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: Cursing a Blues streak
We knew this was going to be a weird year for the St. Louis Blues. Their coach quit, but still stuck around for one more year. Next year’s coach has already been hired. They traded their best goaltender to a conference rival, but didn’t move the defenceman we all assumed would be moved.
So sure, nobody went into this season thinking it was business as usual in St. Louis. But we all thought they’d be good, right? Maybe not win-the-division good, or another-conference-final-appearance good. But they’d be in the mix, at least. At a bare minimum, they’d definitely be in the playoffs.
And early on, it looked like we’d all be right. Over the season’s first half, the Blues were just fine, even if they looked like they weren’t quite hitting on all cylinders. That may even have been a positive; after years of following up solid regular seasons with disappointing playoffs, maybe the Blues had learned to pace themselves, the way the Blackhawks and Kings always seem to.
Or maybe not. Maybe the Blues aren’t a good team after all. They sure haven’t looked like one recently.
After dropping a 5–3 decision to the Jets on Saturday, the Blues have now lost three straight. They’ve won just five of 12 since the Christmas break. And since a three-game win streak that had them at 14-7-3 on Dec. 1, they’ve only managed to string together back-to-back wins once.
So what’s the problem? These days, the big issue is goaltending, as Jake Allen seems to be imploding in his first year as undisputed starter. The Blues have lost his last four starts and 10 of his last 14, and he’s given up three goals or more in six of seven. He hasn’t made it through a full game since Jan. 5, and things got so bad on Thursday that he was pulled twice in the same game.
That was the last we’ve seen of Allen; the Blues took the highly unusual step of leaving him behind when they headed to Winnipeg, citing a need to “get him unlocked.” The team insists that Allen is still their guy, but it’s clear that his current struggles aren’t just a typical cold streak.
It all adds up to a Blues team that’s just barely clinging to a Western wild-card spot, just one point up on the ninth-place Canucks. Even the Predators, all but written off after an awful first half, passed them over the weekend, bumping them out of the Central’s top three.
The Blues’ struggles may be shifting the league’s trading landscape heading into the final weeks before the deadline. It had long been assumed that they’d hold onto Kevin Shattenkirk for a deep playoff run, but with that run now looking unlikely, he’s back in play. It had also seemed like the market for goaltending was thin, with only the Stars and maybe the Flames or Islanders really in the hunt, but that changes if the Blues decide that Allen can’t cut it. (Remember, this is a franchise with a history of making mid-season goaltending moves that are aggressive or even downright strange.)
Of course, that’s led to speculation that the team might try to kill two birds with one stone by moving Shattenkirk for a goalie; more than a few observers have wondered if a Ben Bishop deal could be a fit. But there are other options, including shaking up the lineup or even pulling the trigger on Ken Hitchcock a few months early.
Or maybe they stand pat, turn things around and get back into the race. That’s certainly a possibility. But the schedule won’t do them any favors heading into the all-star break; they’ll visit two of the best teams in the league this week, with stops in Pittsburgh tomorrow and Minnesota on Thursday.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. San Jose Sharks (29-16-2, +16 true goals differential*): They make their first appearance in the top five since early December thanks to four straight wins.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (32-10-4, +48): Yesterday’s 7–6 win over the Senators was all sorts of fun. But more importantly, they may have dodged a bullet when Zach Werenski left the game after being hit with a shot. It looked bad, but he returned later in the period.
3. Minnesota Wild (30-11-5, +47): They showed off some quick-strike offence to turn a loss into a regulation win late in the third against the Ducks, then had the tables turned on them in last night’s loss to the Predators.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (30-11-5, +34): They looked scary-good this week, scoring 24 goals while winning four straight.
1. Washington Capitals (31-9-6, +52): They’ve won 11 of 12, and scored seven goals in their only loss. They’ve got 38 goals in their last seven games.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
We had our second coaching casualty of the season this week. Everything coming out of Boston these days makes it feel like we may be on the verge of a third.
The Bruins are struggling badly after an awful week, having lost four straight. That included a pair of shutouts and yesterday’s 5–1 loss to the Penguins, so that whole “their shooting percentage is bound to pick up soon” theory isn’t working out too well. And the one game where the offence did click, on Wednesday against the Red Wings, featured a devastating late-game collapse that cost them a point.
They’re still sitting in a playoff spot, but it’s about as tenuous as can be — as the first team in the league to hit the 50-game mark, everyone chasing them has games in hand and they’re already trailing some of those teams in terms of points per game.
All of that has led to another round of speculation about Claude Julien, whose job status has been in question off-and-on for years now. Remember, GM Don Sweeney was giving bizarre interviews about making a coaching change even before this current slump, and Julien is sounding more and more like a coach who knows what’s coming.
Would it be the right move? It’s hard to imagine the Bruins getting an upgrade out of a change now; there’s nobody on the open market who comes close to matching Julien’s resume. And in the bigger picture, it’s not like they’re really underachieving. This team was expected to be a fringe playoff team, and they are who we thought they were.
But all that said, sometimes a front office just decides that it’s time for a change. If the Bruins can’t snap out of it soon, Sweeney may decide that the time has arrived. And if history tells us anything, Julien dropping a “we don’t have enough talent” soundbite into yesterday’s post-game comments won’t help.
Either way, here’s hoping that Sweeney makes a decision soon. Letting Julien twist in the wind for the next two months seems like the worst path of all.
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 (19-18-9, -14): They had a decent week, winning three of four, and once again seem like they’re ready to make a climb. Meanwhile, Rasmus Ristolainen is probably looking forward to some time off.
3. New Jersey Devils (20-19-9, -27): Let’s face it — at this point, the gap between the bottom two and everyone else is massive.
2. Arizona Coyotes (14-26-6, -51): They beat the Lightning on Saturday. Wait, should the Lightning be somewhere on this list? I feel like maybe they should. Somebody talk me out of this.
So the Islanders finally got around to making the move we’d all been expecting for months. On Tuesday, they fired head coach Jack Capuano, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight.
Weight didn’t waste any time doing what new coaches do: Expressing way more optimism about the future than reality would seem to support. After his first game behind the bench, Weight declared that he thinks the Islanders can still be playoff team.
It was adorable. These are the Islanders, who’ve spent most of the season as the Eastern Conference’s worst team, and they’re talking about making a playoff push. The team that was eight points back when they fired Capuano. One that had lost 10 of 16 when they made the move. Weight’s comment had everyone breaking out their best Jim Mora impression. Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs?
Well… maybe we are. Weight might not be as crazy as he sounds.
For one, the Islanders have looked pretty good since the coaching change, beating the Stars and Kings before earning a point in last night’s overtime loss to the Flyers. Combined with their Monday win that ended up being Capuano’s last, that gave them seven of eight points on the week.
Still, they’re tied for last in the East and five points back of a playoff spot with six teams to pass, so the road ahead is steep. But they’ve got games in hand on everyone except for Toronto, and in most cases have two or three. Their remaining schedule is middle-of-the-pack, although it’s heavily weighted to road games. And at -2, their goals differential suggests that they’re a lot closer to average than their record does.
According to sportsclubstats.com, the Islanders odds of making the playoffs currently sit at about 20 per cent. That’s not great, but it’s a big improvement from just a few weeks ago, when they were hovering around one per cent. And it ranks them a solid 10th in the conference, ahead of teams like the Flyers, Lightning and Panthers. They’re closing in on passing the Hurricanes, whose odds have plunged after dropping three straight since looking like a dark horse last week, not to mention the Bruins.
Add it all up, and the Islanders’ chances aren’t great. But they’re also not zero, which is what they looked like fairly recently.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Things keep getting worse in Dallas, where Jamie Benn suffered a broken nose on Saturday. He did return to the game.
• Ondrej Pavelec, late-season hero? It could be happening, as the veteran has won two straight since being recalled from the minors. On Saturday, he broke his own franchise record for saves in a period with 25 in the second.
• More good news for the Jets: It sounds like Patrik Laine will be back soon.
• There’s only one team in the Eastern Conference under .500 in terms of points percentage. And it’s not who you’d expect.
• The Senators earned a big win in Toronto on Saturday to cement their grip on a playoff spot, despite this highlight-reel goal by Mitch Marner:
Guy Boucher didn’t see it.
• The Oilers’ win over the Flames on Saturday means they’ve swept the season series against their provincial rivals for the first time in three decades.
• Finally, let’s close with the weekend’s best moment: Henrik Sedin‘s nifty goal for his 1,000th career point, followed by a quick congratulations from a former teammate: