Rosters are set, and if you didn’t get the upgrade you wanted at the Trade Deadline, well, now it’s time to give Plan B a chance.
These last 20 games are when a coach truly knows what he’s got to work with, when a fan can decide how many guys from his favourite team he’ll truly want in the playoff pool.
There are only nine contenders left in the West (sorry, Winnipeg), so let’s make our picks. Here’s how we see the West coming down to the wire, with St. Louis missing out and some love for a Battle of Alberta matchup:
(1) Minnesota Wild vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
Nobody is catching the Wild, the team I see coming out of the West this season. I loved how general manager Chuck Fletcher said he was “pushing his chips into the centre of the table” when he went hard after Martin Hanzal just before the deadline. The Wild have goaltending, a deep, strong defence and plenty of scoring. They’re a better team than Chicago, if they can get over the mental hurdle to defeat the big brother Blackhawks.
Los Angeles is back to being that Kings team that wants to beat you 2-1 every night. Despite the return of Jonathan Quick however, I don’t think the Kings can hold opponents to one goal enough to put a playoff run together. And they don’t have the offence to score three goals on enough nights to advance. The Kings don’t skate well enough to win in 2017.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Anaheim Ducks
The class of the Pacific, I always feel like the Sharks are experts at playing only as hard as they have to. They’ll play 60 minutes to beat Anaheim, but if they can play just 20 to knock off Arizona, the Sharks are fine with that, too. San Jose is an underrated Cup threat this spring, after reaching the Final last season and losing. They’ve got Brent Burns, and if anything, they should be even hungrier this spring.
As for the Ducks, the team that just couldn’t ever get it done is reaching a best before date for me. I’m not sold on the goaltending, and I guess I have a hard time seeing where this edition of the Ducks is going to find success, where so many before them have found a way to come up short. I see Calgary passing the Ducks near the end of the season, setting up two preferable first-round matchups for the NHL.
(3) Chicago Blackhawks versus (6) Nashville Predators
The Blackhawks have that certain something that everyone wants. They’ve won — three Cups in the past seven seasons — and they know how to win. The Wild, and Chicago’s first-round matchup Nashville, are both looking to find what Chicago has, and get it by knocking off the Blackhawks. The Wild will beat Chicago this spring, we believe, but Nashville will not.
Give the Preds credit — they started the season out like a disappointment, and recovered to make the playoffs as a team with a chance. I don’t think they can get past Chicago, and if they prove me wrong, there’s no way Nashville beats Minnesota.
(4) Edmonton Oilers versus (5) Calgary Flames
Edmonton is in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. They’re an incomplete team, but they’ve got goaltending, a pretty decent blue line, really good size, and if they get everyone going up front this is a team that can score three a night for sure — often four. You’ll have to be able to skate and score in order to get three past Cam Talbot enough times to win a series over Edmonton.
Calgary hasn’t played Edmonton in a playoff series since 1991, and they’ll get to the Battle of Alberta by first snapping their 26-game losing streak at the Honda Center, where they’ll beat Anaheim in game No. 80 of their season. Brian Elliott finally has his “A” game, Dougie Hamilton (ever since we focused on him in this column on Dec. 2) has been a top pairing defenceman, and Johnny Gaudreau has arrived on the scene.
Who’s going to win? We’ll save that prediction for April.
This past week had us thinking back to one of the all-time bad trades ever filed by a National Hockey League general manager. Yes, as Nashville’s Filip Forsberg became the first player to score 10 goals in a five-game span since Pavel Bure (March 11-20, 2001), we returned to Apr. 3, 2013, when then-Washington GM George McPhee — desperate to bring a Cup to D.C. — agreed to send the 11th pick from the 2011 draft to Nashville for veteran Martin Erat.
The Caps lost their opening round series in seven games to the New York Rangers, while Erat went pointless in four games. They traded him to the then-Phoenix Coyotes a year later, and at the end of that season, McPhee was fired.
“I wanted to help this team now,” McPhee told reporters that fateful day.
The Jets’ Runway
Couldn’t help but wonder when we saw Connor Hellebuyck getting pulled in a crazy 6-5 game between the Jets and the Wild on Tuesday night: How many times have we seen Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice go to his backup goalie this season?
Well, thanks to the magic of Sportsnet Stats, it turns out Maurice has done that more than almost any other coach in the NHL this season. The Ducks and Stars have each used two goalies in the same game 10 times this season, while Winnipeg, the Flyers and the Blues have all replaced their goaltenders nine times.
It figures that Dallas, Philadelphia, Winnipeg and St. Louis rank 30th through 27th respectively in team saves percentage this season. Meanwhile, the top-five teams at having their goalies finish the game are Minnesota and Montreal (one pull), Buffalo, San Jose and Washington (two apiece). Those five teams are among the top seven in the league in team saves percentage.
Great Guys Finish…
Curtis Lazar is one of those guys. Like Eddie Lack, or Jarome Iginla, they’re such nice people with such great dispositions that the media covering them can’t help but paint a positive picture.
For Iginla, the results dictated positive coverage. He earned it.
For Lazar, the constant smile, cooperative and affable approach makes you want him to succeed. Guys like that, every scribe wants in their locker room.
The reality is, being a guy that everyone wants around can buy you some time in the game, and with that Lazar comes to Calgary with a real chance to resurrect his NHL career. Calgary is the place, however, where real substance will have to join up with a great personality. Lazar has to become an NHL player, or he will sadly go down as one of the nicest guys who never made it.
Lack was like that in Vancouver. He had such personality and was so well liked by fans and media alike, that some actually believed he could be the answer in goal in Vancouver. Alas, he’s struggling along in Carolina now, and this week took a very frank assessment from head coach Bill Peters.
“Eddie … was poor in his last outing, let’s not kid ourselves,” Peters began this week. “There were 16 shots, four went in. Look at his numbers in the league (3.33 GAA, .873). They’re not good enough.
“When he gets in again … you’d better earn some respect from your teammates. Your teammates are out there workin’ their bags off, you’d better go get some saves. And a timely save at the right time, wouldn’t hurt.”