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: Two weeks to go
That’s it. Two weeks from today, the regular season will be over and we’ll be on to the playoffs. We’ll be breaking down matchups without any of those “if the playoffs started today” caveats. We’ll know what the lottery odds look like. Awards voters will be hard at work on their now-public ballots. The way things are shaping up, we’ll probably also be in the middle of a few days’ worth of coach and GM firings. We’ll have a couple of days without any games, but there will be plenty to talk about, and a lot more clarity than we have right now.
But first we have to get there, and a lot can change in two weeks. So today, let’s take a moment to regroup and figure out where we’re at after the weekend’s action.
For starters, we can narrow down the playoff picture. The Flames are done. The Stars almost certainly are, too, after a pair of brutal weekend losses that saw them blow a third-period lead against the Bruins on Friday and then cough up a must-win against the Canucks last night. They’ve lost eight straight and are five points back, and the group ahead of them all have a game in hand. Unless Ben Bishop makes a miraculous recovery, the Stars aren’t going to be able to make up that ground.
That means it’s down to the Kings, Ducks, Avalanche and Blues in the West, with three spots up for grabs. The Blues are the surprise of that group, given how they’d all but surrendered at the deadline, but weekend wins over the Canucks and Blue Jackets made it five straight for them, so here we are.
One last thing we know about the Western Conference: Seven games of Predators vs. Jets needs to happen. Make it so, NHL. Rig it if you need to. After last night’s Jets win in a 5–4 barnburner, anything else will feel like a letdown. Just no shootouts this time, OK?
Over in the East, the Panthers are the only outsider with a chance. They’re chasing the Devils and (maybe) the Flyers and Blue Jackets, with everyone else home and cooled. Both division titles remain up for grabs, as is the possibility of the Leafs finishing with the conference’s third-best record, starting the playoffs on the road, and forcing us into a two-week national dialogue about the playoff format.
Filed under “still too close to call,” we’ve got the scoring race (although barely), the Rocket Richard, and the battle for both the Presidents’ Trophy and dead last overall.
That’s a lot left to figure out, and not much time to do it. Two weeks may not be much, but right now it’s all we’ve got. On to the power rankings…
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (47-21-7, +46 true goals differential*): Saturday’s OT loss to the Avalanche may have been the game of the weekend, at least among those that didn’t involve the Predators and Jets. We get a rematch tonight. First-round playoff preview? Yes, please.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (51-20-4, +55): Nikita Kucherov is no longer holding down top spot in the Art Ross race, as Connor McDavid edged past him on Saturday night and then opened up a four-point gap last night.
1. Nashville Predators (48-16-11, +53): Last night made it three straight losses for just the second time all season. Thing don’t get much easier, with the Wild and Sharks up next.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Some days, the Pacific Division can be easy enough to forget about. For the last few years it hasn’t been all that good, and if you’re talking about the division at all there’s a good chance you’re more focused on the train-wreck teams at the bottom than anything up top. The Kings occasionally win a Stanley Cup and the three-way Battle of California is one of the league’s few remaining rivalries worth caring about. But when you’re looking at the Western Conference, the Central is where the action is. The Pacific is just kind of there. It’s fine.
That was until this year, when the Golden Knights showed up and almost instantly became the best story in the league. Plenty of us took a while to warm up to the Knights as something more than a fluke, but the bandwagon is full now. They’re going to win the division and head into the playoffs with home ice. And for most of the year, they’ve looked like they had a great shot at actually making it to the conference final, because nobody else in the Pacific was any good. We certainly couldn’t ignore the division anymore, because the Knights were there. But the other six teams? Not a true contender to be found.
Well, maybe we need a late-season update. Because the San Jose Sharks are getting scary.
On Saturday, they put the Flames out of their misery. OK, fine, they kept the Flames out of their misery, but we’re sticking with the bit. That one saw 37 saves from Martin Jones and two goals from Evander Kane on the way to a 5–1 San Jose win.
Beating the Flames isn’t all that impressive these days. But the win was the seventh straight for the Sharks, who’ve looked like a different team since the trade deadline. Kane was the big addition there, and he hasn’t exactly lit it up when he’s not playing the Flames; six of his seven goals as a Shark have come against Calgary. But the Sharks are 11-2-0 since adding him, and the rest of the offence has been rolling. They’ve averaged just under five goals per game during the streak, and Saturday was the sixth time they’ve scored at least four.
When the streak started, the Sharks were in the middle of the Western race, just two points up on ninth place. Now, there’s no suspense left on them making the post-season. But maybe there’s just a little question as to whether they can do something that would have seemed impossible just a few weeks ago — catch the Golden Knights for top spot. They’re six points back with seven to play and won’t have the tie-breaker, so it’s a long shot. But it’s not out of the question, especially since they do have a game left with Vegas.
What they don’t have, mercifully, are any games left against the Flames. The rest of the schedule is actually pretty tough, with everyone after tonight’s matchup with the Blackhawks being either a Cup contender or a wild-card hopeful in must-win mode. If they’re going to stay hot into the playoffs, they’ll have to earn it.
If we go ahead and pencil them in for second, that sets up a California matchup with the Kings or Ducks, and hockey fans would take that. They’d also probably be a popular pick to come out of the division and head to the conference final. We’ll stop short of predicting that, if only because we don’t have a great track record in that area. But for now at least, nobody can beat these guys.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
4. Ottawa Senators (26-37-11, -54): The Senators lost their fourth straight, falling 5-2 to the Hurricanes on Saturday, but it was great to see Erik Karlsson back in the lineup. Meanwhile, this should go over well: Don Cherry has Eugene Melnyk’s back, and thinks the team would look good in Quebec.
3. Arizona Coyotes (25-39-11, -52): I realize it’s technically true, but stuff like this will never not look weird:
2. Vancouver Canucks (27-40-9, -47): With six games to go, they’re on the verge of becoming the first team since the 2013–14 Devils to go an entire season without a shootout win.
1. Buffalo Sabres (23-40-12, -73): Make it four straight losses, all by three goals or more. I think the Sabres are ready for the season to be over.
When Senator fans aren’t watching their team play out the string or listening to Cherry muse about how nice Quebec City is, they’ve got a late-season puzzle to chew on. Call it the Case of the First-Round Pick.
The trade that saw Matt Duchene arrive in Ottawa sent a 2018 first-round pick to Colorado, but that pick was protected in the event that it ended up being in the top 10. That didn’t seem all that likely back in November, but as the season wore on and the Senators collapsed, the provision took on some serious importance. And things got interesting when it was revealed that the protection doesn’t kick in automatically – the Senators have the option to exercise it or not, meaning it’s up to them whether they give the Avalanche this year’s pick or hold off until next year. And they have until the day before the draft to make up their minds.
That means they’ll already know the lottery results, which is important. If they win a top pick, the discussion is moot and keeping the choice is a no-brainer. If they end up further down the top 10, though, things get interesting.
On the surface, it’s an easy-enough calculation. You see where you’re going to be picking this year; you project where you feel like you’ll be picking next year; you keep the better of those two picks. Easy.
But nothing is easy in Ottawa these days, and Pierre Dorion’s decision will go beyond basic math. It’s a hockey decision, sure. But for a team struggling to sell tickets, the choice also falls into the category of marketing, and even a little bit of psychology.
In short, if Dorion opts to send the Avalanche this year’s pick, he’s suggesting that he thinks the team is likely to finish next year just as bad or maybe worse than this one. That would seem like a reasonable assumption given how many holes in the roster have been exposed. But it’s a tough sell for the ticket department. “Hi there, this season was awful and our GM thinks next year will be even worse — how many season tickets can we put you down for?”
So maybe Dorion holds onto this year’s pick, projecting some hope for the future while also giving the team a shiny new prospect to sell to fans. But that means heading into next season as a bubble team that doesn’t own its own first-round pick. That’s just about the worst possible situation if the season goes bad; Ottawa fans wondering what it would be like can ask one of the city’s many Leafs fans, who’ve been through that scenario three times and saw the picks from those wasted seasons used by other teams on Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo and Tyler Seguin.
In other words, if Dorion keeps this year’s pick and sacrifices next year’s, he’s pretty much pushing all his chips in. Any kind of meaningful rebuild goes off the table, and another disappointing season risks turning into an even bigger disaster than this one. It’s one thing to think your team will be better next year, and to try to sell that optimism to fans. But would you bet your job on it?
Of course, like most of what happens in Ottawa these days, all this ties into the future of Erik Karlsson. If the team can re-sign their captain, next season looks brighter and all this gets a little easier. But even in that best-case scenario, the timing doesn’t synch up — Dorion will have to decide on his pick before he can officially get Karlsson’s signature on a new deal on July 1. And if the team ends up trading Karlsson, as seems more likely, then surely any optimism for a rebound season takes a hit.
Maybe all this plays out with the Senators finishing strong and pushing this year’s pick back to something like eighth or ninth, then trading Karlsson ahead of the draft for a windfall that includes a high 2018 pick. That would make sending this year’s choice to Colorado easier to swallow while leaving all options on the table for next season.
That’s hardly a good scenario, since it means Karlsson isn’t on the team any more. But that’s the thing; when it comes to the Case of the First-Round Pick, there doesn’t seem to be a good option. Like just about everything else in this miserable year for the Senators, it’s down to just figuring out what will hurt the least.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Well, that Oilers/Ducks overtime was… interesting. The Ducks win the opening faceoff, spend the entire first minute ragging the puck in their own zone to burn through Connor McDavid’s first shift, then head down the ice and immediately score the winner. It worked.
• The Leafs win over Detroit made it 13 straight at home while tying the franchise mark for wins in a season with 45. Next up — the single-season points record, which stands at 103. The Leafs are six points away from that one, with seven games to play.
• The wait is almost over in Nashville, as top prospect Eeli Tolvanen is expected to join the team shortly now that his KHL season is over. About time the Predators caught a break.
• The Penguins earned a fun win over the Flyers on Bryan Rust’s overtime winner in what could be another first-round preview.
• Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau picked up the 500th win of his career on Saturday. He’s the second-fastest coach to that mark, behind only Scotty Bowman.
• After 12 years on the job, Garth Snow has already lost a big chunk of Islanders fans. Now he’s losing the media, too, and some of them aren’t playing around.
• The most important save of the weekend may have come from James Reimer, who kept the Panthers in it on the way to a key comeback win over the Coyotes to stay in the Eastern race.
• We saw an odd sight on Saturday, as Patrick Kane got a tryout at centre against the Islanders. The moved worked out OK, as Kane scored a goal and the Hawks snapped a five-game losing streak.
• Congratulations to the Metropolitan Riveters, who captured the NWHL’s Isobel Cup with yesterday’s win over the Buffalo Beauts. Meanwhile, the Markham Thunder captured the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup with an overtime winner over the Kunlun Red Star.
• Finally, this made for an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how Hockey Night in Canada comes together every week.