Faceoff: Insult to Injury
With one week left in the regular season and the playoffs drawing near, hockey fans have turned their attention to the usual questions: Who's in? Who's out? Who's playing who? Who's hot, who's cold, and who's got the clearest path to the final?
This year, another question is starting to loom even larger: Who's healthy?
The quick answer, as always, is "nobody" because this is the NHL and everyone is banged up in one way or another by this point. But this year, there are some very significant names showing up on injury reports around the league in the season's final days, and many of them are big enough to change the perception of some team's playoff chances.
The latest bombshell arrived late Saturday evening, with news breaking that Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would need to undergo surgery for a blood clot in his arm. He'll miss at least a month, and could be sidelined until after the final. While the good news is that the clots apparently won't impact his long-term health outlook, the timing is devastating to a Lightning team that had been considered a favourite to come out of the Atlantic, if not the Eastern Conference. The team had already lost key defenceman Anton Stralman to a broken leg that's left him hoping for a return "at some point." Losing Stamkos too may be enough to shift Tampa Bay from Conference favourite to first-round underdog. (And now, even potential AHL saviour Jonathan Drouin is apparently hurt, too.)
The Stamkos story followed on the heels of Saturday morning's news from Pittsburgh that Marc-Andre Fleury has been shut down with his second concussion of the season. That's a major blow to a team that had emerged as a legitimate Cup threat under new coach Mike Sullivan. We don't yet know how long Fleury will be out, but an extended absence would put all the playoff pressure on 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray. (For what it's worth, Murray has looked very good in his nine career games, including a 24-save shutout against the Islanders after the Fleury news broke on Saturday.)
Fleury isn't the only playoff-bound goaltender on the sidelines with a head injury. The Ducks announced Friday that sometimes-starter Frederik Andersen is out indefinitely with a concussion. Anaheim will also be without forward David Perron, who'll miss four to six weeks with a separated shoulder.
Just when things were going right for the Penguins...–Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
And then there's the ongoing mystery of Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford. He hasn't played since March 14 due to what the team is calling an upper-body injury, and there's been plenty of speculation over exactly what that might mean. The team still says it still hopes to have Crawford back in time for the playoffs, but with a tough first-round matchup looming, any sort of absence—or even rust—could spell disaster. Meanwhile, the Hawks have also lost Andrew Shaw to injury and Duncan Keith to a suspension, and could now be without Marian Hossa, who left Sunday's game after a collision and did not return.
The list continues. Tyler Seguin of the Stars. Travis Hamonic and Jaroslav Halak of the Islanders. Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the Sharks. Jay Bouwmeester of the Blues. Marian Gaborik of the Kings. All big names, all sidelined as the season winds down, all hoping to return for the playoffs but none a sure thing.
Any predictions of injury-related doom and gloom at this time of year need to be taken with a grain of salt—the star player who misses time late but manages to miraculously recover just in time for the playoffs is a story we've seen before. But the flood of big names on the injury report could be enough to tilt the balance of power in at least a series or two. And we still have a week to add to the list...
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Chicago Blackhawks (46-26-7, +25 true goals differential)—I should have slipped the Penguins in here and dropped Chicago off the list. Then I watched the shorthanded Hawks speedbag what should have been a desperate Bruins team for 35 minutes Sunday and I went "Oh yeah, these guys." Then I watched the last 25 minutes and went "Wait, I'm confused." I remain confused.
4. Los Angeles Kings (46-27-5, +30)—They hold their spot in our top five, but the Ducks have passed them again for top spot in the Pacific.