Monday, January 5, 2015

Weekend wrap: It's getting ugly for two Western contenders

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Western Blowouts Could Signal Change

Three teams have fired their coaches this season: Ottawa, Edmonton, and last week’s bizarre mess in New Jersey. With a pair of struggling Western teams suffering embarrassing blowout losses over the weekend, that number could be on the verge of rising.

In San Jose, Todd McLellan didn’t sound like a guy with any answers after Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Blues. The Sharks coach is probably used to this by now, since he’s been on the hot seat for years, and everyone assumes he’ll be fired if the team can’t make a deep playoff run. But right now that may not be an issue, because the team is struggling just to earn a playoff berth, sitting tied with the Flames for the last wild-card spot. All signs point to the Flames falling out of contention, but the suddenly surging Stars are just three points back and probably pose the bigger threat.

And then there’s the team right behind the Stars, the Minnesota Wild. They took a 7-1 beating from Dallas on Saturday in a game in which Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper was pulled yet again. That’s a tough loss for a team that seemed to be rounding back into shape following a five-game December losing streak, and it left the Wild five back of a playoff spot with three teams to pass. That’s just not good enough for an organization that’s spent heavily in hopes of building a Stanley Cup contender, and at some point somebody will likely have to take the fall.

That could end up being coach Mike Yeo, even though it’s hard to put too much blame on him. The Wild are one of the league’s better possession teams, but they’ve been let down by their goaltending. Niklas Backstrom has struggled, and Kuemper’s play has plummeted after a hot start. That’s hardly Yeo’s fault, although coaches’ reputations tend to live and die with the goaltenders. It’s also worth remembering that Yeo was very much on the hot seat this time last year before eventually guiding the team to a playoff spot and a first-round upset of the top-seeded Avalanche. But the Wild are one more bad stretch away from being eliminated from playoff contention, so fair or not, Yeo will be under a microscope for the rest of the year.

If there’s one piece of good news for the Sharks and Wild, it’s that at least one of them will be getting back into the win column soon. The two teams face each other tomorrow night in Minnesota.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. St. Louis Blues (23-13-3, plus-19 goals differential): After spanking San Jose, they look well-positioned to bank some points this week. Their next four games are against the Coyotes, Sharks again, Hurricanes, and Oilers.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-5, plus-24): At this point, I still like them just a bit better than the Islanders, even though New York has temporarily snuck back into a tie for first place in the Metro.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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