Faceoff: The disappearing playoff bubble
With five weeks to go in the regular season, this is supposed to be playoff bubble time. The trade deadline has come and gone, and all the contenders have finished shopping for the final pieces to put them over the top. Now it's time to shift our focus to the group of teams fighting it out for the remaining playoff spots, watching them jostle their way up and down the standings with each night of action. That's the bubble, and it's usually the single biggest story for the rest of the season.
There's just one problem: We may not have much of one this year.
In a typical year, we'd see plenty of teams fighting for plenty of spots. And we seemed headed that way again this year; just a few weeks ago, this year's field looked wide open. But today, there's not much drama to be found.
The West is already all but down to two teams and one spot, as the Wild and Avalanche battle for the final wild card. The top three in both divisions are largely locked in, and it would take a major collapse to knock the surging Predators out of the other wild-card spot. So it's the Wild and Avs and that's pretty much it.
The East is a little bit more interesting, with both wild cards still in play. The Penguins and Red Wings currently hold those, and both teams still have a chance to climb the standings and catch teams like the Islanders or Bruins. But as of today, only one team on the outside is within five points. That would be the Flyers, who sit four back of the Wings and have a game in hand. The Hurricanes, Senators and Devils are each barely sticking around at six points back, although Carolina just traded its best player and New Jersey is missing its starting goaltender.
It's still possible that the races could tighten up, or that some new team could take a late run to at least make things interesting. If anything, last year's furious hamburger-fueled charge by the Senators should remind us to never say never.
But it's also possible that we could head into the season's final month with the 16 playoff teams all but settled, and nothing left to play for besides seeding and lottery odds. In a season that was already lacking any drama around the Presidents' Trophy or the scoring race, we might all be in for a rough few weeks of trying to come up with things to talk about.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Dallas Stars (40-20-7, +23 true goals differential)—Sunday's 2-1 win in Ottawa was their second straight victory after an ugly stretch of six losses in seven games, and narrowly pushes the Stars past the Blues for a top five spot.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (39-22-4, +28)—Make it nine straight wins, and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic.