Monday, March 27, 2017

Weekend wrap: Planting seeds

With two weeks left in the regular season, there’s good news and bad news for anyone hoping for a frantic sprint to the finish line.

The bad news: This year’s playoff bubble has been kind of a bust. In the East, we’ve got four teams fighting for two spots, and one of those teams, the Maple Leafs, was starting to look like a lock before Frederik Andersen got hurt on Saturday. That puts the Leafs back in the mix with the Bruins, Lightning and Islanders; that race should be fun, and we’ll look at it in more detail a few sections down, but right now isn’t exactly a high-drama free-for-all. And in the West, we’re basically done; only the Kings are still in the chase, and their odds are on life support.

Add it all up, and 13 of the 16 playoff spots are already spoken for, and that number could be 14 or even 15 within another few days. So much for the season of parity.

But here's the good news: The battle to figure out which playoff teams will slot in where is still wide open. The Rangers have been locked into the East's first wild-card spot for a while now, and it seems safe to pencil the Blackhawks in as the top seed out West. Beyond that, it's chaos.

That chaos may not make or break anyone's chances – being the home team in a playoff matchup is less important in today's NHL than in just about any other pro sport. Still, seeding does matter, and all else being equal teams will want to finish in the best spot they can.

Nowhere is that fact more important than at the top of the Metro, where three of the league's best teams are fighting for first place. The stakes really couldn't be any higher; take the top seed, and you get to play a wild-card team you'll have finished about 25 points ahead of during the season. But the teams that finish second and third are stuck playing each other, guaranteeing that one of the league's very best teams will be out in the first round. The Capitals would seem to have the edge here, holding a lead and facing a schedule that includes the sad-sack Coyotes and Avalanche. But there's also a matchup in there with the Blue Jackets, who also face the Penguins, so this one isn't over yet.

The Atlantic got some clarity on Saturday, with the Canadiens beating the Senators for the third time in eight nights. That put Montreal up by three, and while Ottawa still holds a game in hand, the Habs will probably own the ROW tie-breaker. Of course, we're not sure whether finishing first in the Atlantic is a good thing, with the Rangers waiting for the winner. For most of the last few months, it's seemed like it might be better to drop down to second and face someone like Toronto or Boston. But with New York suddenly stumbling, that matchup (and guaranteed home ice through at least the first two rounds) suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

Then there's the Pacific, where the Sharks have seen a lead that had grown as large as nine points on March 14 shrink to nothing/a deficit after six straight losses, with the Ducks, Oilers and even the Flames all in the mix to take the top seed. Top spot in the Western divisions isn't looming quite as large as in the East because the wild cards aren't all that far behind, but home ice will help.

Then there are those potential rivalry matchups, like Ottawa/Toronto, Calgary/Edmonton, Anaheim/San Jose or Montreal/Boston. We flagged that possibility a few weeks back, and they've grown more likely since. You've also got a good battle for third in the Central between the Predators and Blues, one that seems even more important as the second-place Wild continue to freefall.

Add it all up, and there's still an awful lot at stake over the next few weeks. You just have to look above the bubble to find it.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Montreal Canadiens (42-24-9, +16 true goals differential*): They return to the top five after a two-month absence. Do I feel good about this pick? Not remotely, as we'll discuss down below.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (48-19-7, +61): Sergei Bobrovsky has given up three goals in his last four starts. This week brings the Sabres and Hurricanes, but then comes three straight against the top three teams in our rankings.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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