point a few weeks into the season where the Oilers had a great case for a top-five spot. At the time, we broke down the pros and cons and decided they weren’t quite there yet. They proved us right, losing seven of their next nine, and spent most of the rest of the season looking like a middle-of-the-pack team, one that was certainly talented but had enough flaws to keep it away from true contender status. Still, they were in the mix before, so maybe it’s no shock to see them there again.
But on the other hand, there’s a big difference between being in the mix a month into the season and being there with one week left. We expect a few oddities early on, when everything is still working itself out. By now, we’re supposed to be down to the teams who can actually win this thing.
Wait, can the Oilers win this thing?
They’re not supposed to, at least not yet. They’re in year two of the Connor McDavid Era, and year one of the Healthy Connor McDavid Era. Teams that luck into generational franchise players almost always win Cups eventually, but it’s supposed to take a few years to get there. This felt like the season for the Oilers to finally play meaningful games again, ideally make their return to the playoffs, and learn a little bit about what it takes to win while making an early exit. And it’s certainly possible that that’s exactly how it will play out, especially if they end up running into a team like the Flames or Predators in round one.
And yet… I mean, why not this year? For the first time in a generation, the path out of the West looks easier than in the East. The Blackhawks are the team to beat, and the Oilers would be underdogs in any matchup with them, but everyone else in the conference looks vulnerable. And even the Hawks aren’t some sort of indestructible juggernaut that couldn’t be taken down with some hot goaltending and well-timed bounces.
And make no mistake, Edmonton is well-positioned to be the kind of team that does exactly that. Cam Talbot is having a Vezina-quality season, and as long as he doesn’t burn out from his league-leading workload, he’ll give the Oilers a goaltending edge over most of the playoff teams in the West. The team is peaking at the right time, winning nine of 10. There’s that McDavid kid, who’s either the best player in the world right now or doing a pretty good impression of it. And after 10 years, the building is going to be a madhouse for playoff hockey.
Maybe it all goes bad. A big chunk of the roster has no playoff experience, and Talbot has never started a post-season game. There are no easy matchups in the West, and you could see the young Oilers dropping a tough one at home early on against a seasoned opponent and never recovering.
So do they belong in the five-spot? If you wanted to swap in Anaheim here instead, you could. Maybe the Rangers. Or maybe you just throw up your hands and leave Montreal there for another week. Those would all work. But in a league where we still have a clear top four and then a question mark, the Oilers have as good a case as anyone.
Maybe that case falls apart in a few weeks, or even sooner. But for now… why not?
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. Detroit Red Wings (31-35-12, -46): With the streak officially over, there isn’t much to play for this week beyond giving The Joe a worthy sendoff. The arena will host its last game on Sunday, when the Wings take on the Devils.
4. Vancouver Canucks (30-39-9, -56): One week, three games, two goals, three losses. Check, please.
3. New Jersey Devils (27-37-14, -54): The game may not have mattered much, but things got heated between the Devils and Flyers on Saturday.
2. Arizona Coyotes (29-41-9, -65): Wins over the Caps and Kings are nice, unless you’re a Coyotes fan watching the lottery odds.
Now that we’ve moved the Oilers into the top five based on their recent hot streak, let’s look at the other side of the coin. How concerned should we be about three playoff teams that look awful these days?
Let’s start in Minnesota, where the Wild haven’t looked right in a month. Since the end of February, they’ve won just five of 17, and those five have come against teams — the Avs, Senators, Panthers and Sharks twice — who don’t beat anyone these days. The Wild continue to give up goals at an alarming rate, with Devan Dubnyk struggling through a shaky March, posting an .889 save percentage. Over that time, they’ve gone from contending for the West’s top seed to watching the Blackhawks blow by them.
The good news is that they’ll still have home ice in the first round. And at least part of the Wild’s skid can be blamed on some iffy percentages, which tends to even out over the long run. Of course, the long run doesn’t matter much anymore – the Wild need to get this figured out now or risk an early playoff exit. Luckily, the schedule serves up a good chance to get back on track with some soft matchups to close out the season. They beat the Avalanche yesterday and get them again this week, along with the Hurricanes and Coyotes.
Over in the Pacific, the Sharks snapped a six-game losing streak this week, but have dropped to third in the division. Some of those losses haven’t even been close; in the last ten days, they’ve dropped games by final scores of 7–2, 6–1 and 5–2. The absence of Logan Couture, who took a puck in the mouth last weekend, has exposed some issues up front, and Joe Thornton got hurt last night. And like the Wild, the Sharks have seen their goaltender go cold, with Martin Jones posting an .885 March.
Unlike the Wild, the Sharks aren’t locked into home ice. And if they continue to struggle this week, they could even drop as far as the second wild-card spot, which would mean a first-round matchup with the Blackhawks. Needless to say, that would be a disaster, which gives the Sharks’ season-ending homestand against the Canucks, Oilers and Flames some added urgency. Last night’s win helps, but there’s still work to do.
Finally, there are the injury-riddled Senators. A few weeks ago, they were making an inspiring late-season run at the Canadiens for the Atlantic title. Since then, they’ve lost eight of 10 (including three against Montreal) to fall all the way to a wild-card spot. They’ve already lost Marc Methot thanks to Sidney Crosby’s slash, Erik Karlsson missed Saturday’s game with a foot injury, and Cody Ceci left that game after getting tangled up along the boards. Mix in injuries to Zack Smith and Alex Burrows, and the Senators are struggling to ice a full a lineup.
Like the Sharks, that’s left Ottawa facing the prospect of a wild-card matchup against a powerhouse, in this case whoever takes top spot in the Metro. The Senators have games in hand on the Bruins and travel to Boston for a head-to-head showdown on Thursday, and they’ve got an easier schedule than the Maple Leafs. With Karlsson expected to return soon, home ice is still very much on the table in Ottawa.
All three teams should make the playoffs. And history has generally shown that going into the post-season without momentum doesn’t make all that much difference. As long as Ottawa and San Jose can avoid matchups with top seeds, nobody should be panicking. But panicking is what the hockey world does best at this time of year, and fans of all three teams will be hoping for at least some signs of life over the season’s final week.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• We had a very scary moment on Saturday as Flyers’ goalie Michal Neuvirth collapsed during a stoppage. The culprit may have been a clogged sinus; he spent the night in hospital and was released yesterday, and will be reevaluated today.
• Dubnyk didn’t look like a guy who was slumping with this save-of-the-weekend candidate last night:
• Jonathan Quick‘s may have been even better:
• Colin White is on his way to Ottawa. The recently signed Boston College star apparently showed enough in a brief AHL stint to earn a promotion, and is expected to play tonight against the Red Wings.
• This is a good read on Brendan Shanahan taking one last skate at Joe Louis Arena.
• The Islanders may be nearly done, but the Josh Ho-Sang era remains fun:
• Finally, a Gold Plan standings update. In an alternate universe where the NHL’s draft system encouraged winning instead of tanking, the flatlining Avalanche have coughed up their huge head start and seen Arizona shoot past them. But the Coyotes aren’t alone; three straight wins by the Jets have them tied for the top pick with a week to go.