Several NHL playoff spots still up for grabs

The majority of NHL teams have reached the 75-game mark this season, meaning there are seven contests remaining on the schedule. However, it looks like some of the playoff races will likely go down to the wire by being decided on the last day of the season April 6th. The Tampa Bay Lightning were the first to clinch a postseason berth as they recently clinched the President’s Trophy as the league’s top team. This meant they also locked up top spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference and will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

A few other clubs have guaranteed themselves a shot at Stanley Cup glory this spring as the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets have all clinched a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Over in the East, the only other side to lock up a berth so far is the Boston Bruins. On the other side of the coin, the Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres are officially out of the playoff race in the East with no chance to catch the second wild card team.However, it should just be a matter of time before the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins clinch spots in the East. As of March 25th the Carolina Hurricanes held the first wild card spot and had a five-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets with each team having seven game to play. The Montreal Canadiens sat in the second wild card position and were just two points in front of Columbus with the Blue Jackets having a game in hand. The two teams are scheduled to meet each other in a crucial game in Columbus on Thursday, March 28th.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers were still mathematically alive, but highly unlikely to make the playoffs. In the West, the Los Angeles Kings are the only team officially without a chance at reaching the postseason. However, time is quickly running out on the Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. The Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are all on the verge of booking a ticket to the playoffs.

As for the wild card race, the Dallas Stars were sitting in the first wild card position with a one-point lead and a game in hand over the Colorado Avalanche who were in the second wild card spot. The Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes were just two points behind Colorado and the Chicago Blackhawks were alive with an outside chance as they were five points behind with a game in hand on Arizona, Minnesota and Colorado.

With many of the teams that are hunting down a playoff spot still scheduled to play each other the scenario can change from day to day. While some teams are simply trying to make the postseason others are fighting for a better position to try and gain home-ice advantage where possible. Those teams who are already officially out of the races aren’t likely hoping to go on a late-season winning streak since the odds of winning the draft lottery increase the lower they finish in the standings.

It looks like the Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils will be fighting it out for last place overall. It won’t take long to see which team succeeded since the NHL recently announced that the 2019 Draft Lottery will take place on Tuesday, April 9th, just three days after the regular season ends.

Tampa Bay Lightning clinches NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy

It was just a matter of time before the Tampa Bay Lightning were officially recognized as the NHL’s best regular-season team in 2018/19 and they did that with a 4-1 home win over the Arizona Coyotes on March 18th. With their latest triumph, the Lightning clinched the NHL’s President’s Trophy as the top squad in the league. They also locked up the top spot in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division at the same time. It’s the first time in the franchise’s history the team has won the President’s Trophy and they also have one Stanley Cup to their name which was won in 2003/04.

Another milestone was reached during the contest as forward Steven Stamkos notched the 384th goal of his NHL career and 36th of the season to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer ahead of Vincent Lecavalier. Tampa’s record for the season rose to 56-13-4 with the victory and they’ve now won five straight games. Winning the President’s Trophy means Tampa is guaranteed home ice advantage in each of their upcoming playoff series. They will kick off the postseason by playing the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference.

Stamkos the Lightning captain, finished the game with 384 goals in 737 regular-season outings while Lecavalier managed to net 383 goals while playing 1,037 contests with the club. Tampa Bay clinched the President’s Trophy in their 73rd game of the 82-game season to become the second-fastest franchise in league history to clinch the silverware. The Detroit Red Wings managed to achieve the feat after 71 games in the 1995/96 campaign. Tampa also leads the league in goals as of March 19th with 287 while their 191 goals against is the fourth-lowest in the league.

The Lightning will be the favourite to win the Stanley Cup this spring with both the fans and oddsmakers. They will now attempt to become the ninth team in NHL history to win both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season. However, the President’s Trophy wasn’t introduced until the 1985/86 season. Tampa Bay currently boasts five players on the roster with at least 20 goals this season as Brayden Point leads the way with 38. He’s followed by Stamkos at 36, Nikita Kucherov with 35, Tyler Johnson at 26 and Yanni Gourde with 20.

In addition, Kucherov leads the NHL in assists with 82 and in total points at 117. At the other end of the ice, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is tied for the league lead in wins with 36. Louis Domingue has also played well and has won 20 games himself as a backup goalie this season. Team-wise, Tampa Bay has been excelling on the power-play and penalty killing units as their success rate with the man advantage is 28.4 per cent and their penalty killing is rated at 85.7 per cent. There’s no doubt the Lightning deserves to be favoured once the playoffs face off, but as many former President’s Trophy winners can attest to, winning the regular season points race certainly doesn’t guarantee anything in the postseason.

Carolina Hurricanes playing up a storm

The Carolina Hurricanes have enjoyed a fine season under new head coach Rod Brind’Amour, but they still haven’t come close to locking up a playoff spot. As of March 11th the team had a record of 37-24-7 for 81 points They were sitting in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and the final playoff spot. However, they owned the first wild card playoff position in the Eastern Conference, two points in front of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens with a game in hand on Montreal.

The Hurricanes have been one of the better puck possession clubs in the NHL this season, but it didn’t always result in wins. Their fortunes seemed to turn around when acquiring Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild for fellow forward Victor Rask  in a Jan 17th trade. Carolina’s record since the deal is 15-5-2 and that’s vaulted them up the standings and into a playoff spot. Also, the team’s goals-per game has risen to 3.70 since the trade as the offense is now ranked 14th in the league compared to 27th before Jan. 17th.

The 26-year-old Niederreiter of Switzerland had nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 46 games with Minnesota this season and has 11 goals and 21 points for Carolina in 22 games. He’s also a plus-7 with the Hurricanes and was a -11 with the Wild. Niederreiter has been playing with centre Sebastian Aho on the team’s top line for the most part since arriving in Carolina and they have gelled well together on the ice. Aho had 30 goals and 77 points after 68 games and the 21-year-old native of Finland was on pace for 36 goals and 93 points and a plus-30 rating.

The third member of the line is 37-year-old veteran Justin Williams who had 20 goals and 44 points in 68 games and is on pace for 24 goals and 53 points. The trio possesses plenty of skill, but has also been outworking the opposition on a consistent basis night after night. When Niederreiter arrived it allowed Brind’Amour to play Teuvo Teravainen on the second line to spread out the scoring. Teravainen has been playing with veteran centre Jordan Staal and has posted 18 goals and 63 points in 68 games and is a plus-21. Staal has 17 points in 36 games and the third member of the line Micheal Ferland, had 17 goals and 35 points in 58 contests.

The top six forwards in Carolina feature a fine balance of youth, veteran leadership, hard work, aggressiveness and skill. There may not be any superstars in the mix, although Aho will soon be considered one, but everybody knows exactly what his role is and is playing it to perfection. The team’s blue line also lacks star status, but it’s solid and has been getting production from the likes of Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin. Pesce had 22 points in 59 outings while Slavin had chipped in with 28 points in 68 games.

The rest of the rearguards are also dependable as Calvin de Haan, Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk had combined for 67 points. In net, the Hurricanes have been relying on veteran Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek. Both of them have been among the hottest netminders in the league since February when it comes to goals-against average and save percentage. However, neither of them are mentioned in conversations when it comes to the NHL’s best goalies.

Even though they’ve risen up the standings, the Hurricanes are far from home and dry at this stage. They have 14 games remaining in the season with some tough opposition ahead of them. They play the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals twice with the Flyers still clinging to their playoff hopes. They must meet the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs as well as teams in the Western Conference fighting for their playoff lives such as the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.

In addition, the Hurricanes must tackle the teams they’re directly battling with for a playoff spot in the East as they have to go head to head with Montreal and Columbus once each and face Pittsburgh twice more. Every game is important the rest of the way, but the duels with Montreal, Columbus and Pittsburgh will go a long way in deciding who does and who doesn’t make the playoffs.

Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators heading in the wrong direction

It appears there’s a race to the basement of the NHL this season as the prize will be greater odds in this summer’s draft lottery. American prospect Jack Hughes is expected to be taken with the first overall pick and what team wouldn’t want him?  Well, the Ottawa Senators have the inside track on last place overall and the Edmonton Oilers also have an outside chance at claiming the dishonour.

The Senators are falling apart at the seams and don’t currently own a first-round draft pick this year. They traded it away last season to the Colorado Avalanche in a deal that landed them star forward Matt Duchene. The transaction didn’t look too bad at the time, but Duchene was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this July 1st. The Senators gambled they could re-sign Duchene and also took a chance of trading away the top overall draft selection in June.

If you haven’t heard by now, the Senators definitely won’t be re-signing Duchene as he was sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline for draft picks and prospects. In addition, Ottawa also dealt pending unrestricted free agent forwards Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone. When you add in the fact the team sent Erik Karlsson and Kyle Turris packing in the last year or two we find the Senators have arguably traded away their best five players a few of the top performers in the league.

Ottawa must now rebuild from scratch, but it’s not going to be easy to keep their fans happy. The team already struggles to sell tickets to its home games in the outskirts of Kanata and fans certainly won’t be flocking to see a squad that lacks a legitimate NHL star and a team with little chance of making the playoffs. To add salt to the wounds, it doesn’t look like Ottawa will be getting a new rink in the city’s downtown core anytime soon.

The Edmonton Oilers on the other hand are arguably icing the best player in the world right now in centre Connor McDavid and it appears his talents are being wasted with the non-contender. Former general manager Peter Chiarelli was understandably fired earlier this season, but he left the club in a bit of a mess when it comers to salary cap space. In addition, Edmonton doesn’t really have many prospects to turn things around whereas the Senators now have plenty of them due to their recent trades.

Of course, prospects aren’t proven NHL players and they could turn out to be either studs or duds. But at least Ottawa has a few to fall back on. But even so, they need somebody to coach these youngsters as former bench boss Guy Boucher was recently fired. It was a bit of an odd move considering there are less than 20 games remaining in the season and the Senators have no chance at making the playoffs.

Back in Edmonton the team also has high-scoring forward Leon Draisaitl to ice along with McDavid,  and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a fine player. However, the organization is lacking when it comes to the blue line and goaltending. Chiarelli traded high-scoring Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for rearguard Adam Larsson, but that was a one-sided deal for the Devils as Hall was named the NHL’s most valuable player for 2017/18 and took home the Hart Trophy.

Chiarelli also paid $42 million over seven years million for enforcer Milan Lucic and handed netminder Mikko Koskinen a new three-year deal worth $13.5 million even though he had just 32 games of NHL experience under his belt. As far as prospects in Edmonton go, Chiarelli selected forward Jesse Puljujarvi with the fourth overall selection in the 2016 draft and he scored four goals and five assists this season before being taken out of the lineup for hip surgery. Let’s not forget Matthew Tkachuk was still available in the draft at the time.

Both teams’ sets of fans must be quite frustrated with how things have panned out lately. But on the bright side, Ottawa does have several prospects to help turn things around in the future and the Oilers still have the best player in the world in McDavid and a more than capable sidekick in Draisaitl. However, if the teams fail to make the playoffs again next season there may be more than just a few empty seats at their respective rinks.