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 four
Welcome to the home stretch.
We’re officially four weeks away from the NHL regular season being over. Four weeks from now, we’ll be spending Monday morning digesting an unusually busy weekend featuring 24 games packed into Saturday and Sunday. We’ll know who’s in and who’s out, and who’ll be playing who. A season’s worth of speculation, second-guessing and (in some cases) self-delusion will be over with, and 14 teams will be clearing out their lockers.
Now, we just have to get there. There’s still a lot to sort out between now and then.
One welcomed factor: The Games Played column has finally evened out. With the exception of the Hurricanes, who are a non-factor at this point, every team is within two games played of everyone else. We’re all done with bye weeks too, so those days of “they’re six points back but have five games in hand” are mercifully over.
The race for the final playoff spots in either conference will get most of the attention, although it’s not shaping up to be quite as wide a field as we thought we’d be getting. There are currently only three teams sitting outside of a playoff spot by five points or fewer; the West is especially sparse, with only the Kings so much as within eight. That could still give us some decent races down to the wire, but it’s an odd sight given that it was only a few weeks ago that almost everyone was still in it, or at least close enough to pretend they were.
It looks like we will get some decent battles for the division crowns; first and second spot in three of the four divisions are separated by one point or less. The race for the Presidents’ Trophy will be a good one as well, with the faltering Capitals still leading the way but a half-dozen teams within range to chase them down. And we all know how much NHL teams care about the Presidents’ Trophy, right?
Mix in tight races for the Art Ross and Rocket Richard, add the usual jockeying for Hart, Norris and Calder votes, and factor in battles for seeding and home ice, and there’s plenty left to play for at the top of the league. And at the bottom, draft-lottery watchers will be focused on… [double-checks how far back the Avalanche are]… well, there’s plenty left to play for at the top of the league.
We’ve got four weeks to figure it all out. For today, it’s on to the power rankings.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. San Jose Sharks (41-20-7, +31 true goals differential*): Three wins in four for the second straight week has them pulling away as the only division leader with any margin for error.
4. Minnesota Wild (43-18-6, +59): They dropped three of four on the week, and have now three times in their last seven after not having done so all season.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (43-20-5, +31): It wasn’t a bye week, but a five-day gap between games seemed to leave them cold. They lost a pair after the break, including a 4–2 decision on Saturday to the lowly Red Wings. But after yesterday’s win over the Wild, they’ll keep their status as the West’s top team.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-16-8, +49): Make it five straight wins to pull within one of the Caps for first place overall. And after Calgary tonight, their next four come against non-playoff teams.
1. Washington Capitals (44-17-7, +70): They hold onto the top spot for the eighth straight week. But just barely, with plenty of signs of concern — they’ve lost four straight, the previously red-hot offence has dried up, and Alex Ovechkin is mired in the worst slump of his career.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Not a lot of change from last week, with the same five teams showing up and only the Penguins shifting more than one spot. There’s a case to be made for some new blood in the top five — I see you, Senators fans — but for now the status quo is holding strong.
So instead of breaking down the same old teams, let’s turn our attention to the league’s hottest squad. The Calgary Flames may not be in the top-five conversation quite yet, but they won’t be far off if they keep rolling like they have been.
Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Jets made it nine straight for Calgary, one short of the franchise record set back when the team was still in Atlanta. It was also their second straight shutout, and the eighth game in a row that they’d held an opponent to two goals or less. That’s a welcome stretch for a team that looked like its season was going to slip away thanks to substandard goaltending in the first half. With the back-to-back shutouts, Brian Elliott has his save percentage up to .910 on the year. That’s still well back of last year’s league-leading .930, but after his rough start the Flames will take it.
Mix in some strong play from Johnny Gaudreau (three games of three or more points during the streak), Sean Monahan (four straight games with a point) and Dougie Hamilton (four multi-point games over the win streak), and the Flames suddenly look like a team where everything is clicking.
The question now is what kind of winning streak this ends up being. Not all streaks are created equal, at least in hindsight. Is this the Blue Jackets’ version, where a team we’d all mistakenly dismissed as an also-ran reveals themselves to be actual contenders? Or is it more like the Flyers, where a mediocre team happens to hit a temporary hot streak before quickly reverting to playoff-bubble status? Flames fans have been down this path once already this season, winning six straight in December only to lose an many as they won until a four-game losing streak in January.
The good news for the Flames is that even if they’re more Philadelphia than Columbus, there’s not a lot of time left for any regression to take them out of the playoff race. With an eight-point lead over the Kings, they’re not quite home free (the Kings have a game in hand), but they’re close. And at this point, a better question might be: How high can they go?
Is a run at the division title a possibility? Well, probably not – the Sharks are nine points up. But home ice is absolutely in play, and the Flames actually held down second spot for a brief time yesterday before the Ducks nudged past them with last night’s win. And it’s worth noting that Calgary is in good shape for the ROW tie-breaker against both the Oilers and Ducks.
Now, the bad news: The schedule gets interesting the rest of the way. Tonight serves up a tough test in the Penguins, there’s a trip to Washington still left to go, and only games against the Avalanche and Stars look like easy wins. And then there’s the truly weird finale, where the Flames face all three California teams at home, followed by all three again on the road.
At the rate they’re going, the Flames may not have all that much left to prove by then. But assuming they cool off at some point soon, every point will be crucial the rest of the way if home ice is the goal. That’s a tough spot to be in, but it’s a lot better than what they were facing just nine games ago.
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. Vancouver Canucks (28-31-9, -41): Three straight losses to start a five-game homestand isn’t good. Or maybe it is, with fourth spot in the lottery odds looking like a realistic goal.
3. New Jersey Devils (25-31-12, -45): They’ve lost 10 straight, including losses to both the Coyotes and Avalanche. The thought of somebody other than Arizona or Colorado holding down a bottom-two spot has seemed unthinkable since December, but the Devils are making a run.
2. Arizona Coyotes (24-35-8, -57): They’ve settled into a pattern over their last 10 of win one, lose two. Tonight, they get the Avalanche, in what might be the single-worst game on the entire season schedule.
1. Colorado Avalanche (19-45-3, -89): Matt Duchene’s numbers since the Avs’ do-nothing trade deadline have been downright ugly. The slump actually dates back even further; he hasn’t managed so much as a point since Feb. 19, a streak of 10 games.
So… what to make of the Tampa Bay Lightning?
On the one hand, they’ve arguably been the season’s biggest disappointment. After a 5-1-0 start, they’ve been treading water all year long, stringing together more than two straight wins only once the rest of the way. They fell out of a playoff spot early, and have stayed there ever since. There’s a reason we’re doing this in the bottom-five section instead of up top.
At the deadline, Steve Yzerman seemed to fold his hand, moving Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle in deals that brought back picks and cap space and not much more. As the deadline buzzer sounded, Tampa Bay was five points out of a playoff spot with four teams to pass. It was a classic seller’s deadline, one that seemed to clearly signal that the Lightning were looking towards next year and beyond.
On the other hand… I mean, they’re the Lightning, right? They’re stacked with talent. They won five playoff rounds in the last two seasons, and the core of the lineup hasn’t changed much over that time. Some of us picked these guys to win the Stanley Cup this year; surely they’re not going to miss the playoffs entirely.
We’ve seen that kind of logic turn out to be wrong in the past — think back to the 2015 Kings. (Or this year’s Kings, come to think of it.) This league might still insist of giving out points for losing, but so far they don’t award any for reputation or pre-season plaudits. The Lightning are going to have to earn this, and right now the odds are against them.
Two weeks after their deadline selloff, the Lightning’s playoff position is better, although not exactly great. They’re three points back of the Leafs and five points back with a game in hand on the Bruins. And maybe more importantly, they’ve already moved past teams like the Flyers and Panthers. Their playoff chances are sitting in the 20–per cent range on odds sites like this one and this one, up from under 10 per cent in February.
Then again, those numbers only consider factors like overall records and everyone’s strength of schedule. They can’t account for lineup changes or the impact of injuries. The Lightning have been hit with plenty of the latter, especially during a ridiculous game on Thursday that saw them lose three centres to injuries in one night.
That seemed like the sort of bad luck that could end a season, although early reports suggested the injuries the injuries may not be as bad as they first seemed. (All three players were out on Saturday against the Panthers.)
Of course, “lineup changes” can also mean players coming back from injury. Like, say, a future Hall of Famer who’s almost ready to return to the lineup. Steven Stamkos has been out of the lineup since knee surgery in November, but has recently been skating in full pads and looks like a guy who might be nearing a return. There was a bit of a buzz on Saturday that Stamkos could be a surprise addition to the lineup; that didn’t happen, but it would appear that his return is imminent.
If so, that would be a bigger March pickup than any deadline move, and could be the boost the Lightning need to make their late-season push. The odds are still against them. But you can bet that if they did manage to grab that final wild-card spot, they’d be just about the last team that a first seed would want to run into in the opening round.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The biggest story of the weekend might be Henrik Lundqvist‘s hip injury; initial reports say the Rangers’ star is expected to be out two to three weeks. If that’s all he misses, the Rangers should be fine, since they’re already locked into a playoff spot and may even be better off finishing fourth in the Metro and getting a crossover ticket to the weaker Atlantic. But if the problem lingers past that three-week mark, look out.
• In other injury news, the Penguins will be without Carl Hagelin for a month with a lower body injury sustained on Friday night. And in Anaheim, John Gibson missed last night’s game with a lower body injury. He’s listed as day-to-day.
• Here’s a long (but well worth it) read on the evolution of NHL coaching over the decades.
• It was only a few weeks ago that the Panthers were red hot, winning five straight and moving solidly into the “trendy late-season contender” category. But since then they’ve won just one of nine to all but fall out of the race. Tomorrow’s game against the Leafs is probably a must-win.
• Speaking of Toronto, they’ve won three straight and snuck back into the East’s final playoff spot with an overtime win over the Hurricanes.
• The Canadiens and Senators flip-flopped the Atlantic lead, with Ottawa taking over on Saturday to become the first team other than Montreal to hold down first place since October. The Habs then earned it back with last night’s win in Edmonton.
• The Flyers’ last-second loss to the Bruins on Saturday was a heart-breaker. It may also have all but ended their playoff hopes.
• Scrap of the weekend honors go to Sam Bennett and Jacob Touba, who traded haymakers on Saturday night.
• Finally, whatever you ended up doing on your weekend, just be glad you weren’t these guys: Two Norwegian teams are believed to have set a world record for the longest hockey game ever, one that needed eight overtimes to determine a winner.