Monday, January 22, 2018

Weekend wrap: Crossing the Atlantic

Hey, remember how the Atlantic Division race was all sewn up, the Lightning were walking away with the top seed, and we could all get to work on our Bruins/Maple Leafs round one previews?

Yeah, hold that thought.

For maybe the first time all season, the Lightning are starting to look mortal. They’ve lost three straight by a combined score of 14–4, including Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Wild that kicked off a brutal eight-game road trip. They’re already missing Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos hasn’t scored in eight straight, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is struggling badly, giving up at least four goals in five straight starts. Their coach says they’re “out of synch,” and while you can blame the bye week for some of that, their best players aren’t leading the way anymore. At some point, it’s going to be fair to start wondering if this team deserves the dreaded “peaked too early” label, and had things a little too easy during a first half where everything seemed to be clicking every night.

That mini-slump has opened the door for the Bruins, and they’re making a hard run at it. They’ve won three in a row and have points in 16 straight. When they last lost a game in regulation, way back on Dec. 14, they were 14 points back of the Lightning. Now the gap is down to just three, and the Bruins hold a game in hand.

That’s not bad for a race some of us had written off just a few weeks ago. (Yes, guilty as charged.) And it creates a fascinating stretch run. The two teams have met only once all season, a 3-2 Bruins win in November. But they play three times in the season’s final dozen games, and now those look a lot like the ones that could decide the division.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are hanging around as the division’s awkward third wheel. They’d been fading out of contention thanks to eight straight without a regulation win, but snapped that streak with Saturday’s third-period comeback in Ottawa, a result that felt like it could be bigger than two points for a young team that was starting to turn on itself.

The Leafs didn’t lose any ground to the teams chasing them during their slump; in fact, they gained some on them thanks to some shootout luck and the loser point. But they certainly haven’t looked anything like a Cup contender, and it’s led to the first real wave of criticism Mike Babcock has faced since arriving in Toronto. Being on the right end of a third-period collapse for once will quell that for at least a few days, but things don’t get any easier with the red-hot Avalanche in town tonight.

For now, the Leafs seem more locked into third spot in the division than ever. But now it’s an open question as to who they’ll play. And maybe more importantly, who they should want to face.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (28-13-7, +27 true goals differential*): Last night’s 1-0 win over the Canucks wasn’t pretty, but it moves the Jets back into top spot in the Central.

4. Nashville Predators (28-11-6, +20): Make it five straight wins, all by one goal. Next up is what should be a fun matchup with the Lightning tomorrow night.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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