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NHL Weekend: Eyeing the Finish Line

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: The Final Act

We’re down to the final week of the regular season, so let’s dispense with any attempts to wrap everything up in some clever theme and get straight to the key matchups and clinching scenarios. Here’s what’s at stake over the season’s final six days.

Already In: The Rangers and Ducks have clinched their divisions. The Canadiens, Lightning, Predators, Blues, and Blackhawks have all clinched playoff spots, and are all still battling for division titles. Each of those seven teams is also still in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy, with the Rangers and Ducks sharing a narrow lead heading into the final week (New York has two games in hand). The Capitals have also wrapped up a playoff spot.

In the West: It’s essentially a three-team race for two spots.1 The Kings have at least temporarily nudged the Jets out of the final wild-card spot; both teams are at 92 points, but L.A. owns the tiebreaker. The Flames are still very much in the danger zone, sitting at 93 points and having played one more game than either the Kings or Jets.


1.

The Canucks and Wild haven’t clinched, but both would need to collapse in the final week to fall out of the running; Dallas and San Jose are both technically still alive but would need a miracle.

Of those three teams, the Jets face the most difficult schedule, with tough games against the Wild and Blues early in the week. And remember, Winnipeg won’t get Dustin Byfuglien back from suspension for three more games. They’re in trouble.

While every game for those teams will matter, there are two in particular to keep an eye on. The Kings face the Flames on Thursday in Calgary; L.A. will have made up their game in hand by then, and there’s a good chance that the two teams will be separated by a single point. The game could even represent a clinching scenario for one or both teams.

On the season’s final night on Saturday, the Flames are in Winnipeg. If the Jets are still alive, they’ll get Byfuglien back for what would stand as the biggest NHL game played in Winnipeg in almost 19 years.

In the East: This one looked simple as recently as last week; you had the Senators and Bruins fighting for the final spot, with the Panthers doing just enough to hang around. Florida is out now, but the situation is suddenly much more crowded as slumps by Detroit and Pittsburgh have suddenly made those teams vulnerable.2 As it stands this morning, the Wings, Penguins, and Bruins are all tied at 95 points, with the Senators sitting two points back. All four teams have three games left.


2.

The Islanders haven’t clinched but are one point away, so we’ll call them safe.

Of all the teams in that logjam, the shocker is the Penguins, as they’ve gone from “feared powerhouse” to “scary but flawed” to “whoops, the emergency brake just broke off in their hand” over the course of the last few months. Part of that can be explained by injuries, as they’ve missed key players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for long stretches. But that only goes so far; the bigger concern is that a team that has always been top-heavy suddenly can’t score, and doesn’t have the goaltending or defense to go out and win 2-1 often enough to make up for it.

After yesterday’s 4-1 loss to the Flyers, the Pens have dropped three straight and nine of their last 12. The Wings aren’t much better; they lost to the Caps last night and have lost eight of their last 11. The Bruins, meanwhile, have gone super-streaky, winning five straight after losing six straight after winning five straight.

And chasing them all are the Senators, sitting two points back after last night’s shootout loss in Toronto. That’s the second straight weekend in which Ottawa has left a point on the board against the woeful Leafs, which could cost them their season. The good news is that they’re now chasing three teams and only need to pass one; the bad news is that just catching up won’t be enough, since they don’t own the ROW tiebreaker over anyone ahead of them.

We may get some clarity on all this as early as tomorrow night, when the Penguins are in Ottawa in what may be the week’s most crucial game. If the Penguins win in regulation, they’ll clinch a postseason spot and open the door for the Wings to do the same with a regulation win over Carolina. But if the Sens win, the Penguins will be all out of room for error. That scenario would have been unthinkable even a week ago today, when the Pens were sitting a comfortable nine points up on Ottawa. But it’s the reality right now, and we could be looking at what would go down as a historic collapse.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Nashville Predators (47-22-10, +30 goals differential) I have never seen a team this good that nobody, literally nobody, will pick to win its first-round matchup.3


3.

Unless they get Winnipeg. Then one guy will.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (48-24-8, +52) At this point you can pretty much flip a coin between them and the Canadiens in the Atlantic, but fair is fair; the Lightning went into Montreal and won the head-to-head showdown last week, so they get the spot for now.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (48-25-6, +37) They’d won five straight before last night’s loss to the Blues. Oh, and Patrick Kane may be ahead of schedule.

2. St. Louis Blues (49-23-7, +40) They went into Chicago and beat the Hawks last night, moving up to first place in the Central.

1. New York Rangers (50-21-7, +59) Not to look too far ahead, but their first-round matchup is going to come against a team that’s mentally exhausted and could just be happy to be there.

This was supposed to be the week. After almost three months of playing near-unbeatable hockey, this was the week when I was finally going to get around to finding a spot for the Minnesota Wild in the top five. Then they went out and lost both of their games this week, to the Rangers and Red Wings, and I’m left trying to figure out who I’m supposed to bump.

To be honest, I’m probably several weeks late on this whole thing, and you could make a good case that the Wild should have been on the list for weeks. (Heck, Pierre LeBrun had them at no. 1 in his ESPN rankings last week.) The same could probably be said for the Rangers, another team that has been riding a second-half hot streak to the top of the standings (and for which I was also way late to the party).

Both teams are examples of one of the dilemmas you run into when trying to rank teams — how do you balance the recent past with a team’s overall record? After all, any team can get hot for a few weeks, and those teams tend to look unbeatable. Looking at a team’s overall record tends to be a helpful way to balance that out, and to make sure you’re not being fooled by a win streak that will turn out to be an outlier.

Of course, the Wild aren’t just riding some six-game hot streak. They’ve been on fire since mid-January, posting a 26-7-3 record since January 15. And that’s not an arbitrary end point — it’s the day that goaltender Devan Dubnyk made his debut after being acquired in a trade the day before. Dubnyk has started every game since, so it’s not unfair to say that the Wild should be considered a different team with the deal having been made. And through that lens, they’ve been the best team in the league.

All of that has probably earned the Wild two things: a playoff spot that was looking exceedingly unlikely at the time (they were 12th in the conference when the trade happened), and a probable first-round matchup with one of the West’s division winners, who’ll likely end the season at around 110 points. That’s some reward, but if you’d offered it to a Wild fan in early January, they’d have jumped all over it.

But it hasn’t earned them a spot in the top five. They have good company; this week, I’ve also excluded the Ducks (who have the most points in the league at 107) and the Habs (who have 106). If it sounds like I’m a guy who’s ready to throw his hands in the air and let somebody else worry about these stupid rankings until the playoffs start, well, you’re probably not far off.

Connor Watch: The League’s Five Worst

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s other top prize: franchise prospect Connor McDavid.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (29-38-11, -34) There’s nothing much left to play for, other than a chance to ruin the Red Wings’ playoff chances in a pair of games this week.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (30-43-7, -46) At this point I’m pretty sure the motivational saying in the Leafs’ dressing room just reads “Make Ontario hockey fans sad.”
3. Edmonton Oilers (23-43-13, -82) They’re back to their losing ways, dropping three straight. But they’ll be Canada’s team tomorrow, as fans in Winnipeg and Calgary hope against hope they can somehow shock the Kings.
2. Arizona Coyotes (24-47-8, -95) They’re in full-on tank mode and are an easy two points for any self-respecting … Wait, they beat the Sharks on Saturday? Good lord, San Jose.
1. Buffalo Sabres (22-49-8, -113) You’ve worked for it all year, and now it’s right there in front of you. Now just finish it out. FINISH IT!

Buffalo’s Friday night game with the Blackhawks, in which the Sabres held a late lead and then gave up a pair of goals in the final two minutes to lose 4-3 in regulation in front of a Buffalo crowd that was loudly cheering for Chicago, will go down as one of the season’s most dramatic finishes. And if you have any lingering confusion over where Buffalo fans stand on this whole thing, go back and read the replies to the official team account after Marcus Foligno’s goal temporarily gave the Sabres a lead. (Personal favorite: “I’m going to set him on fire.”)

And so here we are. After an entire season spent tracking the NHL’s race to the bottom, it all comes down to two teams. The Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes, each with three games remaining and separated by four points, will decide which team gets the coveted 30th-place spot in the draft lottery. Buffalo would lose the tiebreaker, which from their perspective is a good thing, so they could wrap this thing up as early as tonight. One Coyotes win or one Sabres regulation loss and it’s over.

A reminder of the stakes here: The last-place team gets a 20 percent shot at winning the lottery and (more importantly) becomes a 100 percent lock to get either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, while the team that finishes 29th has a 66 percent chance of dropping out of the top two altogether. This is franchise-altering stuff here.

Of the two teams, the Coyotes have the tougher schedule, which in this contest means they have the better one. They travel to Calgary tomorrow and then on to Vancouver on Thursday, two games against teams that are still fighting to nail down playoff spots. Arizona then closes at home against the Ducks, who are currently tied for most points in the league. The Ducks should be playing for the Presidents’ Trophy, although it’s worth remembering that their own coach is on the record claiming he doesn’t care about that honor, so the possibility of Anaheim resting guys for the playoffs is in play.

For their part, the Sabres host the Hurricanes tonight and face the Blue Jackets on Friday, two games against bad teams that don’t have much to play for. They close out the season on Saturday, at home against Pittsburgh. That could still turn out to be the game that the Sabres must lose to clinch last place, and no, you wouldn’t be the first to point out the irony of that particular matchup coming against the Penguins.

The NHL’s yearlong tank battle long ago became an embarrassment, and sure, it all could have been avoided with one of the many better systems. But it’s too late to worry about that now — this is where we’ve wound up, and it’s hard to deny the drama in watching these two teams slug it out. There’s not much left for fans to do but enjoy the final act in the best way we can: by picking a side and cheering them on to victory defeat.

Quick Shifts

• In what could be the biggest injury news of the week, Flames goalie Karri Ramo had to be helped off the ice with an apparent leg injury just a minute into Saturday’s win over the Oilers. The Flames say his status is day-to-day; Jonas Hiller will carry the load for now.

• Another key injury came in Montreal’s win over the Panthers last night. Max Pacioretty hit the boards hard and left the game. No word yet on whether he’ll miss time.

• The weekend’s most entertaining game, as usual, featured the Dallas Stars, who dropped a 7-5 decision to the Blues in a game that featured a record-breaking outburst of goals.

• What’s the NHL record for longest win streak that nobody noticed? The Blue Jackets must be closing in on it, as they’ve now won nine straight after Saturday’s win over the Pens. That’s impressive for a team that’s been out of playoff contention since November.

• The race for the Art Ross remains ridiculously close, with Sidney Crosby holding a lead of just one point over John Tavares and two over Alexander Ovechkin and Jakub Voracek.

• The Sharks are still technically alive but could be mathematically eliminated as early as tonight. That has already led to speculation about where the franchise goes next and which of the key decision-makers will be back next year — if any.

• Just in case you were starting to feel good about yourself as a hockey fan: This happened.

• Finally, congratulations to Team USA, who beat Canada 7-5 to take home the gold at the women’s world championship on Saturday. It’s their second straight title, and their fifth in the last six tournaments.