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 beginning of the end
The NHL regular season is a long story. It lasts six months, and there are stretches where it feels like we’ve settled into a status quo. Things happen, many of them important, even if we don’t always recognize them at the time. Every chapter along the way matters, and even a rough few weeks can spell the end of a team’s chances. But for the most part, the season unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, and even a week-to-week feature like this one sometimes struggles to find something new to talk about. It’s never boring. It’s just that things move slowly.
That is, right up until we get to the end. Welcome to the end.
With three weeks left in the season, we’ve hit the part of the schedule where things change quickly in noticeable ways. For example, this week saw the appearance of the first “x.” You know the “x” — the little symbol that appears in the standings next to a team that’s clinched its playoff spot. The first few don’t really tell us much, because they appear next to teams that we already knew were playoff locks. That was the case when the Predators became the first team to earn the honour, and it remained true yesterday when the Lightning joined them.
But the “x” serves as a signal that the urgency is picking up, with every one that appears representing one fewer playoff spot available for the taking. There’s two on the standings page now, but those will be joined by several more in the days to come. Soon, those x’s will be joined by the y’s and z’s and eventually even the “p” for Presidents’ Trophy. Those letters mean we can finally drop all those “maybe” and “probably” and “likely” qualifiers and start talking about what actually is. They mean that there’s no turning back.
Likewise, this was the week that a few teams earned the dreaded “e,” signalling their mathematical elimination from the playoffs. The NHL doesn’t like that one, and doesn’t use it on its own standings page, but we know it’s out there. In recent days, the Sabres, Coyotes and Canucks have all been put out of their misery, and the Red Wings and Senators are days away from joining them. Again, none of this is breaking news to fans of those teams. But the finality of seeing the “e,” especially with weeks still to play, drives home that the season really is a write-off.
That leaves the middle ground of teams who still aren’t sure which letter they’ll get, and that’s where the real fun starts. For the first few months of the season, we’ve all got plenty of time to craft long-range narratives about who’s heading in the right direction and who might fall short. In these final weeks, it starts to feel like everything gets thrown out the window after every game.
The Panthers are on fire and heading towards an inevitable playoff berth? Not when they blow a third-period lead to cough up a game to the Oilers on home ice. The Devils are fading and facing an impossibly tough schedule? Chalk up road wins over the Predators, Knights and Kings, and suddenly they’re looking comfortable again. The Blues have raised the white flag on the season? Wins in four of five have them right back in the mix. The top three in the Metro is locked in? Let’s see what the Blue Jackets and their seven straight wins have to say about it. The inconsistent Flames are fumbling away a wild-card spot? Well, look, we didn’t say that everything was changing.
But who knows, the Flames could always roll off four straight wins this week and send the script careening in a different direction. That’s what one good (or bad) stretch can do when it gets this late. But with only three weeks left, time is running out.
Every game matters from October through April, and we know that. It just doesn’t always feel that way. From here on out, it will.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (46-21-5, +44 true goals differential*): They’d lost four straight at home, giving up 21 goals along the way, and needed an easy win to get things back on track. Luckily for them, the Flames arrived just in time.
3. Boston Bruins (45-17-8, +55): Going into Tampa without Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy or Zdeno Chara and shutting out the Lightning has to stand as the most impressive win of a season full of them.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (49-19-4, +54): Two regulation losses in a month is hardly a slump, and typically wouldn’t cost a team top spot. But this isn’t a typical season.
1. Nashville Predators (47-14-10, +55): This is getting silly. Saturday marked the one-month anniversary of the last time they left the ice without earning at least a point.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Hey, speaking of things changing…
We have a new No. 1 in the power rankings for the first time since the Lightning took over way back in the season’s third week. It’s probably overdue — we tend to err on the side of caution around these parts, but there’s been a strong case to be made for the Predators as the league’s best team for a while now. At this point, there’s really no argument left against them.
By going 13-0-1 over their last 14, the Predators have drained any suspense out of what was shaping up as a fantastic Central race. They’ve left the Jets in their dust, even though Winnipeg has been playing well. That could prove to be important; even when the race was tighter, the Predators were taking the rare step of resting players down the stretch. Now they can afford to do more of that, as a closing schedule that looked tough on paper suddenly doesn’t seem to matter all that much. The team is already remarkably healthy, with only Calle Jarnkrok sidelined. There’s no guarantee they stay that way, but having the option to give key players some time off will help.
If anything, the Predators are starting to get to the point where you wonder if anyone can beat these guys. We know better, of course – the NHL’s parity era has seen plenty of top seeds crash and burn once the playoffs arrived. Peaking too early isn’t really a thing, at least not the way fans typically talk about it, but if you’re a Nashville fan looking for a reason to worry, you don’t have to look much further than where we were one year ago today. On March 19, 2017, the Chicago Blackhawks were pulling away in the Central thanks to a 17-3-0 stretch. They ended up cruising to the West’s top seed, but cooled off over the final few weeks and went into the playoffs on a losing streak. Predator fans may remember how that all turned out.
As for the Lightning, they may have more to worry about than losing the No. 1 spot in a power ranking. Thanks to Saturday’s loss to the Bruins, they’re now in danger of losing their grip on top spot in the Atlantic. They still lead the Bruins by four points after yesterday’s win over the Oilers. But the Bruins own two games in hand and would have the edge in the ROW tie-breaker, meaning they control their fate. The two teams face each other twice more, with both games coming over the season’s final 10 days, so at this point we can file it under too-close-to-call.
Earning the top seed in a division sometimes ends up being more about bragging rights as anything else, but that doesn’t feel like the case for this year’s Atlantic. Whichever team finishes second will earn a first-round matchup with the Maple Leafs, and Toronto remains hot, ringing up their 12th straight home win with an easy victory over the lacklustre Canadiens on Saturday. They wouldn’t be high on many lists of preferable first-round opponents. We may get a preview of just such a matchup tomorrow, as the Leafs head to Tampa to visit the Lightning.
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. Detroit Red Wings (26-34-11, -39): Make it 10 straight losses, including the last six in regulation.
1. Vancouver Canucks (35-38-9, -47): And yet another change, as for the first time all year we have a No. 1 that isn’t the Coyotes or Sabres. That’s thanks to six straight losses, all in regulation. But on the bright side, at least they scored on Saturday.
As we had down the stretch, it’s becoming clear that this season will feature the return of something we missed out on last year: A genuine race for last place overall. The 2016–17 Avalanche killed any suspense over who’d get the top lottery odds, but we’ve got at least six teams in the running this year, with the Coyotes, Sabres and Canucks leading the way, while the Senators, Red Wings and Canadiens lurk as realistic contenders.
The new lottery rules have diminished some of the importance of the battle for dead last, since the league’s worst team “earns” only 20-percent odds at picking first. As those 2017 Avs reminded us, you can finish at the bottom and still end up drafting fourth. But that could be important this year; after consensus top pick Rasmus Dahlin, there’s an emerging tier of three top forwards in Filip Zadina, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk. Even in the worst-case scenario of going oh-for-three on lottery picks, finishing dead last at least assures a team of getting one of those big three forwards if they decide to focus up front.
So finishing last retains some stakes this year. And that means it’s time to start looking ahead for the crucial games between the worst of the worst. Call them the must-lose games, the ones where fans will be forced into the awkward position of rooting against their own team in service of the greater good of securing a lower spot in the standings.
(We’ll pause here for your annual reminder that there is a much better way to do this, one that would have teams trying to win and see fans cheering for their own teams instead of against them. The NHL just needs to put it in place.)
Looking ahead at the schedule, there are several games that stand out. The Canucks have one when they face the Coyotes in their second-last game of the season on April 5 in Vancouver. Losing to Arizona twice in regulation in recent weeks is what propelled the Canucks back into this race, so closing out the year by completing the hat trick would seem fitting.
The Senators get a crucial April matchup of their own. On April 4, the Sens kick off a season-ending road trip by heading to Buffalo to face the Sabres. Ottawa’s schedule the rest of the way isn’t a great one for tanking purposes, filled with plenty of winnable games against middle-of-the-pack teams, and the team certainly doesn’t seem to want to go quietly. But their final stretch is tough, with the Jets, Penguins and Bruins showing up in April. Nestled in between is that showdown with the Sabres, and a loss in Buffalo could be the one that determines last place in the East, if not overall.
The Red Wings also get a shot at the Senators, on March 31, as well as two with Montreal, on March 26 and April 5. The Canadiens and Red Wings both have one left against the Sabres, too, so there’s room to make up some ground with a well-timed loss or two.
But while all those games loom large, the Sabres have an even bigger target on their schedule. That comes on Wednesday, when they host the last-place Coyotes. If that matchup sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a repeat of perhaps the most infamous game in the NHL’s recent history of late-season tanking. In 2015, the Sabres hosted the Coyotes in a contest between two teams blatantly tanking for Connor McDavid; the Coyotes won in overtime, with Sabres fans memorably cheering the winning goal. Their players weren’t impressed.
Of course, neither of those teams ended up with McDavid, and the whole spectacle helped usher in the new lottery rules. But the fact that these same two teams are meeting again under similar circumstances almost exactly three years later is almost impossibly depressing. Maybe Sabres fans will cheer on the home team. Maybe they’ll root for the Coyotes yet again. But you could forgive them if they just sat in silence, wondering how it came to this.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The Hurricanes’ GM search is quickly descending into farce, with reports of top candidates pulling their names from consideration. Now Nick Kypreos sheds some light on why that might be: The team is low-balling candidates on salary.
• We had a scary moment on Saturday when Boston’s David Backes suffered a laceration after taking a Yanni Gourde skate to the leg. He reportedly avoided a serious injury, but needed 18 stitches and will miss time to heal.
• With their playoff hunt all but over, the Islanders are going to experiment with John Tavares on the wing. That makes sense. It’s probably good for him to get some practice at moving.
• That game also featured the first career goal for Leafs rookie Andreas Johnsson, who was happy to reach the milestone. Very, very happy.
• Your weekly “Patrik Laine is awesome” update: Patrik Laine remains awesome.
• Finally, the weekend’s weirdest moment came between whistles, as Oliver Ekman-Larsson ate an elbow drop from referee T.J. Luxmore.