There will be more battles for home ice advantage than actual playoff races in the final seven weeks of this NHL season. Each division has three teams who are virtual locks to make the playoffs, and in two divisions four teams seem like really good bets to make it.
The most intriguing race might be for fourth place in the East division.
Boston is in fourth place with 36 points, followed by Philadelphia with 34 and the New York Rangers have 32. The Flyers and Rangers have played 33 games, while Boston has only played 28. The problem for the Bruins, however, is that based on Pierre Lebrun’s report the NHL has re-worked the schedule and the final games will be played on May 11th, then the Bruins will be forced to play 28 games in the final 48 days starting tonight. But the good news is they play the hapless Buffalo Sabres seven times. They face the Flyers three times and the Rangers twice.
The Bruins are the clear favourite, but you do wonder if fatigue becomes a factor. Playing 28 games in 48 days is a big ask, and if they make the playoffs you wonder how worn down they will be. Don’t sleep on the Rangers. They are playing good and if their PP wakes up they have a chance to make the dance.
The race for home ice advantage in the East is very tight between the New York Islanders (46 pts in 33 GP), Washington Capitals (44 pts in 31 GP) and Pittsburgh Penguins (42 pts in 33 GP). The Islanders and Capitals play five times, while the Penguins face both the Capitals and Islanders twice. The five-game series might decide home ice in the East, and with fans allowed in some of these buildings home ice advantage will play a factor.
Four teams are battling for the opportunity to get crushed by the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
Chicago has struggled in March going 3-6-1 and that has allowed Columbus and Nashville to close the gap. Dallas is still hanging around, but that is only because they have four games in hand. But they are only 3-3-4 in their last 10 so they haven’t gained much ground despite the Hawks struggles.
The question the general managers of these four teams have to ask themselves is if it’s worth it to give up assets, when they will most likely face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be getting Nikita Kucherov back for the playoffs. I know Columbus swept the Lightning two years ago, so anything can happen in the playoffs, but I don’t see any of these four teams as good as the 2019 Blue Jackets. Nashville is probably the deepest team, and if their supposed offensive players can provide a pulse they could squeeze in.
Nashville plays Chicago six times, Dallas four and Columbus twice.
Chicago plays Dallas four games, Columbus twice and the Preds six times.
Columbus plays all three teams twice.
Dallas NSH and CHI four times and CBJ twice.
The Predators also play Detroit three times, which means they play the top three teams in eight of their final 23 games. Dallas plays Tampa, Florida and Carolina 13 times, while Columbus faces them 12 times and Chicago has nine meetings against the three best teams.
Right now it doesn’t look like there will be any great playoff race. St. Louis has a four point lead on Arizona, and the Blues are slowly getting injured players back. They’ve been banged up much of the season.
The bigger race will be for home-ice advantage and home ice in the West division could mean more than in any other division. Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota are all among the top-six teams in the NHL in home winning percentage. Vegas is 13-2-1, Minnesota is 12-3 and Colorado is 12-4-1. They are only separated by four points. Colorado and Vegas play four times, while Minnesota plays the Avs twice and Vegas four times. Colorado has had many key injuries, especially on their blueline. Erik Johnson has only played four games, Cale Makar has missed 12 and Bowen Byram has missed 13. Beat guys in Colorado like Adrien Dater feel Johnson might not be back, so I wonder if the Avs go out and get a D-man and a legit backup goalie. If they do, the Avs would be a really tough out. I like Colorado’s top-end talent more than Vegas’s, and if the Avs can add those two pieces I like them to come out of the West.
The Blues’ biggest concern might be their schedule. They face Minnesota eight times starting tonight, Colorado six and Vegas four times. So 18 of their final 24 games are against the top-three teams. Meanwhile, Arizona only plays Minnesota and Vegas three times each and Colorado twice. The Coyotes and Blues play each other twice, but Arizona clearly has a much more favourable schedule.
Edmonton had three games postponed this week, but their playoff odds increased because the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks keep losing.
The top three teams are locks to make the playoffs. If Edmonton goes 11-11, Winnipeg goes 11-12 and Toronto goes 11-13 in their final games then Calgary has to go 15-5-2 and Vancouver would need to go 15-4. Neither is happening. Montreal’s biggest challenge will be the schedule. They will play 25 games in 44 days, assuming they resume play on March 29th. The race for first place between Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg will be important as the winner will likely face a worn down Montreal team. Finishing first in the North will be a significant advantage in my eyes.
Toronto faces the Oilers twice and Jets six times, while Edmonton faces the Jets three times. Even though the Oilers had three games postponed, they don’t have a more condensed schedule than the Leafs or Jets the rest of the way, so fatigue won’t be a factor in determining first place.
— Who had Andrew Copp producing the first four-goal game of the season? Good for him. He is the 24th player to record a hat trick this season, but first to score four. Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak and Chris Kreider are the only players with two hatties this year.
— In the past 10 seasons (2011/2012 to now) the Oilers and Jets lead the NHL with four players registering a four-goal game. Sam Gagner, James Neal, Leon Draisaitl and McDavid did it for Edmonton, while Copp, Mathieu Perreault, Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler achieved it with Winnipeg. We’ve seen 34 different players do it the past decade, but only Alex Ovechkin scored four goals in two games.
— The race for the Rocket Richard Trophy is setting up to be quite good. Mikko Rantanen has scored seven goals in his past five games and is now right in the mix.
McDavid and Matthews have 21 goals. McDavid has 22 games remaining while Matthews has 24.
Rantanen has 19 goals with 25 games to play, while Draisaitl has 18 goals with 22 games remaining.
Four really talented players battling to win their first Richard trophy.
— We might finally be seeing a changing of the guard for the Rocket. In the last 13 years, Ovechkin has won the trophy eight times, and tied with David Pastrnak last year. Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos each won it once, and tied each other for the trophy in 2010. The only other player in the last 13 year to win it outright was Corey Perry in 2011. Since the start of the 2018/20198 season, Draisaitl (111), Matthews (105), Pastrnak (100) and McDavid (96) are second-fifth in goals in the NHL. Ovechkin has the most with 113, but I suspect those four will be battling for the Rocket for the next decade.
— The Carolina Hurricanes powerplay is still above 30%, clicking along at 30.6%. What is impressive is they have 11 different players with a PP goal and 15 skaters with at least one PP point. Their first unit has 18 goals, while those mixing in on the second have combined for 12. Can they continue that?
— If the Rangers powerplay could wake up they might take a run at the playoffs. They lead the NHL in PP/chances per game at 3.61, but they are 25th in PP% at 16.1. They’ve had 112 PP opportunities and have 18 goals. Colorado, Los Angeles and Edmonton have each had 111 PP chances and they have 26, 27 and 30 goals respectively. If Mike Zibanejab, Panarin and Krieder can find their PP groove from last season (Rangers PP was seventh best), they could make some noise in the final seven weeks.
— There has been a lot of talk about Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury battling for the Vezina trophy. That is valid, but Philipp Grubauer should get some consideration as well. He’s likely not getting talked about enough.
Vasilevskiy has started 25 games and has a .933sv%, 1.83 GAA and is 21-3-1.
Fleury as 22 starts with a .931Sv%, 1.93 GAA and is 16-6.
Grubauer has made 25 starts and posted a .930Sv%, 1.71 GAA with a record of 19-7.
He’s having an excellent season and he is a UFA at the end of the year.
— — Tyson Barrie (77) and Darnell Nurse (73) lead all NHL D-men in shots on goal at 5×5. Dougie Hamilton (70), Roman Josi (63) and Thomas Chabot (62) round out the top five. Nurse leads D-men in goals (9) and points (18), just ahead of Jacob Chychrun (8) in goals, and Chabot and John Carlson (16) in points. Victor Hedman leads D-men in scoring with 33 points, and got 19 of them on the powerplay. Nurse will garner some Norris trophy votes due to his point production, his 5×5 GF-GA and his TOI. He has logged 702 minutes at 5×5. Hedman has skated 577 minutes at 5×5. Part of that is due to Edmonton not having the same depth on the blueline as the Lightning, especially on the left side, so Nurse has to play more, but in more minutes he has still played quite well.
— McDavid has 60 points in 34 games. He’s on pace for 99 points averaging 1.76 points/game thus far. In 11 games in March he is scoring at a 1.82 P/GP clip, and he’s done that despite not putting up a lot of points on the PP. He has five PP points in March, after scoring 18 points in his first 23 games. He still leads the NHL with 23 points, but after a rather slow month (by his standards) production-wise on the PP, I think it is very plausible to think he can score 40 points in his final 22 games (1.81 P/GP) for him to reach 100 points. So far in March he’s averaged 1.82 P/GP in 11 games. Scoring 100 points in 56 games would be quite the feat, and he has a very realistic chance to achieve it.
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