Monday, March 25, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Thinning the wild card herd and the Sabres make history

With​ less than two​ weeks​ to​ go​ in​ the​ regular season,​ let’s skip the​ gimmicks and get​ straight​ to figuring out​​ where we’re at after a busy weekend on the wild card bubble.

First things first: While we did our best this week to spread some optimism among the eight teams that were chasing playoff spots, we can safely narrow down that list now. The Flyers are done, thanks to a pair of weekend losses. So are the Panthers, who lost in regulation to the Bruins. And the Oilers and Canucks are also done. None of those teams are mathematically eliminated, but they’re close enough that they’d need a miracle. Chicago’s close to that point too; we’ll get to them in a bit more detail down below.

That leaves us with a more manageable group still in the wild card race. In the East, it’s down to the Blue Jackets, Canadiens and Hurricanes, with two spots up for grabs. The Habs and Canes hold them right now, and they met last night in one of those games that Columbus fans just knew was going to go to overtime and summon the loser point fairy. It did, with the Hurricanes taking the two points on Andrei Svechnikov’s winner.

That left the Blue Jackets facing a must-win in Vancouver and they got the job done with a 5-0 win. That capped off a week-long road trip which saw them lose three straight and their grip on a wild card spot, and after going all-in at the trade deadline, Columbus is dangerously close to falling out of the race. The good news is that they host the Habs on Thursday, in what will be the biggest game of the year and maybe even of the Tortorella/Kekalainen era – not to mention the one that determines whether it continues.

Out west, the feel-good Coyotes are flatlining, losing five straight to cough up their hold on a wild card spot and fall two points back. The only good news is that they haven’t lost as much ground during that streak as you might think; the Stars have lost four of five while the Wild have lost six of eight. Only the Avalanche are hot, winning four straight before having their streak snapped in OT by the Hawks last night.

Where does that leave us? In the East, the Blue Jackets still control their own destiny, although a loss to the Canadiens this week would just about spell the end. As for the Habs and Hurricanes, remember that seeding matters here, a lot – the first wild card spot earns a matchup with the Metro winner while the second spot gets the Lightning. That could be the difference between having a real shot at winning a round and just being happy to be there.

In the West, the Coyotes still hold most of the card thanks to a schedule that serves up the Hawks, Avalanche and Wild this week. Meanwhile, the Stars head out on a four-game Western Canadian road trip that starts tonight in Winnipeg, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.

By this time next week, both races could be settled. Or both could be even tighter. Or one of those teams I just said was dead and buried could be back in the hunt, and gosh, if that happens I sure some of their fans will drop by to remind me.

For now, let’s get to this week’s rankings, where we had more movement than usual in the top five and something very weird in the bottom five …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Before we get to the top five, I thought last night’s fishing-themed Storm Surge was just OK. Saturday’s version was fun, though:

5. Vegas Golden Knights (42-27-6, +27 true goals differential*) – It might seem a little weird to hand a top-five spot to a team that probably won’t even have home ice in the first round. Maybe it is. But the Knights have been rolling since the trade deadline, going 10-1-1 since Mark Stone arrived and scoring five or more goals in five of those games. That includes this week’s impressive 7-3 win over a Sharks team they’ll probably face in round one.

Put simply, at this point I’d pick the Knights to beat the Sharks in a seven-game series, even one that started in San Jose. They have better goaltending, the offense is humming and their defensive game is good enough that they can pitch a 20-shot shutout at the Jets with their backup goalie. They’re not perfect – they lost to the Red Wings on Saturday – but I can’t think of five teams whose odds I like better right now, so they’re in.

4. Winnipeg Jets (45-26-4, +35) – Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Predators was a statement game, one that left even Roman Josi saying things like “they’re just better than us.” More importantly, it left the Jets in great shape to earn the top seed in the division, as they hold a four-point lead, a game in hand and the ROW tie-breaker. That means they should avoid an occasionally scary Blues team that just beat the Lightning and instead start the playoffs against a wild card opponent they’ll be heavy favorites against.

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