A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.
Theme of the Week: When the Playoff Bubble Pops Early
We’re into the first week of February, which would typically be the time of year to start talking about how tight the playoff races in each conference are looking, and how many teams are still on the bubble. But there’s a problem this year: That bubble is looking awfully deflated, and it’s possible we could be headed toward one of the weakest stretch runs we’ve seen in the cap era.
In the West, the outlook largely depends on how you feel about the Kings. They sit in ninth place, trailing both Calgary and Vancouver by three points and needing to catch only one of them. With all due respect to those Canadian underdog stories, everyone seems to assume the Kings will eventually wake up in time to claim a spot (since struggling through the regular season before roaring into the playoffs has basically become their trademark).
If the Kings miss out, things open up considerably. But if you feel confident about penciling in L.A., that probably leaves only one Western spot available, unless the Jets or Sharks stumble badly. You’d have the Flames and the Canucks battling for that last spot, along with the Stars and the Avalanche, who’ve clawed back into the race. The Wild nearly did, too, although they’re probably just too far back to make a run.1
The East is looking even worse. The top eight are dangerously close to being locked in already, with eighth-place Washington holding an eight-point edge on the Panthers. There’s still some hope for Florida — the Panthers have games in hand, and it’s easier to make up big ground when there aren’t a bunch of other teams between you and your target — but it’s a long shot. After the Panthers, you’re looking at teams like the Flyers, Senators, and Leafs, all of whom seem just about hopeless at this point, even if some of them don’t seem to know it yet.
A lack of down-to-the-wire playoff races wouldn’t be the end of the world; we could focus on seedings, and have extra time to get excited about specific matchups (cough). But it would be odd to go a year without the usual March and April bubble-team hype.
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. Montreal Canadiens (32-14-3, +19 goals differential) At this point, we all know what the Habs are: a good-but-not-great team being dragged into contention by Hart-caliber goaltending from Carey Price. Is that enough to make them one of the five best teams in the league right now? I kind of think it might be.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-4, +33) They play the Blues, Kings, and Ducks this week, followed by a game against the Predators. So, yeah, we’ll know a lot more about this team in roughly nine days.