Thursday, March 21, 2019

Breaking down the best and the worst of the 17 nights left on the schedule

OK,​ hockey fans, huddle​ up.

We’re​ down​ to​ 17​ nights​ left on​ the regular season​ schedule. That’s not​ much​ and there’s still​​ plenty left to be decided. Most teams still have eight or nine games left, so just about everyone is going to be busy and the stakes are high. It’s tempting to just get comfortable and lock in for the rest of the homestretch.

But that’s not healthy. We have to pace ourselves. Three weeks from now we’re going to be into the first round of the playoffs, which is the absolute craziest time of the year to be a hockey fan. You’re not going to last if you burned yourself out over the last few weeks of the regular season.

Today, let’s walk through every night left on the schedule and figure out which ones are must-see TV and which ones we can maybe take a pass on. The NHL has never really been great at balanced scheduling; they’ll serve up a busy night packed with great games immediately followed by one with nothing worth watching. That can be frustrating when it’s November, but in March and April, it’s actually good news. We need to pick our spots.

Grab your calendars and let’s figure this out.

Thursday, March 21

Total games: 12

The can’t-miss matchup: We get a rematch of the 2017 Stanley Cup final tonight, as the Penguins visit the Predators in a game with major ramifications for both teams. The Predators are fighting it out with the Jets for top spot in the Central and need every point they can get, while the Penguins still have a shot at home ice or even the division title. Mix in plenty of star power and this should be a good one.

Other good options: Jets at Golden Knights is a rematch of last year’s conference final and maybe a preview of this year’s too. Avalanche at Stars has wildcard implications and the Islanders can drive a serious nail into the Canadiens’ coffin. And Tampa visits the Hurricanes in what could be a preview of a sneakily intriguing first-round series.

No thanks: Despite a dozen games on the schedule, Flyers at Blackhawks is somehow the only one that won’t feature at least one team holding down a playoff spot. Instead, it’s two teams that will probably finish the season just a few points out and regretting the missed opportunities along the way.

Entertainment quotient: 8/10 – Tonight should be a great start to the homestretch, with so many good-to-great games that it’s almost inevitable that there will be at least a few memorable ones.

Friday, March 22

Total games: Two

The can’t-miss matchup: Uh … Wild at Capitals, I guess? At least both teams still have something to play for.

Other good options: Netflix. A good book. Interacting with your family.

No thanks: Sharks at Ducks. The various versions of the Battle of California usually serve up something fun, but nobody should be carving out time to watch the Ducks these days unless you have an immediate family member on the team.

Entertainment quotient: 2/10 – You know what, maybe DVR a few of tonight’s games to watch tomorrow.

Saturday, March 23

Total games: 14

The can’t-miss matchup: Predators at Jets, in the final meeting of the season between the two teams. It’s too early to say whether this one will decide the Central, but there’s a decent chance that it will. And if it plants a few seeds of bad blood for a Round 2 matchup along the way, that would work too.

Other good options: The theme for most of the rest of this busy night is games in which a good team is playing a bad one. But Lightning at Blues and Penguins at Stars should be fun and Sabres at Canadiens is a classic case of a division rival with the chance to play spoiler.

No thanks: Senators at Oilers isn’t the worst game on the schedule; that would be Ducks at Kings. But that one at least has serious lottery implications, while this one features a team that doesn’t want to finish last against a team that realistically can’t.

Entertainment quotient: 6/10 – This ends up being a weirdly disappointing night, as the NHL serves up a slate that’s just one game shy of the maximum, yet doesn’t feature all that many really intriguing matchups. Still, there’s so much going on that a few games have to be worth watching. Just be ready with the remote if the one you’re on isn’t delivering; you want a Mike Keenan-like hook tonight.

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