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: Planting the seeds
With two weeks left in the regular season, there’s good news and bad news for anyone hoping for a frantic sprint to the finish line.
The bad news: This year’s playoff bubble has been kind of a bust. In the East, we’ve got four teams fighting for two spots, and one of those teams, the Maple Leafs, was starting to look like a lock before Frederik Andersen got hurt on Saturday. That puts the Leafs back in the mix with the Bruins, Lightning and Islanders; that race should be fun, and we’ll look at it in more detail a few sections down, but right now isn’t exactly a high-drama free-for-all. And in the West, we’re basically done; only the Kings are still in the chase, and their odds are on life support.
Add it all up, and 13 of the 16 playoff spots are already spoken for, and that number could be 14 or even 15 within another few days. So much for the season of parity.
But here’s the good news: The battle to figure out which playoff teams will slot in where is still wide open. The Rangers have been locked into the East’s first wild-card spot for a while now, and it seems safe to pencil the Blackhawks in as the top seed out West. Beyond that, it’s chaos.
That chaos may not make or break anyone’s chances – being the home team in a playoff matchup is less important in today’s NHL than in just about any other pro sport. Still, seeding does matter, and all else being equal teams will want to finish in the best spot they can.
Nowhere is that fact more important than at the top of the Metro, where three of the league’s best teams are fighting for first place. The stakes really couldn’t be any higher; take the top seed, and you get to play a wild-card team you’ll have finished about 25 points ahead of during the season. But the teams that finish second and third are stuck playing each other, guaranteeing that one of the league’s very best teams will be out in the first round. The Capitals would seem to have the edge here, holding a lead and facing a schedule that includes the sad-sack Coyotes and Avalanche. But there’s also a matchup in there with the Blue Jackets, who also face the Penguins, so this one isn’t over yet.
The Atlantic got some clarity on Saturday, with the Canadiens beating the Senators for the third time in eight nights. That put Montreal up by three, and while Ottawa still holds a game in hand, the Habs will probably own the ROW tie-breaker. Of course, we’re not sure whether finishing first in the Atlantic is a good thing, with the Rangers waiting for the winner. For most of the last few months, it’s seemed like it might be better to drop down to second and face someone like Toronto or Boston. But with New York suddenly stumbling, that matchup (and guaranteed home ice through at least the first two rounds) suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
Then there’s the Pacific, where the Sharks have seen a lead that had grown as large as nine points on March 14 shrink to nothing/a deficit after six straight losses, with the Ducks, Oilers and even the Flames all in the mix to take the top seed. Top spot in the Western divisions isn’t looming quite as large as in the East because the wild cards aren’t all that far behind, but home ice will help.
Then there are those potential rivalry matchups, like Ottawa/Toronto, Calgary/Edmonton, Anaheim/San Jose or Montreal/Boston. We flagged that possibility a few weeks back, and they’ve grown more likely since. You’ve also got a good battle for third in the Central between the Predators and Blues, one that seems even more important as the second-place Wild continue to freefall.
Add it all up, and there’s still an awful lot at stake over the next few weeks. You just have to look above the bubble to find it.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Montreal Canadiens (42-24-9, +16 true goals differential*): They return to the top five after a two-month absence. Do I feel good about this pick? Not remotely, as we’ll discuss down below.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (48-19-7, +61): Sergei Bobrovsky has given up three goals in his last four starts. This week brings the Sabres and Hurricanes, but then comes three straight against the top three teams in our rankings.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (46-17-11, +53): Did the whole “Eugene Melnyk vs. Sidney Crosby” thing have anyone else spending way too much time trying to figure out a realistic scenario where the Penguins and Senators meet in the first round? No? Just me? Good to know. (But for the record, it’s unlikely but not impossible.)
2. Washington Capitals (49-17-8, +78): With four straight wins, they seem to have snapped out of the brief funk they were in at the start of the month.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (48-21-6, +30): They hold down first spot for a second week in a row, and with the path out of the Metro looking so much tougher than the Central, it’s a good bet that they keep it the rest of the way. Uh, unless they keep doing whatever that was they did against the Panthers.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
That’s right, the Habs are back in the top five. I don’t like it – they sure don’t look like a top-five team. Heck, they’re coming off a week where they lost to the Hurricanes and Red Wings. I see you rolling your eyes at the pick, and I’m with you.
So why does Montreal sneak back onto the list for the first time since mid-January? For starters, we have to acknowledge that they’ve had three playoff-style games in the last week against the Senators, and they won all three. That has to count for something, especially with the real playoffs right around the corner. And a lot of the issues that had pushed them out of top-contender status – a lack of balanced scoring, a fatigue-heavy schedule, a Carey Price slump – don’t seem to be issues any more.
But more importantly, if the Canadiens don’t feel like a top-five pick (and they don’t), then who else actually does? Most weeks, the tough part of making a top-five list is leaving teams off. With two weeks left in the season, it’s suddenly a struggle to find decent candidates to include.
The Sharks? They’ve held down the spot for the last three weeks, but they’re ice cold right now. The Ducks or Oilers? Both have solid cases, but the Pacific seems so hard to figure right now that it’s tempting to just leave it alone for another week to see how it shakes out. The Rangers? They might be the best candidate, especially with Henrik Lundqvist back, but they’ve won only three of their last nine, and haven’t won at home in over a month.
And then you’ve got a one-time Cup contender that’s still right up there in terms of total points and recently held down a top-five spot for 10 straight weeks. That would be the Wild, who’ve been colder than anyone other than the Sharks, the only team they’ve beaten in their last nine. They’re getting booed by their own fans and hammered by their coach. They still have time to figure it out, but right now there’s no way they get near a top-five spot.
So we end up with Montreal, almost by default, and largely because the rules say “pass” isn’t an option. Maybe it’s a placeholder pick until things clarify in the Pacific, or until the Rangers leave us with no choice. Until then, the Habs are our number five, but let’s go ahead and call it a low five.
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.
4. Detroit Red Wings (30-32-12, -41): This week brings rare road games on consecutive nights against the same opponent, as they face Carolina back to back. (Tonight’s is the makeup for the December game that was postponed due to ice issues.) It also probably brings mathematical elimination for the first time in many Wings’ fans’ entire lives.
3. New Jersey Devils (27-35-13, -50): This was neat: Blake Coleman got his first career goal yesterday, and it came against his hometown team. That’s not all that unusual, until you remember that the Devils were playing the Dallas Stars.
1. Colorado Avalanche (20-51-3, -103): Today’s “The Avalanche are terrible” stat: They were mathematically eliminated from not finishing dead last before 28 other NHL teams were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
While the Western race is basically done, the Eastern version got a lot more complicated over the weekend.
That started in Brooklyn on Saturday. Four straight losses had dropped the Bruins from being last week’s sleeper Cup pick to struggling for their playoff lives, facing the Islanders in what stood as the league’s most important game of the season so far. With Boston fading and the Islanders right on their tail, the game had a good chance of determining the East’s final wild-card spot. The Bruins will hope that it does just that, thanks to a 2–1 win powered by a pair of Riley Nash goals.
That result was also reasonably good news for the Lightning, who’d had the rest of the weekend off after a win on Friday. They wanted to see a regulation result, and they got it, leaving them three back of the Bruins and one behind the Islanders. The Lightning also hold a game in hand on Boston.
Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs may have suffered a disaster on Saturday in Buffalo, when Andersen left with an upper-body injury that sure sounded like a concussion. The goaltender skated Monday morning, but we still don’t know how much time he’ll miss (if any). Without an especially reliable backup in place, any absence would be enough to drag the Leafs back into a wild-card race that they’d seemed on the verge of leaving behind.
So that leaves us with four teams and two spots. Or does it? There’s a case to be made for a fifth team, and it’s one that’s been all but written off for most of the season. Do you like underdogs that quietly lurk in the weeds until the very last moment, then spring up and ruin everything? Then you might enjoy the Carolina Hurricanes.
After three straight wins, the Hurricanes are within five points of the Bruins for the wild card. They have two games in hand on Boston, and one each on the Islanders, Lightning and Leafs. And while the schedule serves up a few tough games the rest of the way, they do get the Red Wings twice this week. Win both of those, and they’re right in the mix.
That’s the good news. But realistically, the Hurricanes may have left their playoff charge too late. With just nine games left, they’d need to nearly run the table to get to 95 points; even something like 6-1-2 would leave them with just 93. That could be enough, but only if three of the teams ahead of them all went cold. And they still have games left with the Penguins and Blue Jackets, so if they lose both of those, they’d have to be absolutely perfect the rest of the way just to get to that 93 floor.
This is one of those cases where “five points back” sounds a lot closer than it is. Thanks to the loser point, it’s hard to make up that much ground over two weeks, especially against multiple teams who keep mysteriously managing to play three-point games. So while the Hurricanes probably belong in the Eastern discussion today, they’d need a furious finish to still be in the picture at the finish line.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• Celebration of the weekend honours go to Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, reminding us that Leafs/Sabres is a year or two away from being one of the best rivalries in the entire league.
• The Maple Leafs aren’t the only Atlantic bubble team that might be missing their goaltender. The Bruins managed that big win over the Islanders without the services of Tuukka Rask, who missed the game with a lower body injury. He’s day-to-day.
• We had an ugly moment between the Sharks and Predators, as Micheal Haley earned a major for this punch on Calle Jarnkrok. So far, no word from the Department of Player Safety on any supplemental discipline.
• Earlier in that game, San Jose’s Logan Couture that cost him a tooth.
• It took a little longer than usual, but Alex Ovechkin has hit the 30-goal mark again. He joins Wayne Gretzky and Mike Gartner as the only players to do it in each of their first 12 seasons.
• The dispute between USA Hockey and the women’s national team drags on, with the governing body continuing to look awful. They’ve apparently spent much of the week contacting replacement players for the World Championships, and being repeatedly and publicly rejected. The NHLPA, MLBPA and NFLPA have all weighed in with support for the players.
If your team is bad this year and looks like they might be worse next year, this clip of 2018 draft class prospect Rasmus Dahlin in the Swedish playoffs is worth a few dozen views.
• Finally, happy anniversary to the Red Wings/Avalanche brawl, which happened 20 years ago yesterday. We broke the whole thing down a few days ago, but give it another watch if you’d like to see how much the game has changed over the years and/or feel really old.