Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
All season long, this column has been here to sort through the weekend’s action in the NHL. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, we’d been left with plenty of key stories to wrap up, including playoff spots, first-round matchups and individual awards.
But of course, all of the weekend’s NHL news feels unimportant in the wake of the tragic bus accident in Humboldt. As information on the victims is released and tributes pour in from around the hockey world and beyond, the community struggles to pick up the pieces. A GoFundMe has been established to aid the victims and their families, raising nearly $5 million so far, and last night’s emotional vigil was watched by fans around the world.
We’ll move on to the NHL and do the usual column and power rankings, even as everyone’s thoughts remain elsewhere. Courage to those in Humboldt.
Opening faceoff: On to the playoffs
The weekend’s biggest game came on Saturday night in Colorado, with the Avalanche and Blues facing off in what was essentially a single-game playoff for the West’s final wild card. The Avalanche took that one by a 5–2 final, earning a playoff spot and completing one of the most stunning season-to-season turnarounds in modern history. They’ll face the Predators in the opening round.
Saturday’s turning point came in the second period, with the Avalanche taking a 2–0 lead on a goal that the Blues challenged for offside. The play was close, with Blues fans insisting it was indeed offside, but the goal stood. That’s led to some silly conspiracy talk, which rings a little hollow when you remember that the Blues benefitted from a blown offside review to beat these same Avalanche earlier in the season. To their credit, St. Louis fought back to close the gap to 2–1, but Nathan MacKinnon‘s goal was the dagger, and Gabriel Landeskog‘s empty-netter set off an epic celebration.
The other open playoff race didn’t come with the same level of drama, as the Flyers put an early end to any suspense with a Saturday-afternoon win over the listless Rangers to eliminate the Panthers. That left Florida with a pair of meaningless games to play out, including last night’s contest against the Bruins. That one mattered to Boston, with first place in the Atlantic on the line. But the Bruins came out flat and didn’t find their legs until the third period, and by then they’d left themselves too much ground to over. The Panthers weathered the loss of goaltender James Reimer and held on for a 4–2 win.
That leaves the Lightning as the Atlantic’s top seed and sets up a first-round meeting with the Devils. The Bruins finish second and will get the Maple Leafs, a matchup that at least on paper looks a lot tougher.
The weekend’s other big NHL news was the final game for the Sedins. The twins took their final bow after Saturday’s shootout loss in Edmonton, one that saw them receive a heartfelt goodbye from Oiler fans and players alike while their children watched on from the bench.
Not a bad way to go out. For the rest of us, it’s two days off and then on to the first round.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6, +22 true goals differential*): With a winnable first-round matchup locked in against the Flyers, we’ll bump the defending champs back into the top five to close out the season. Don’t sleep on the Capitals, though.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5, +56): Thanks to some help from the Panthers, they’ll get the Devils while the Bruins and Leafs wear each other out. Their road out of the Atlantic got a lot easier last night.
2. Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10, +57): Does it makes sense to have two teams from the same division in the top two spots on a list of likely Cup winners? Probably not, but you find me a team outside of Nashville that looks as scary as the Jets right now.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
With all due respect to the Avalanche and Blues, the NHL’s highlight of the weekend may have come off the ice. That would be Friday’s bizarre announcement of a brand new tie-breaking system. Under the right circumstances, the league told us, it was possible that the Flyers and Panthers could finish the year in a perfect tie for the final Eastern wild-card spot. And if that happened, we’d get a first in modern league history: a head-to-head play-in game for the right to go to the playoffs.
Almost immediately, fans found themselves with questions. Like, how did they only get around to this now? What was the old system for resolving perfect ties? Was there even one? Would the new play-in count as a regular-season game or a post-season one? Did the NHLPA have to sign off on a rule change that would result in players suiting up for extra games? And how is it possible that a league that’s notoriously reluctant to ever change anything could apparently pull something like this together over the course of a few days?
And then, almost unanimously, one more question: How awesome would it be if this game actually happened?
It didn’t, of course. The Flyers took care of business on Saturday afternoon, rolling over the Rangers by a 5–0 final to clinch their spot and eliminate the Panthers. The dream of a play-in game was over.
Because now that the league has teased us with the idea, it’s impossible not to wonder why we wouldn’t want to see the play-in game happen down the road. The odds of one ever being needed based on the current rules are incredibly slim, because there are four tie-breakers that come into play first. But why rely on things like head-to-head record or goals differential when you could just have the two teams take matters into their own hands? Leave the complicated rules in place for other ties, like division titles or lottery odds. But if a playoff spot is on the line, let the teams settle things on the ice.
It wouldn’t be quite as simple as all that — you’d also need to account for multi-way ties, which would complicate things. But it would eliminate the need to rely on a long list of rules that, as others have pointed out, don’t even always make sense. And fans would occasionally get an extra winner-take-all elimination game.
Maybe you take the idea even further by having the eighth- and ninth-place teams in each conference play a one-game play-in every year, similar to how the MLB wild card works. In theory, that would keep more teams in the playoff race while rewarding the top seed by serving up a less-rested opponent. Not everyone likes that idea, and it feels like a bigger change that would be worth some thoughtful debate. So maybe we hold off on that discussion until a little further down the road.
Or maybe the NHL just implements it immediately, with no prior warning, more or less out of thin air. They showed us this weekend that they can apparently do that.
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. Detroit Red Wings (30-39-13, -34): There’s not much suspense in this week’s bottom-five rankings; they’re usually meant to predict the lottery odds, so the last batch just end up being based on the final standings.
4. Montreal Canadiens (30-39-13, -51): If you’re looking for those final lottery odds, here you go:
2. Ottawa Senators (28-43-11, -65): The team honoured the memory of Jonathan Pitre, the Ottawa teenager who’d formed a strong bond with the team as he battled a rare skin disease. Pitre passed away last week at the age of 17.
1. Buffalo Sabres (25-45-12, -80): Ladies and gentlemen, the first ever 31st-place team in league history.
We were this close.
From about mid-season on, fans and media have been commenting on the lack of coaching changes around the league. It was the best season for job security in the modern era; you had to go back to the Original Six days to find a comparison. And as winter gave way to spring, you started to feel like we were really going to do it. We were going to get through an entire season without a single coach being fired.
Not so fast, said the Rangers.
In the job-security equivalent of losing a perfect game with two outs in the ninth, the Rangers fired Alain Vigneault on Saturday night. Technically, that was after their season had ended. But the NHL still had one day to go thanks to last night’s Panthers/Bruins makeup game, which means we didn’t quite make it.
Apart from the timing, Vigneault’s dismissal doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s a good coach and he should be back behind a bench somewhere before long, but Jeff Gorton is clearly taking the Rangers in another direction. The trade deadline decision to sell despite being in the playoff hunt set the team firmly into rebuild mode, and that usually means a new coach.
Now the question is which other coaches and GMs might join Vigneault on the sidelines. It has the potential to be a lengthy list; fans in Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Carolina and Dallas all have reason to wonder if change is coming. Islanders fans have been begging for it for months, although from the sounds of it they won’t be getting it. Add in a few disappointed first-round exits and we should see plenty of churn.
We know that we won’t see a change in Chicago, where Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville are both coming back, and the Red Wings are sticking with Ken Holland. (If you want a laugh, check out the replies to their tweet announcing the deal.) The Canadiens have already indicated that they’re good with Marc Bergevin, although that was a month ago so maybe something has changed. And no doubt a few other skittish owners or GMs around the league will get cold feet and decide to stay the course.
But not everyone can play it safe, so we can expect some news soon. There’s a chance we’ll have already had some on Monday by the time you read this. Losing comes at a cost in the NHL, and fair or not, somebody eventually ends up paying it.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The Flames ended a disappointing season on a positive note, handing the Knights one of their worst losses of the season in a 7–1 blowout.
• Some hope for the Sabres and Coyotes: With the Avalanche and Devils securing wild-card spots, each conference will send the previous year’s last-place team to the playoffs for the second straight season.
• The Maple Leafs and Canadiens didn’t exactly serve up a classic, but fans of both teams probably saw the end result they wanted as Toronto earned a 4–2 win.
• Plenty of playoff teams were resting players, leading to a few questions as to whether anyone was tanking to set up a specific playoff matchup.
• Neat stat on the Flyers: They made the playoffs despite a 10-game losing streak the year after missing the playoffs despite a 10-game winning streak.
• The Senators ended the season with a pair of weekend losses to the Penguins and Bruins. But at least Zack Smith got a chance to show off his Darcy Tucker impression.
• The full playoff schedule and Canadian TV details can be found here.
• Finally, it’s a long read but Ken Dryden’s call for change in how we handle hits to the head is well worth your time.