Weekend Takeaways: A sampling of what’s to come in the playoffs

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) and Detroit Red Wings left wing J.T. Compher (37) vie for control of the puck during second period NHL hockey in Toronto, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The final weekend of regular-season action did a great job of previewing what’s ahead next weekend, when the second season begins.

It can’t be said frequently or ferociously enough: there’s really nothing like high-stakes hockey.

With one or two games left on everyone’s slate, four Eastern Conference teams are scrapping it out for the final playoff berth on that side of the draw. And there’s even a fifth squad — the New York Islanders — that better not pop a bottle just yet.

The Isles did pick up a crucial point in a shootout loss versus the Rangers on Saturday, which basically gives them a three-point cushion from the jostling mob behind them. The Washington Capitals scored a huge 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay that same day and, as of this second, the Caps hold the one wild-card spot that remains up for grabs.

Also on Saturday, Pittsburgh fell behind Boston 4-1 and couldn’t come back on home ice, while Detroit did the exact opposite — jumping ahead of the Leafs 4-1 on the road — then blew the advantage before being rescued from devastation in overtime on a power-play goal from captain Dylan Larkin.

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The Philadelphia Flyers, meanwhile, have pulled out of a complete tailspin just in time to keep their hopes alive, scratching out a 1-0 road win over the Devils on Saturday in their penultimate contest of the year to maintain a pulse.

And now we come down the pre-playoff stretch.

Right out of the chute, Monday night is bringing a bunch of bangers. The Isles can clinch by leaving New Jersey with two points, while Washington, Detroit and Pittsburgh all play home games they absolutely must have.

Depending on how those tilts go, Washington at Philly on Tuesday and Pittsburgh at the Islanders on Wednesday could be like Game 7s before the Game 1s.

The main entrée is coming,  but the appetizers figure to be out of this world, too.

Time to feast.

Other Takeaways

• The Leafs’ Auston Matthews scored his 69th goal of the year against Detroit in that game the Wings nearly gagged up. All the talk is about No. 70 and that’s as it should be. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, nobody has hit that mark since Alex Mogilny and Teemu Selanne both potted 76 in 1992-93. But how about Matthews’ eight-game goal streak? If he scores in his next outing on Tuesday, the Leafs sniper will have put together the first nine-game goal streak in the NHL since Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne found the net in 11 consecutive contests early in the 1997-98 campaign, just weeks after No. 34 was born.

• It’s impossible to talk about Matthews without thinking of his hockey roots in Arizona. Full marks to this Coyotes team that keeps scrapping under difficult circumstances. As rumours swirled about their future in a different state, the Desert Dogs clawed out a 3-2 overtime win in Edmonton on Friday and carried a lead into the third period in Calgary on Sunday night before falling 6-5 to the Flames. It would be understandable if this crew folded the tent. Instead, Arizona is (probably) going out swinging.

• Is the entire Western Conference hearing the Jaws theme as Vegas gets right? The Knights even got a winner from former Shark Tomas Hertl — his second of the weekend — to hammer home the reference. Vegas stormed back on Sunday with three third-period goals to defeat the suddenly struggling Avalanche 4-3 in extra time. That win came 48 hours after the Knights pumped Minnesota 7-2 on Friday — the same day we learned captain Mark Stone is back practising with the squad (albeit in a non-contact jersey with no set timetable for a return). Dallas, Vancouver and Edmonton could all still draw the defending champs in the first round and it’s hard to imagine any of them are hoping that’s the way things play out.

• What a weekend — and season — for Filip Forsberg. The Preds gunner netted a hat trick on Friday night in Chicago, then came back 24 hours later and scored another goal versus Columbus to give him 47 on the season. That means that, about 14 months after a frightening concussion ended last season early for him, the Swede needs another hatty in Nashville’s final game of the year to record his first 50-goal season. David Pastrnak needs three goals in Boston’s two remaining games to hit the half-century mark and Artemi Panarin, who scored Saturday, needs a pair in the Rangers’ final tilt to join the four guys — Matthews, Zach Hyman, Sam Reinhart and Nathan MacKinnon — who’ve already bagged 50 this year.

If Panarin picks up two more points, four guys will hit 120 points in the league this year for the first time since 1992-93.

• Are the Canadian and American women capable of playing an uninteresting game? My God, what a gold-medal finale — finally claimed by Canada in overtime — at the Women’s World Championship in Utica, N.Y., on Sunday night.

Weekend Warrior

Have a debut, Frank Nazar! The former Michigan Wolverine joined Chicago for his first NHL game on Sunday and scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot. Let’s see what happens this week when other NCAA “graduates” like Montreal’s Lane Hutson and Anaheim’s Cutter Gauthier figure to make their debuts.

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Red and White Power Ranking

1. Vancouver Canucks (42-22-9) Though not official yet, the Canucks’ win over Edmonton on Saturday all but clinched the Pacific Division title. Let’s just zoom out a little and appreciate how incredible this year is for Vancouver and its fans. We’re not just talking about a team that was in disarray halfway through last year; this franchise has just one playoff win in a best-of-seven series since losing in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

2. Winnipeg Jets (50-24-6) Peaking at the right time? The Jets smashed Colorado (the team they’ll meet in Round 1) 7-0 on Saturday and, in their past two games, have played the other top clubs in their division (Colorado and Dallas) and won by a combined score of 10-0. With six straight W’s and four in a row on the road, the Jets close with two home games this week versus Seattle and Vancouver as they try to lock down home-ice advantage.

3. Edmonton Oilers (48-25-6) Obviously you rest Connor McDavid when he’s dinged up at all, even if you’re forgoing a shot to win your division. Let’s see if he plays again in any of Edmonton’s three remaining games or if the team just chooses to let him fully heal up before Game 1.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (46-24-10) You have to think Sheldon Keefe is hoping Auston Matthews with get No. 70 on his first shift Tuesday night in Florida so the Leafs can put it behind them and really start prepping for what’s ahead. And the way he’s going, he probably will.

5. Ottawa Senators (36-40-4) Entering Saturday night, Brady Tkachuk had already equalled his personal best of 35 goals and he’s got 37 now after popping two in a shootout victory over the Canadiens. His first 40-goal season will be tough to achieve, though, with road games slated in Boston and New York versus the Rangers to close out the year.

6. Calgary Flames (37-38-5) After his goal versus the Coyotes on Sunday, Yegor Sharangovich owns the best single-season point total (59) ever posted by a Belarusian in the NHL. Meanwhile, Andrei Kuzmenko had a four-goal, five-point weekend to give him 16 points in his past nine outings. At what point does the conversation turn to the fact both of these guys are eligible to become UFAs in 2025?

7. Montreal Canadiens (30-36-14) Cole Caufield experienced no shortage of frustration this year as the goals just wouldn’t seem to come. Well, they’re arriving now to close out the year as the small winger — who scored twice in Ottawa on Saturday — has seven tallies in his past seven outings.

The Week Ahead

• The Rangers can clinch the Presidents’ Trophy with two points on Monday when they host the Senators.

• Colorado doesn’t play again until Game 82 on Thursday. Chances are Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov will have locked down the Art Ross Trophy by then as he takes a three-point lead on Nathan MacKinnon into Game 81 for Tampa Monday night versus Buffalo. The Bolts also host the Leafs on Tuesday.

• The Coyotes host Edmonton on Wednesday for what could be the final bit of NHL action in Arizona for a long time.

• The Minnesota Wild visit the Kings Monday night and host Seattle on Thursday, which is the final day of the 2023-24 regular season. Will the curtain come down on Marc-André Fleury’s brilliant career that night?

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