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: The final countdown
With one week to go in the season, we can skip the dramatic preamble and cut right to the chase. Here’s where we’re at.
In the East, the Panthers are on life support, as a late-season slump threatens to derail their second-half comeback. They’ve dropped three straight, including Saturday’s loss in Boston. That one was especially demoralizing. Not only did they come away empty in a game where they needed to pick up some points, but the Bruins loom as their most likely first-round opponent if they do make it in, and the Panthers didn’t look like they could keep up. The news got even worse last night, as the Devils earned a comeback win in Montreal by a 2-1 final. The Panthers now trail New Jersey by seven points and the Flyers by eight for an Eastern wild card spot.
The only real good news for the Panthers is they still hold two games in hand over both New Jersey and Philadelphia. That’s a mixed blessing this late in the year, since it means five games crammed into seven nights for a team that already looks like it’s running out of steam. And some of those games will be tough ones, with two more against the Bruins and one against the Predators. It’s possible that one or both of those teams could be resting guys this week, and the other two games against the Sabres and Hurricanes are winnable. But right now, the situation in Florida is bleak, and even a 5-0-0 finish might not be enough.
Things are looking a lot more interesting out West, where we’ve got four teams still in it and three spots up for grabs. The biggest game of the weekend was Sunday’s matchup between Colorado and Anaheim, and it featured an early Avalanche lead, a third-period Ducks comeback, and an Ondrej Kase overtime winner. The win moved the Ducks to third in the Pacific, bumping the Kings back down to a wild card spot and officially eliminating the Stars. The Avalanche currently hold the other wild card, with the Blues lurking a point behind but holding a game in hand on all three teams.
There are lots of ways this could all play out over the next week, but it may come down to Saturday’s showdown between the Blues and Avalanche in Colorado. Despite holding a spot right now, the Avs may be facing the longest odds after learning that they’ll finish the season without Semyon Varlamov or Erik Johnson. They’re not the only team hurting, as the Ducks lost John Gibson and Cam Fowler last night and we’re not sure yet if either injury is serious.
Further up the standings, we still need to sort out the battle between the Bruins and Lightning for top seed in the Atlantic (and the Eastern Conference). The Capitals have clinched the Metro’s top spot after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh, but the rest of the division’s seedings are up for grabs. The Jets won’t catch Nashville for first place in the Central, but they’re making the Predators work for it. And the Knights are home and cooled out in the Pacific, but still have something to play for thanks to an outside shot at the Presidents’ Trophy.
Of course, that only covers the races involving teams. At an individual level, there’s still plenty left to sort out, as we’ll see in the next section.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup-favourite status.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (50-22-7, plus-50 true goals differential*): The team raised a banner on Saturday honouring the 58 victims of the October shooting.
4. Winnipeg Jets (48-20-10, plus-51): They went into Toronto to preview a potential dream Cup final, and looked like the better team from start to finish.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (52-23-4, plus-51): Sunday saw them drop a 4-1 decision to the Predators, and potentially lose captain Steven Stamkos to a lower-body injury. He appeared to get tangled up in front of his net and didn’t return.
2. Boston Bruins (49-17-12, plus-60): Brad Marchand update: Still extremely Brad Marchand.
1. Nashville Predators (51-17-11, plus-55): Predators fans are pretty much the only thing that makes replay review tolerable.
The Sabres challenged a goal so the Predators fan turned on their phone lights and sung “Let It Be” by The Beatles pic.twitter.com/ej5DgLPFIS
— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) April 1, 2018
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
It’s almost over. Six months of black eyes, bloodied noses and broken bones are almost over. Very soon, the battle will be over, and the healing can begin.
I’m not talking about the regular season. That’s been child’s play. I mean the real battle: the fight over who should be this year’s Hart Trophy winner as MVP.
Midway through the season, it looked like this was going to be easy. When the PHWA released its midseason awards, Nikita Kucherov was the easy pick. He checked all the boxes – a high-flying forward on a Cup contender, one who was solidly in the lead for the Art Ross. Easy choice. Next.
Lord, those were simpler times.
Over the course of the second half of the season, the Hart Trophy debate has gone from a simple hockey conversation to an argument over syntax and semantics, with occasional gusts into the territory of insufferable college philosophy majors – like, what even is “value,” man?
It’s been a nightmare. And with one week to go, there’s only one way it can end: It needs to get worse. So much worse.
Around these parts, we go by the tenet that when in doubt, you root for maximum chaos. And since the Hart Trophy is very much in doubt right now, it’s time for things to get crazy. So today, let’s outline the worst possible way this week could end for Hart Trophy voters – which is to say, the best way it could go for the rest of us.
By my count, here’s the 10-point plan of what needs to happen:
1. Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche miss the playoffs by one point.
2. Taylor Hall and the Devils somehow do, too.
3. Connor McDavid finishes the year with a dozen points in his last three games, giving him the Art Ross in a double-digits runaway. The Oilers lose all three games in blowouts and miss the playoffs by 20-plus points. The ongoing “you have to make the playoffs to be MVP” debate breaks into a fistfight at every PHWA local office. (The local offices are bars, by the way.)
4. Patrik Laine has a big week and wins the Rocket Richard, simultaneously torpedoing the longshot candidacies of Alexander Ovechkin and teammate Blake Wheeler.
5. Evgeni Malkin scores three goals, but each one is assisted by Sidney Crosby and everyone remembers that it’s hard to be the MVP on the league when you’re not the MVP of your own team.
6. Brad Marchand gets suspended and we all realize a guy who’s doing this stuff all the time can’t be MVP. We all agree to pretend that 1999-2000 never happened.
7. Vegas fans complain that none of their players are getting serious consideration and probably have a point, but nobody has any sympathy at all.
8. Claude Giroux has another big game, but everyone is like, “Not now Claude, the field is too crowded already.”
9. Aleksander Barkov continues to play for the Panthers. Anze Kopitar continues to play on the West Coast. Every goaltender and defenceman in the league continues to not be a forward.
10. Kucherov plays the entire last week holding a sign that reads, “No seriously, wasn’t I the runaway favourite like a month ago?” but nobody notices.
This can happen. We can do this. Come on, NHL. Bring the chaos.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft lottery simulations.
5. Vancouver Canucks (30-40-9, minus-42): Saturday’s win over the Blue Jackets came in the long-awaited debut of goalie prospect Thatcher Demko.
4. Montreal Canadiens (28-39-12, minus-49): Montreal fans got their first look at 24-year-old Kerby Rychel, who came over from Toronto in the Tomas Plekanec trade. He played 9:24 in a loss to the Devils on Sunday.
3. Arizona Coyotes (28-40-11, minus-44): Clayton Keller was named rookie of the month for March. He also took home the honours in October, back when it looked like he’d run away with the Calder Trophy, which for you kids out there is what the Mathew Barzal Award used to be called.
1. Buffalo Sabres (25-41-12, minus-72): Jack Eichel had five assists on Saturday and Sam Reinhart had three goals. That provides a timely reminder for Sabres fans that sometimes finishing dead last and then losing the draft lottery isn’t the end of the world.
Now that we’ve covered the races for playoff spots, seeding, and the Hart Trophy – you know, the positive things – we can get to the fun stuff. Who’s finishing dead last?
It’s been a weird week for the lottery race. The Red Wings and Canucks have both launched late-season winning streaks that have taken them out of contention for last spot, and could even put them in danger of catching the next tier of teams like the Islanders, Blackhawks and Oilers. You can chalk those wins up as moral victories if you want, but for a pair of teams who desperately need the kind of blue-chip prospects that lottery luck can deliver, it’s hard not to wonder if they’ll end up being costly.
Then there’s the two teams who’ve been camped out at the bottom of the power rankings almost all season long. The Sabres and Coyotes are both all-too-familiar with riding out the stretch, and both were faced with Saturday matchups against far better teams. And both pulled off upset wins, with the Sabres putting seven goals past the Predators and the Coyotes scoring six in a shutout win over the Blues.
That leaves two teams who’ve had the good sense to lose some games. The Canadiens dropped both of their weekend contests in regulation, losing to the Penguins on Saturday and the Devils a day later. They’re probably too far up to have any real shot at dead last, but a final-week slide down to top-three lottery odds suddenly seems plausible.
Meanwhile, the Senators rolled over for the Red Wings, and have lost seven of their last eight. They’ve got four games left, and three of those come against Cup contenders, with the Jets in town Monday and the Penguins and Bruins closing out the week. In between comes what could end up being the game of the year: Wednesday’s battle with the Sabres. That could be the one that determines whether Ottawa can finish dead last for the first time since they did it in each of their first four seasons in the league.
In an alternate universe where the NHL rewards winning instead of tanking, that game would edge-of-your-seat stuff. Instead, both teams will find reason to “rest” key players and fans will be praying for a regulation loss. That’s just the way it goes when it gets late down here at the bottom of the standings.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The goal of the weekend, and maybe the season: Vegas’s William Karlsson goes between the legs against the Sharks.
• Nearly as good: Giroux fakes the same move on yesterday’s OT winner.
• Some big injury news out of Minnesota, where Ryan Suter reportedly has a broken fibula and is out indefinitely. That’s a crushing blow to a Wild team that had been flying under the radar as a contender, and could make the Jets’ path out of the first round easier.
• Boston’s Brandon Carlo is also out after suffering the same injury when he fell awkwardly on Saturday.
• Blue Jackets defenceman Ian Cole managed to rare feat of facing supplemental discipline on a tripping call. He was fined $5,000 for an incident against Brandan Sutter on Saturday.
• We had a scary moment in New Jersey on Saturday, where Kyle Palmieri narrowly missed a serious injury after catching a teammate’s stick under the eye.
• Saturday’s win clinches a top-two spot in the Central for the Jets, meaning Winnipeg will host the opening game of a playoff series for the first time in 33 years.
• With the Leafs locked into third in the Atlantic and awaiting either the Lightning or Bruins in the first round, the big question in Toronto is how much rest Mike Babcock sees fit to hand out to his troops.
• Sunday marked the 1,000th game of Alexander Ovechkin’s career.
• Finally, while the game didn’t mean much, the Flames and Oilers rekindled just a bit of that Battle of Alberta magic during Saturday’s Calgary win.