Adultery, Injury, and Serious Goalie Controversy: Eight of the Biggest Story Lines of the NHL Stretch Run

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’Tis the season of false hopes, strategic surgeries, tank battles, goalie controversies, and “jelling at the right time.” Yes, just one month remains in the NHL regular season, and it’s a month that comes in with defiance and goes out with a “Damn!” Some teams are determining how to simultaneously gear up and rest up for the playoffs; others are going all in even as they’re almost certainly out; and still others are upsetting their lottery-hungry fans with each successful shift or, god forbid, winning game.

It’s truly a wonderful time to be alive — unless, of course, you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. As the days grow longer and the snow finally melts (revealing the great garbage heaps beneath), here are a few of the stories and machinations taking place around the National Hockey League.

Central Booking

In the weeks leading up to the All-Star break, things seemed pretty bleak for the Minnesota Wild, who were floundering within the always competitive Central Division and stood 12th overall in the Western Conference. Since then, though, they’ve been on a tear, fueled in large part by a January 14 trade for goaltender Devan Dubnyk (Du-by Du-by doo …). Not only do the Wild now hold the first wild-card playoff spot, for a time they put a little heat on a Chicago Blackhawks team that has been riddled with adulterous intrigue and is currently sans Patrick Kane. (With a 2-1 win over Arizona Thursday night, the Hawks afforded themselves some more breathing room.)

The shuffling that will likely take place in the Central Division’s standings over the next few weeks should be fascinating. The Nashville Predators, a breakout success over most of the season, have stumbled of late: Their lone win in the last eight games was an overtime victory against the hapless Coyotes. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues have won three straight and are now tied with Nashville points-wise, though they’ve played two fewer games. And with defensive linchpin Kevin Shattenkirk hoping to return from an abdominal injury in time for the final stretch run and playoffs, the Blues could get that final push.

Either way, the biggest thing everyone will be watching for is whether we’re careening toward another first-round matchup between the Blackhawks and the Blues. Just as it did last year, it would mean a fantastic head-to-head battle — but also an early playoff exit for one of the NHL’s very best teams.

Leafs take on the RANGERS at the ACCRichard Lautens/Toronto Star

Cam the Man

When Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined with a vascular injury stemming from a puck he took to the throat, Rangers fans gulped hard and struggled to breathe, too. But backup goaltender Cam Talbot (a proud graduate of the University of Alabama–Huntsville) has been so phenomenal in relief that he now threatens to tear Rangerstown apart.

The Blueshirts have gone 13-2-3 since Lundqvist got hurt, with Talbot contributing two shutouts over that stretch (out of his five total on the season). In Wednesday night’s game against the Capitals, he made a highlight-reel save on Nicklas Backstrom and stopped 16 third-period shots. (You can say it was the Kevin Hayes goal of saves.)

This is all well and good, but it sets up some awkwardness when Hank is ready to return: Already there is a vocal faction of Rangers fans who believe Talbot should remain in goal even after Lundqvist — one of the great goalies of his generation — gets back. It’s a good problem to have in theory, but goalie controversies, particularly going into the playoffs, are never any fun.

Spring Break in Florida

The Panthers were idle for most of the week, with games on Saturday and Thursday. In the meantime, their biggest competition for an Eastern Conference wild-card spot — the Boston Bruins — have been on a Brad Marchand–led tear, winning all four of the games they’ve played since Saturday and establishing a probably insurmountable six-point lead over Florida. (Following a Panthers practice on Wednesday, Shawn Thornton wouldn’t initially refer to his former squad by name, calling them “the team we’re chasing.”)

Still, thanks to a quirk in the schedule, the Panthers play the Bruins three times between now and the end of the season, so it’s possible their fortunes could reverse. It’s a long shot, though, and it doesn’t help that goalies Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya both remain out with injuries.

Hockey’s Future

Of all the end-of-year awards races, the Calder Trophy is one of the most compelling, with Nashville forward Filip Forsberg, Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and Flames tiny-man Johnny Gaudreau emerging as the three probable finalists for rookie of the year. (Winnipeg goalie Michael Hutchinson has a strong case, as well.) If we’re succumbing to recency bias, Johnny Hockey has made quite the case for himself of late, with this shootout success against Ottawa and a pair of nifty-mitted goals Wednesday night that brought his scoring total on the season to 50 points.

Oh, Canada!

The Canadian dollar may be trending downward — not great news for the NHL’s revenues and salary cap — but this season several of the great nation’s teams have risen. The Canadiens lead the Atlantic Division and feature an MVP candidate in goaltender Carey Price. The Canucks and the Flames could well meet in the first round of the playoffs, while the Winnipeg Jets are lingering on the fringe.

Of all of the teams in play, the Flames have been the one causing the most chatter: This season they’ve nicely exceeded expectations, frequently winning contests in dramatic fashion despite being outplayed. Against Ottawa earlier this week, the Flames came back from down 4-0 to tie the game at 4-4 before losing in overtime (but gaining a crucial standings point). On Wednesday night, they beat the Anaheim Ducks (more on that in a second) with six goals on 23 shots, despite being out-possessed for most of the game.

It was a contest that was indicative of how most of their season has gone, and it led NHL columnist Mark Spector to remark: “The analytics folks must be chewing on their pocket protectors over these Flames. 4 goals on 7 shots in final 40 minutes, and a brutal Corsi.” He was being deliberately flip, but the sentiment is one that many Flames-watchers do feel, even if they know better. I think one blog headline put it best: “Nothing about this team makes sense and I love it.”

California Schemin’

When the Pacific Division–leading Anaheim Ducks fell to the plucky Flames 6-3 on Wednesday night, it sent L.A. Kings fans careening into a downward spiral of conspiracy theories, lingering resentments, and tinfoil hats. The Kings are straddling the playoff bubble like it’s a surfboard off the coast of Manhattan Beach, but the feel-good Flames have been totally snaking their wave. And the Kings may want to watch those dangling tootsies, too: Despite a mostly disappointing season, the Sharks have lost only one game in March and may be rediscovering their bite.

Days of Our Leafs

Just when you think the most dramatic telenovela in hockey can’t get any more over-the-top, the Toronto Maple Leafs pull off the hockey equivalent of the presumed-dead evil twin returning with a vengeance.

First there was the fiasco-filled trade deadline kerfuffle, which included scandalous tweets airing live on TV, a subsequent threatened lawsuit, and Phil Kessel calling the whole circus (by which I mean “the media”) an embarrassment. Now, the latest episode features Nazem Kadri being late for practice and Brendan Shanahan alluding to ongoing issues with the player in a cryptic press conference. Meanwhile, poor Peter Horachek is trying anything he can to change the damn channel. Can’t wait to see what the writers come up with next week.

Romancing the Throne

If you’re not going to be great, this is a great year to flush. With one of the most highly anticipated NHL entry drafts set to take place this June down in Florida, it’s been one of those toilet-bowl seasons that forces us to face one of sports’ great debates: Can all these losses be for a good cause? Regardless of where you stand on that front — some fans can’t fathom rooting for their team to lose; others get riled up when their team doesn’t suck — at the moment, three teams in particular have separated themselves from the pack (of mangy, diseased dogs).

The Buffalo Sabres are whatever the opposite of the gold standard is — the coal standard? — and currently stand in last place. Things are so sad in Buffalo that even the infamous “turd burger” jerseys are getting shelved. The Edmonton Oilers aren’t too far behind; should they pick first in the draft, it will be the fourth time they’ve done so since 2010, with little to show for any of it. And then there are the Arizona Coyotes, whose trade deadline moves were designed to make the team worse for the rest of the season while setting things up for the future.

Finishing last is no guarantee a team will get Connor McDavid, the presumptive no. 1 pick; there’s only a 20 percent chance, maximum, that the worst team’s ping-pong ball will be selected. (This lottery simulator is highly addictive, and also occasionally terrifying — imagine the Dallas Stars snagging the top pick.) But what last place does guarantee is, at worst, a second pick. And with Boston University standout Jack Eichel projected to go at no. 2, it would be a pretty phenomenal consolation prize for a season — or, in some cases, a cool decade — that has disappeared down the tubes. 

Filed Under: NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, Hockey, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Kane, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Kevin Shattenkirk, Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers, Cam Talbot, Boston Bruins, Calder Trophy, Filip Forsberg, Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau, Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg Jets, Carey Price, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes