NHL Playoff Push: How much does experience matter down the stretch?

Luke Gazdic joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the playoff race in the Western Conference, whether the Winnipeg Jets can afford to give Connor Hellebuyck nights off, what the Calgary Flames need in order to make the playoffs, and more.

In exactly one month from Friday, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin. The playoff-bound teams are beginning to narrow, and we have an idea of who might face off in Round 1 (we already know the Leafs and Lightning will meet again), but there’s still plenty of time for the landscape to change, or someone to shock us.

The 82-game NHL schedule is a grind. You might not be able to bring the same intensity to a mid-week road game in January as you can summon for a home-ice meeting against a rival on Saturday night. Do some teams save their energy or at least manage it, for when it matters most? How much does experience aid you in your season-long race for the playoffs, and especially when we come to crunch time in the last month?

Any Formula 1 fans out there (and I know we’re growing in number in North America!) will know that the Red Bull team is the defending champion and the one to beat in 2023. Mercedes won eight constructors championships in a row until last season and has the all-time winningest driver on its roster. Ferrari made gains to return as a challenger last season, but also made a ton of mistakes as the team felt pressure it hadn’t in years. Those three teams are the cream of the crop this season and were expected to be a level above everyone else.

But this year there’s a hopeful new challenger in Aston Martin. Quicker than expected in testing practises before the season’s first race two weeks ago, some in that industry wondered if that team could put unexpected pressure on any of the three mentioned above. There was some excitement before the opening race that a fourth team could be a real presence at the top of the grid, and make the season more interesting.

One of Aston Martin’s drivers, Fernando Alonso, is new to the team this season, but is a veteran on the circuit. The 41-year-old has won two drivers’ championships in his career and has been a part of multiple teams. He knows what it’s like to be a middle-of-the-pack team, but also what it takes to win, both behind the wheel and between the ears.

Racing well without any points on the line is nothing like racing for a win.

“After testing, we were thinking to be in Q3 (final round of race order qualifying) with both cars and score as many points as possible in these first couple of races and not make mistakes,” Alonso said. “It’s very easy to make mistakes, it’s not the same fighting for P12 or P14 as fighting for the top five positions because the pressure is different, the adrenaline is different, so there are a lot of things that we as a team we have to grow together in this process.”

The result in the first race was positive, with Alonso finishing third and teammate (and Canadian) Lance Stroll coming in sixth. But what Alonso was getting at is that as rosy as the picture seems for Aston Martin, the team will have brand new pressures as they shoot up the grid and bumps will be inevitable. It will be harder to actually stick with the experienced winners all season long — just having a quicker car isn’t automatically enough.

Right about now you’re probably asking: How the heck does this connect to the NHL?

Looking at the playoff picture, we’ve seen hopeful new upstarts fall away in the past few weeks. In the East, Detroit was first buried by Ottawa just before the trade deadline. Buffalo has stalled this month, with a 2-4-2 record including a dreadful 10-4 loss on home ice to Dallas. Ottawa, too, has now dropped four of its past five and is in the middle of an impossibly difficult stretch of playoff-bound opponents.

It was harder for these newcomers to actually stick around all season, and just having improved rosters wasn’t automatically enough to finish the job and reach the post-season right away.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for all their warts in net and in depth, have managed to go 7-3-1 as the greener challengers around them have struggled. The New York Islanders are 6-3-1 in their past 10, as are the Florida Panthers, a playoff qualifier last year that’s trying to separate from the bubble teams late in the game.

On the flip side, are you at all worried about Boston dropping back-to-back games this week to Chicago and Detroit? Is it a sign there’s a crack in the armour, or something the veteran team can easily deal with?

Keep in mind that last season, the Colorado Avalanche finished the regular season 1-5-1 and then went on a Stanley Cup run. Their opponents in the final, Tampa Bay, had a rough 3-6-0 run through mid-March but then recovered fully in the final games through April.

They seemed to know when, and how, to turn it on.

Experience matters. Knowing how to deal with the inevitable challenges and pressures you’ll encounter through an 82-game season — and then in the playoffs — matters. This might not be the year for Ottawa or Buffalo or Detroit, but each of them faced meaningful late-season games they haven’t seen in years. They’ll learn from it, grow, and possibly be better able to cope and get results next season.

It’s a process to learn how to win again.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the playoff picture in both the East and West, and which games we’re watching over the weekend.

If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Eastern Conference first-round matchups:

(A1) Bruins vs. (WC2) Islanders

(A2) Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Lightning

(M1) Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Penguins

(M2) Devils vs. (M3) Rangers


Carolina at Toronto
Friday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT

Though neither of these teams can clinch a playoff spot in this game, we know both will be playing in the post-season. This game is important for seeding, or potential first-round opponent. For Toronto, it is just one point ahead of Tampa Bay with two games in hand and so has work to do to secure home-ice advantage. Carolina will be a tough opponent, but has things to prove. The loss of Andrei Svechnikov takes one of the few game-breaking, goal-scoring talents out of the lineup as the Hurricanes try to secure first place in the Metro Division. New Jersey is a single point behind them (with two more games played).

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New Jersey at Florida
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT

The Devils are one of those more inexperienced teams that hasn’t seen much in the way of meaningful games over recent years. They have one playoff appearance in the past 10 years, and were eliminated by Tampa Bay in five games in 2018. These Devils have solidly emerged from a rebuild and look to be a force for years to come. But questions remain about how this (largely) undersized team up front will fare through tougher post-season hockey, and if the goaltending can hold up.

For now, the Devils can prove their big-game ability if they chase down the Hurricanes for first in the Metro, which would get them an opening-round date with a wild-card team instead of the New York Rangers. The Devils beat Carolina last Sunday, dropped two games to Tampa Bay this week, but overall have not slowed. They are 12-4-3 since the All-Star break.

In Florida, the Devils face a desperate opponent trying to hang on to playoff contention, with the experience of getting there and winning a round just a season ago. So, as much as this game is about the Devils and their chase for the Metro Division crown, it’s also vitally important for the Panthers and their post-season hopes.

Toronto at Ottawa
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT (HNIC)

Ottawa has to stop the bleeding. Losers of four in a row and five of their past six, the once-promising Senators hit the weekend eight points back of the playoffs. After the Leafs, Ottawa plays Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay and New Jersey next week, so there are no soft touches to take advantage of. Every big game is against a big opponent and there are only 14 games left.

Toronto, meantime, would like to create separation between it and the Lightning while Sheldon Keefe also continues to play with his line combos and defence pairs. You know Ottawa will give the Leafs a run on Hockey Night in Canada anyway, but now the stakes are higher, later in the season, for both teams than they have been in years.

Pittsburgh at New York Rangers
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

The Rangers seem all but locked into third place in the Metro Division, leaving them without home-ice advantage and their first-round opponent to be determined by what the Devils or Hurricanes do. But the Penguins still have a lot on the line and, somehow, they’re finding a way through.

Although they have won seven of their past 11, the Pens dropped games to Montreal and the Rangers already this week. Since the All-Star break, Pittsburgh is 10-8-1, 18th in the league by points percentage, and with a minus-5 goal differential. The Penguins are seventh-best in expected goal percentage rate in that time, but 19th in power-play percentage and 22nd on the penalty-kill. They are there, finding wins while others are finding losses. Can the Pens and their veteran leadership keep afloat over the last few weeks?

If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:

(P1) Golden Knights vs. (WC2) Jets

(P2) Kings vs. (P3) Oilers

(C1) Stars vs. (WC1) Kraken

(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Avalanche


Winnipeg at Nashville
Saturday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT

The Predators more or less gave up on their playoff chase this season when they became hard sellers at the deadline, while the Jets added (though maybe not as much as many would have liked). And yet it’s the Predators making a playoff charge as the Jets struggle to do much of anything, and even benched some of their best players in a game earlier this week.

With the Predators now just four points back of the Jets for the second wild-card spot with three games in hand, there are actually two important games this weekend for both teams. After they meet each other Saturday in Nashville, the Preds will go to New York to face the Rangers Sunday as the Jets go on to St. Louis to face the Blues on a back-to-back.

Dallas at Calgary
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT (HNIC)

This Saturday night game connects to the Jets-Predators game because the Flames sit between Nashville and Winnipeg in the standings. Thursday’s decisive win over Vegas stopped a three-game skid for Calgary, but this is a team that’s won two games in a row just twice since the All-Star break and hasn’t had three in a row since early December. After 69 games, the Flames are still behind the Predators by points percentage and need to start gaining momentum, fast.

Edmonton at Seattle
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT

Mark Spector posed the question this week: if you’re the Oilers, who would you prefer to play in Round 1? Is finishing third in the Pacific to face Los Angeles again or Vegas the better path to success? Or would sliding down to the wild card work better, where you may face Dallas or Minnesota in Round 1 (though a surging Colorado may best be avoided)? Saturday afternoon presents a big game for both the Kraken and Oilers in this regard.

Washington at Minnesota
Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 am PT

This Sunday matinee is a big deal for both teams. First, the Capitals have managed to hang around the East’s playoff picture despite selling off multiple pieces at the deadline. They’ll first play St. Louis on Friday, and then next week will see Columbus and Chicago at home before travelling to Pittsburgh. That Penguins game could have huge meaning, depending on how the teams fare in the next seven days.

The Wild, meantime, haven’t lost a game in regulation since Feb. 15, but have a surging Colorado Avalanche team hot on their heels. If you have to play them in Round 1, you’d much rather have home-ice advantage. Of course, you’d much rather avoid the defending champions in Round 1 at all, and so while this game is about keeping ahead of the Avs, it’s also about chasing the No. 1 seed Dallas Stars. The Wild actually have the best points percentage in the Central Division. Will that still be true on Sunday, after Minnesota plays Boston on Saturday night?

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