A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.
Theme of the Week: The Final Act
We’re down to the final week of the regular season, so let’s dispense with any attempts to wrap everything up in some clever theme and get straight to the key matchups and clinching scenarios. Here’s what’s at stake over the season’s final six days.
Already In: The Rangers and Ducks have clinched their divisions. The Canadiens, Lightning, Predators, Blues, and Blackhawks have all clinched playoff spots, and are all still battling for division titles. Each of those seven teams is also still in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy, with the Rangers and Ducks sharing a narrow lead heading into the final week (New York has two games in hand). The Capitals have also wrapped up a playoff spot.
In the West: It’s essentially a three-team race for two spots. The Kings have at least temporarily nudged the Jets out of the final wild-card spot; both teams are at 92 points, but L.A. owns the tiebreaker. The Flames are still very much in the danger zone, sitting at 93 points and having played one more game than either the Kings or Jets.
Of those three teams, the Jets face the most difficult schedule, with tough games against the Wild and Blues early in the week. And remember, Winnipeg won’t get Dustin Byfuglien back from suspension for three more games. They’re in trouble.
While every game for those teams will matter, there are two in particular to keep an eye on. The Kings face the Flames on Thursday in Calgary; L.A. will have made up their game in hand by then, and there’s a good chance that the two teams will be separated by a single point. The game could even represent a clinching scenario for one or both teams.
On the season’s final night on Saturday, the Flames are in Winnipeg. If the Jets are still alive, they’ll get Byfuglien back for what would stand as the biggest NHL game played in Winnipeg in almost 19 years.
In the East: This one looked simple as recently as last week; you had the Senators and Bruins fighting for the final spot, with the Panthers doing just enough to hang around. Florida is out now, but the situation is suddenly much more crowded as slumps by Detroit and Pittsburgh have suddenly made those teams vulnerable. As it stands this morning, the Wings, Penguins, and Bruins are all tied at 95 points, with the Senators sitting two points back. All four teams have three games left.
Of all the teams in that logjam, the shocker is the Penguins, as they’ve gone from “feared powerhouse” to “scary but flawed” to “whoops, the emergency brake just broke off in their hand” over the course of the last few months. Part of that can be explained by injuries, as they’ve missed key players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for long stretches. But that only goes so far; the bigger concern is that a team that has always been top-heavy suddenly can’t score, and doesn’t have the goaltending or defense to go out and win 2-1 often enough to make up for it.
After yesterday’s 4-1 loss to the Flyers, the Pens have dropped three straight and nine of their last 12. The Wings aren’t much better; they lost to the Caps last night and have lost eight of their last 11. The Bruins, meanwhile, have gone super-streaky, winning five straight after losing six straight after winning five straight.
And chasing them all are the Senators, sitting two points back after last night’s shootout loss in Toronto. That’s the second straight weekend in which Ottawa has left a point on the board against the woeful Leafs, which could cost them their season. The good news is that they’re now chasing three teams and only need to pass one; the bad news is that just catching up won’t be enough, since they don’t own the ROW tiebreaker over anyone ahead of them.
We may get some clarity on all this as early as tomorrow night, when the Penguins are in Ottawa in what may be the week’s most crucial game. If the Penguins win in regulation, they’ll clinch a postseason spot and open the door for the Wings to do the same with a regulation win over Carolina. But if the Sens win, the Penguins will be all out of room for error. That scenario would have been unthinkable even a week ago today, when the Pens were sitting a comfortable nine points up on Ottawa. But it’s the reality right now, and we could be looking at what would go down as a historic collapse.
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. Nashville Predators (47-22-10, +30 goals differential) I have never seen a team this good that nobody, literally nobody, will pick to win its first-round matchup.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (48-24-8, +52) At this point you can pretty much flip a coin between them and the Canadiens in the Atlantic, but fair is fair; the Lightning went into Montreal and won the head-to-head showdown last week, so they get the spot for now.