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: Sweet 16
Never in doubt — right, Leafs fans?
Heading into the season’s final weekend, there were a handful of first-round matchups left to be determined. But there was only one playoff spot on the line. And even that one was supposed to be all but locked in, at least according to the oddsmakers.
But “in theory” never gets you very far with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is why Leafs nation wasn’t in an especially great mood heading into the weekend. Toronto went into the season’s final days needing two points out of two games, and while the standings suggested that matchups with the Penguins and Blue Jackets were tough ones, neither Metro team had anything left to play for. Even a pair of Leafs losses could have been enough, especially if the Lightning and Islanders lost their own games. For most teams, it would be a slam dunk.
But again, these are the Leafs, where closing things out has been a bit of an issue over the last, oh, decade or so. And so you could forgive Maple Leafs fans for expecting the worse, and fans of every other team for gleefully waiting for the inevitable collapse.
And sure enough, Saturday’s showdown with the Penguins went exactly to script. Phil Kessel hadn’t scored in forever, but he did against the Leafs, because of course he did. Frederik Andersen got hurt and had to leave the game, because of course he did. The Maple Leafs scored the go-ahead goal into their own net on some sort of soccer set play in the third period, because the ghost of Harold Ballard showing up and flinging the puck into the top corner would have been just a little too on-the-nose.
This was every Toronto Maple Leafs game of the salary-cap era all rolled into one. Right up until it wasn’t.
The Leafs tied it with five minutes left on Kasperi Kapanen‘s first-ever NHL goal, one that was just a little heavy on the symbolism:
Not only was Kapanen the key prospect in the Kessel trade, but his father figured prominently in the closing credits of the Maple Leafs’ last full-season playoff run. That’s how long it’s been since the Leafs had a season like this — children are showing up to avenge their ancestors.
Then Auston Matthews got his 40th before the final buzzer. And just like that, the Leafs were in.
So where does it go from here? Probably not very far, if we’re being honest. The Leafs coughed up a golden chance at a very winnable matchup with Ottawa by dropping last night’s finale against Columbus. They’ll get the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Caps instead, and the best thing you could say about that matchup from a Toronto perspective is that they’ll get a first-hand look at the sort of team they aspire to be someday.
But the team says Andersen should be OK and the Leafs did have some success against Braden Holtby this year, so who knows? It’s not like the Capitals haven’t endured a playoff collapse or two of their own over the years. The Leafs have already defied the odds to make it this far, so what’s a 23-point gap in the standings? Maybe they’ll make things interesting.
Or maybe not. Chances are, the Leafs will get roughly four games’ worth of playoff experience and then call it a season. But that’s four more than anyone thought they’d get heading into this season. And it’s probably four more than most of their fans thought they’d be getting when Jake Gardiner was punting a potential game-winner into his own net.
Meanwhile, four other Canadian teams had already locked down their spot in the playoffs. But could any crack the end-of-season top five? On to the power rankings…
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, +54 true goals differential*): They came down the stretch with six straight losses before last night’s win, earned just one win against a playoff team since March 2, and get a first-round matchup with the Penguins. It’s still been a great season, but if they’re going to make any playoff noise, they’ll have to earn it.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, +49): They coasted through two meaningless games to close out the season. Now the question becomes who can get healthy for the playoffs, and how long they can stay that way.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, +28): They’ll be the West’s top seed, but that Predators’ matchup is tougher than it looks.
1. Washington Capitals (55-19-8, +84): Make it back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy wins and solid Stanley Cup–favourite status. Hey, what could go wrong?
*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.
So with the full clarity of a completed regular season, the top five is… still a mess.
The Capitals and Blackhawks are easy picks for the top two. Maybe you flip the order, especially if you believe that past results can predict the future, but I doubt we’ll get too much pushback on that duo topping the list. And the Penguins are a reasonable No. 3, even though Kris Letang‘s absence is worrisome and they’ll have to go through the Capitals to get out of round two.
After that, yikes. The Ducks get the fourth spot by virtue of winning the Pacific and securing a relatively straightforward path to the final four. If that sounds like faint praise, well, it is. But it’s still enough to move them ahead of the Blue Jackets, who are in a freefall and have the absolute toughest possible path out of the first two rounds of anyone. Record aside, should they even be in the top five at all? I’m not convinced they should, and some are counting them out altogether. But I’m also not sure who should move up and replace them.
So since it’s the last weekend of the season, let’s go the extra mile and close out our Cup Chase section with the next five – the teams that finished just outside of the top five, and maybe should be bumping a team like the Ducks or Blue Jackets out of their spots.
6. Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9, +36): They fell just short of the Pacific title (and the matchup with the Flames we all wanted to see), but they still go into the playoffs on a roll and with as good a shot as anyone in the West outside of the Blackhawks.
7. Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, +25): Top spot in the Atlantic wasn’t much of a prize given the matchup it brings, but the Habs deserve credit for putting the division to bed down the stretch.
8. Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, +57): Their late-season slump dropped them out of the top five, but they’ve quietly put together a nice finish with four straight wins. Did those wins come against good teams? [Checks schedule]. Nope. But they’ll take it.
9. New York Rangers (48-28-6, +37): They’ve been essentially locked into their playoff spot for weeks, so it’s hard to know how much weight to put on a lackluster finish.
10. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7, +19): Flip a coin between them and the Blues for the last spot in our top 10.
That still leaves six playoff teams outside our top 10, so we can pretty much guarantee one of them is winning the Cup. It’s just been one of those years.
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. Buffalo Sabres (33-37-12, -32): Last year, the Atlantic sent three teams to the playoffs. This year, they sent four completely different ones. The only consistent result across the two seasons: The Sabres on the outside looking in.
2. Vancouver Canucks (30-43-9, -63): Eight straight losses to slip past the Coyotes into second-last overall was probably an ideal end to the season, all things considered.
1. Colorado Avalanche (22-56-4, -111): Perspective: The Canucks would need to improve by 21 points to get to the 90-point mark, a huge leap that would still only get them onto the periphery of the playoff race. The Avalanche would need to improve by 21 points to tie the Canucks for 29th.
There’s not all that much to say about our end-of-season bottom five. The list is meant to represent the teams with the best shot at the draft lottery, so at this point there’s no more speculation or prognosticating left to do – it’s just the bottom of the standings. (Technically the Golden Knights should probably be listed in the No. 3 spot, since that’s where they’ll slot in for the ping pong balls, but they’ll have to wait for next year.)
So instead of dwelling on the league’s worst teams, or finding an excuse to circle back to its best, let’s take a look back on the season with a question: Which teams went the whole year without making either list?
First, a few numbers. Over the course of the season, 14 different teams appeared in the bottom five, while this week’s Ducks became the twelfth and final team to claim top-five honours. Those totals include one team that managed to appear on both lists – the Blue Jackets, who held down the No. 1 spot in the bottom five way back in week one thanks to a winless start before quickly establishing themselves as one of the league’s better teams.
As you’d probably expect, those volatile early weeks produced some rankings that don’t hold up well in hindsight. Three eventual playoff teams show up in the bottom five early on, with the Flames, Leafs and Predators all stumbling out of the gate. And it’s fair to say that the Lightning’s appearance in the early top-five rankings may have been a little too optimistic for where they were headed.
So if we had 12 teams make the good list, 14 on the bad, and one doing double duty, that leaves us with five teams that stayed away entirely. You could call them the Mediocre Five – the teams that spent the entire season hanging out in the league’s mushy middle, never quite good or bad enough to get singled out for the power-rankings spotlight.
Two of those were playoff teams, and fittingly enough they’ll face each other in the opening round: the Bruins and Senators. Ottawa actually came close to cracking the top five in late November, but fell just short. The Bruins were probably closer to the other end of the scale, and seemed headed in that direction when they fired Claude Julien, but rebounded enough to make the playoffs and avoid any serious bottom-five consideration.
The other three stuck-in-the-middle teams were all playoff participants last year who suffered through disappointing seasons this time. The Flyers peaked with their 10-game win streak in December, but the logjam of good Metro teams kept them out of any serious top-five consideration.
The Panthers were closer to the bottom-five side of things, especially when they were hitting rock bottom in November, but never fell quite that far. And then there’s quite possibly the most disappointing team of all: The Kings, who settled into a spot on the edge of the Western playoff bubble and spent most of the season there. Cup-contender status aside, they were never all that close to making either list.
Maybe next year, guys.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• In addition to the playoff matchups, we can close the book on some of the season’s awards. Connor McDavid gets the Art Ross (and hits the 100-point milestone), Sidney Crosby takes the Rocket Richard, and Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer earn the Jennings. Ballots for the rest of the awards are due on Wednesday, so beat the rush by yelling at your favourite sportswriter about them now.
• The final weekend of the season always brings a few goodbyes with it. The weekend marked the final game for Shawn Thornton, and maybe Chris Neil, too. Bob Miller called his last game for the Kings. And after a long journey back to the NHL, Bryan Bickell announced his decision to retire, and then gave us the weekend’s best moment:
• We also said goodbye to the old Joe Louis Arena, which hosted its final game yesterday; here’s a good look back at some of the rink’s best memories. Detroit’s win over the Devils was also the 1,000th game of Henrik Zetterberg‘s career and featured the first goal of Riley Sheahan‘s season.
• It’s coach-firing time, and we already have a few openings. We knew the Panthers weren’t bringing back Tom Rowe behind the bench, and yesterday we found out that Lindy Ruff is out in Dallas.
• It was a big weekend in college hockey, with Will Butcher winning the Hobey Baker and Denver beating Minnesota 3–2 to win their eighth NCAA title.
• Congratulations to Team USA, who took home the Women’s World Championship with a 3-2 overtime win over Team Canada on Friday night. Hillary Knight scored the winner.
• Your final Gold Plan standings update, from an alternate universe where NHL teams earn the top draft pick with wins instead of lottery drawings: The Winnipeg Jets take home the top spot with 12 post-elimination points, beating out the Coyotes (nine) and Avalanche (seven, despite a multi-week head start).
• And that will do it for the regular season. On to the playoffs; you can find the full schedule right here.