Monday, April 1, 2019

Weekend power rankings: What we know and what we don’t heading into the season’s final week

One​ week to go,​ and​ the​ picture​ is​ starting​ to come​ into focus.

Let’s start​ with what we​ know.​ Ten teams have​​ already clinched playoff spots and Dallas, Pittsburgh and Toronto are all close enough that it would take an epic collapse for any of them to miss. We also know that the Lightning have won the Presidents’ Trophy and will have home ice throughout the playoffs, that the Flames will be the top seed in the West and that the Sharks will host the Golden Knights in the other Pacific matchup. Toronto and Boston are close enough to a sure thing in the Atlantic, almost certainly with Boston having home ice, that we can go ahead and call it a done deal.

That leaves one wildcard spot in the West and two in the East. That Western slot looks like it will come down to the Coyotes and Avalanche; we can’t quite write off the Wild but after yesterday’s loss it’s getting close and the Blackhawks and Oilers are mathematically alive but would both need a miracle.

Colorado owns a one-point lead on Arizona with the ROW tie-breaker still up for grabs and has a game in hand that they’ll use tonight in a tough one in St. Louis. After that, the two teams have remarkably similar schedules the rest of the way, with both teams hosting Winnipeg and a bad team (Edmonton for the Avs, the Kings for the Coyotes) and also visiting one of the Pacific contenders (San Jose for Colorado and Vegas for Arizona).

In the East, it’s down to Montreal chasing Columbus and Carolina, with all three teams having three games left. The Blue Jackets are in the best shape, holding a one-point lead on the Hurricanes and two on the Canadiens along with the ROW tie-breaker and they’ve heated up at exactly the right time to the tune of five straight wins. Carolina still controls their own destiny and has a workable schedule, facing the struggling Leafs tomorrow and then closing with the Devils and Flyers. Montreal has the toughest hill to climb, facing the Lightning, Capitals and Leafs, although all three of those teams might not have much to play for. Still, Montreal needs some help.

(Hey Montreal fans, would now be a good time to point out that the Habs are on pace for a playoff miss despite being 14th overall, ahead of all the Western wildcard contenders and even the Golden Knights too? No? OK, forget I brought it up.)

We’re also still waiting to see who’ll win the Metro, where the Caps have control, and the Central, where the Jets and Predators have slowed down enough to let the Blues back into the picture. And there’s still the Art Ross and Rocket Richard to figure out, although Nikita Kucherov and Alexander Ovechkin, respectively, are close to locking those up.

While we might be close to having all this sorted out, we are still staring down what could be a dramatic week. With that, let’s move onto the rankings. The top five is pretty straightforward this week and I’m sure you’ll agree with my picks. Haha, April Fools.

Road to the Cup

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

Last week, I made the call to move the Golden Knights into the top five, dropping San Jose out for the first time in ten weeks. My reward was watching the Knights lose four straight this week, including Saturday’s showdown with those same Sharks. Thanks, guys.

The Knights are back out, opening a spot for someone else. But who? Not the Sharks, who haven’t won in regulation is three weeks, got smoked at home by the Flames last night and couldn’t even beat Vegas without also doing stuff like this. It’s certainly not the Predators, who’ve lost more than they’ve won since the first week of February or the Leafs, who lost to the Senators yet again. Maybe it’s the Blues, who continue to roll along and still have a shot at winning the Central. Or maybe it’s the Islanders, who somewhat quietly have more points than anyone else in this paragraph.

But when in doubt, we’ll play it safe by replacing the Knights with a new team that isn’t all that new. You’ll find them down in the four-slot, once we get past yet another struggling contender …

5. Winnipeg Jets (45-29-4, +29 true goals differential*) – Needless to say, I don’t feel great about this pick. The Jets have the edge in the Central race, with a game in hand on the Predators, a two-point lead on the Blues and (probably) control of the tie-breaker. That all puts them in a good position to draw a very winnable matchup with a wildcard team.

But they’ve also looked shaky down the stretch with the Central title there for the taking, including three losses this week. There are all sorts of warning lights blinking on the Jets’ dashboard and I’m not convinced that they’re a better team than the Islanders or even the Blues right now. But they are in position to earn a better playoff path, and when you’re trying to measure Cup odds, that matters a lot.

4. Washington Capitals (47-24-8, +30) – The Capitals move back into the top five, thanks to winning four straight and looking like they’re going to hold off the Islanders for the Metro title. Getting a wildcard opponent in the first round isn’t as much of an advantage as it is out west – they’ll probably get a very good Hurricanes team, or a very hot Blue Jackets one and could even end up with the Penguins. But it helps, and after Saturday’s impressive win over Tampa, we’ll slot the Capitals in even though not everyone is buying what they’re selling.

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