Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Five storylines to watch down the stretch

With the trade deadline now behind us and just under five weeks left in the regular season, this is the time of year when we’d normally be focused on the playoff bubble.

Typically, we’d have something like a half-dozen teams in each conference fighting it out for a limited number of playoff spots that were still up for grabs. It’s great drama, and lots of fun.

Unfortunately, this year’s bubble is shaping up to be a bust, with only one team in each conference sitting within five points of a playoff spot. That would be the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche; according to Sports Club Stats, nobody else in the league has even a five per cent chance of making the post-season.

And it’s not just the bubble that’s lacking late-season drama. The Washington Capitals are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Patrick Kane is doing the same with the Art Ross race, and probably the Hart Trophy too. Kane’s the only one who looks to have any shot at catching Alex Ovechkin for the lead in goals. And the rookie scoring race is a rout, with Artemi Panarin leading by 16 points and not enough time left for even the ridiculous Connor McDavid to make that up (probably).

So what’s a hockey fan looking for a little drama to do? We’re going to have to dig a little deeper, skipping the usual suspects and focusing our attention elsewhere. Luckily, there are still a few candidates for late-season intrigue. Here are five storylines to watch as the regular season schedule winds down.

The Capitals chase history

The NHL record for most wins in a season is held by the Detroit Red Wings, who had 62 during the 1995-96 season. The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens are the only other team in the 60-win club.

As of Tuesday, the Capitals have 49 wins through 66 games, putting them on pace for 61 if we round up. That’s pretty impressive, and you’d think it would be a bigger deal. Sure, it’s tough to compare eras when today’s teams get a boost from the shootout and three-point games. But in an era with more league-wide parity than we’ve ever seen, having a shot at the all-time wins record is a major accomplishment.

So you could forgive fans in Washington if they were shouting from the rooftops about a team that has a chance to join that ultra-exclusive 60-win club. But it’s hard to shout too loud when you’re curled up in the fetal position, which is where many Caps fans seem to be these days as they wait for the playoffs to start. It’s hard to blame them, given the history here, and it’s true that the regular season doesn’t matter much if you don’t win the Cup – just ask those ’96 Red Wings, who were knocked out in the conference final by their soon-to-be arch rivals in Colorado. If the Capitals’ story ends with yet another playoff heart-breaker, their regular season win total won’t be much consolation.

But that’s a worry for down the road. As far as the rest of the regular season goes, the Caps are having one of the best years we’ve ever seen. That’s worth celebrating, no matter how it ends.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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