With the All-Star game come and gone, teams are gearing up for the stretch run. There are plenty of things to keep an eye on during the playoff push, here are five of them to watch out for.
Tight race for the basement of the Eastern conference.
The push for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern conference is going to be a tight one. The difference between the final playoff spot, currently held by the Philadelphia Flyers, and the bottom of the East – the New Jersey Devils – is just seven points. There are four teams tied for the fewest amount of points in the East, and the hottest team in the group not too long ago was in the basement and left for dead.
One of the most talented teams in the East may be among them too but have been decimated by injuries.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently one point away from leapfrogging the wildcard and being the third team in the Atlantic division. It’s uncertain how their high-flying style of play is going to fit into the playoffs, but would definitely be exciting to watch one way or another.
After firing their head coach after a 4-0 win, not many were sure what was going on in Brooklyn and the Islanders. They were in last place, to the shock of many, and needed a spark. Few thought that firing Jack Capuano was the right one.
Hey, we are all wrong every now and again. Firing Capuano still might not have been the right call, but it certainly provided the spark they needed. Since putting Doug Weight behind the bench, the Islanders have yet to lose in regulation and have points in all five contests played.
Coming out of the All-Star break, New York currently sit five points out of the final wildcard spot, and three games in hand on the Flyers. The Islanders and Maple Leafs have the fewest amount of games played among teams fighting for the final two playoff spots.
Despite being amidst a disappointing season that has also seen them fire their head coach, the Florida Panthers are just four points out of a playoff spot. Whether or not they get Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau will go a long way in a late season charge, but Vincent Trocheck looks more than capable of providing offense on his own.
Then there is the Detroit Red Wings, one of the four teams tied for last place in the conference. Their streak of playoff appearances is in legitimate danger.
Down to the wire scoring race against the current best in the world, and the one set to take his reigns.
How sweet would it be for Sidney Crosby to come back from missing the first six games of the season and win the Art Ross Trophy? Especially seeing how he would have to take it out the hands of Connor McDavid, the player everyone expects to take the reigns from Crosby as the best in the world.
Some think it has already happened. Pierre McGuire brought it up several times to Crosby during All-Star weekend. Never one to stir the pot, Sid did the equivalent of nodding along and ‘played’ nice.
He will probably never admit it, but I’m sure some of those conversations will stay in his short term memory as he tears apart the league down the stretch. Crosby has a comfortable lead in points per game, but the fact that he handed McDavid six games might do him in at season’s end.
Don’t forget about Evgeni Malkin either. He has a couple of scoring titles to his name, and if there is a player you want to avoid upsetting in the league, it is him. Being left off the NHL Top 100 list, as trivial it is, most be wise to stay out of his path during the second half. That is, depending on how quickly he returns from an injury that kept him out the last game before the break and the All-Star game itself.
Only one defenseman in the history of the game has won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top points producer. You could get a couple of guesses but it should only take you one guess to find out it was Bobby Orr.
Eight points might be a lot to overcome this point in the season, with the players ahead of him, but what Brent Burns has done this year has been outstanding and it wouldn’t shock anyone if he closed the gap even more.
Would you expect anything less than a guy that can flick a wrister from center ice and score top shelf? That takes a certain amount of strength and precision that most might not realize.
Who is going to win the Calder Trophy?
Auston Matthews was able to close the gap a bit with Patrik Laine missing eight games due to a concussion. The Finnish winger still has a point up on Matthews but the latter’s team has five games in hand on Laine, which could be the difference.
Matthews’ teammate Mitch Marner leads all rookies in assists and is tied with Matthews in points. He would probably have to finish a decent amount ahead to sway votes his way but still is a candidate.
Zach Werenski is playing top line minutes, leads all rookies in plus/minus, and has 29 points from the blue line. With the Columbus Blue Jackets fighting for the top seed, his name is just as likely to be called at the end of the season.
It doesn’t happen often that you lead your team to the Stanley Cup as a rookie. It’s even rarer that you are still rookie-eligible the following season. That’s the case though for Pittsburgh Penguins’ netminder Matt Murray.
He still can win the Calder Trophy, and up to allowing those seven goals against the Washington Capitals, Murray might have been up there with Laine and Matthews. He by far has been the best rookie goalie this year and is still among the best in the entire game.
Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t get the love around the league that he probably should because of that experience.
Busy trade deadline.
This will be one of the more intriguing deadlines in recent history, that’s even before you take into account the pending expansion draft. With how tight the East is, and who is fighting for position, we could either see a very busy or a very quiet deadline.
Now factor in the expansion draft, teams that are out of contention, or don’t feel solid about their chances to win it all, could start selling off players that could be on the borderline of being left off the protection list. Getting a player for a playoff run, and then some extra years (depending on the player’s contract status), teams might pay a little bit more to acquire them.
Especially watch the goalie position. Ben Bishop could get moved. Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek could get moved. St. Louis and Calgary could use a starting goalie. San Jose could use a backup behind Martin Jones. There will be a lot of goalies available to fill those needs.
Is this finally the year for the Capitals?
The fact that the Capitals are on such a torrid pace is probably surprising no one at this point. It isn’t because they all know they are a good team – which is still true – it is because they do this every year.
Will this year be like years before, seeing them dominant in the regular season only to fall flat during the playoffs? Or is this year’s edition different?
The difference for the Penguins last year was the emergence of their ‘third line’ of Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Phil Kessel. Washington has their own version of that with Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly.
Could that be the difference? Whoever is the last Metropolitan team standing might wind up being the favorite to win it all, as they have proved their dominance time and time again.
So just because they might wind up with the most points in the league again, doesn’t make them the favorites. They would have to get by the defending Cup champs and the Blue Jackets – who had a 16 game winning streak earlier in the year.
The Flyers and New York Rangers (possible the Islanders) all pose as potential threats, just from the Metro.
Even if this team is different than years before, this might also be the hardest path the Stanley Cup Final that they have ever faced.