Only a dozen games (or so) are left on the NHL schedule. Teams have until April 11th to get out of the bubble and into a playoff spot.
There are some constants with the Stanley Cup playoffs: the Kings finally show up, they and the ‘Hawks are never quite dead, the Penguins will have their lack of depth exposed, and the Sharks will choke.
This year, though, the Sharks might fall on their face before the playoffs. If that happens, it’s because they first shot themselves in said face before planting it on the ice.
Trying to Fix What Wasn’t Broken
Doug Wilson, GM of the San Jose Sharks, had a brilliant* idea: his team was a perennial playoff team, but they were also a perennial playoff disappointment. After choking away a 3-0 series lead against the eventual Cup-winning Kings, he decided to “shake things up.” Strip likely future hall-of-gamer Joe Thornton of his captaincy. Don’t award anyone the role of captain. Generally act like a condescending asshole to a team that has always worked hard and been at the top of their game.
What could go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, the Sharks are outside the playoff picture. But that picture is so tight in the Pacific, the Sharks still had a very good chance to get in. This means that Wilson needed to remind his players the contempt he has for them — the GM told season ticket-holders that he stripped Thornton of his captaincy because the stress and distraction of being a leader might affect Joe’s game. When informed of these words, Joe told Wilson to shut his mouth.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more stupid, talking head Mike Milbury wished last night that Wilson could send Joe Thornton to the minors:
Let’s remember that Joe Thornton is a top-20 scorer this season, even in his mid-30s. Let’s remember that Thornton leads the Sharks in assists and driving possession. Let’s remember that Thornton has a no-movement clause.
Then let’s remember that Milbury is known for single-handledy destroying the New York Islanders when he was their GM. Piling his brand of stupid on top of the stupidity of the Wilson/Thornton situation is epic-level idiocy. The fact that Milbury gets paid handsomely to fill the air with stupidity makes one question the basic tenets of capitalism.
Thankfully, the Milbury segment was followed by a bump reminding us that the playoffs are right around the corner. Hooray! Thank the gods the Western Conference is in utter chaos, because the playoff race in the East hasn’t changed for aeons.
Woth the last few weeks of the season winding down, here’s the picture that is starting to emerge:
The likelihood that the Blues finish atop the Central grows with each frustrated Nashville post-game interview. This would leave the Predators playing the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs, a scenario that Chicago would relish. Nashville is in free fall of late, and Chicago is still without its top scorer in Patrick Kane. While the Blackhawks have been successful without Kane, they’d probably prefer to see their archrivals from St. Louis in the second round — just in case Kane is back in the line-up by then.
St. Louis has plenty of incentive to play hard through the end of the season. The top team in the Western conference likely gets to play its first round against either the Calgary Flames or the Winnipeg Jets. Either of these teams is an ideal opponent. Calgary is propelled by luck and impossible belief, bound to collapse on its shaky foundation. Winnipeg is limping into the end of the season, and its savior/rookie in net has fallen back to earth.
The worse division champ in the West will likely play the Minnesota Wild, which nobody wants right now. Even if you believe that their hot streak will cool, even if you believe their savior in net will regress to his mean, the Wild are still a team that can dominate possession and suppress shots. And they have the most effective penalty kill in the NHL. Take your chances with the uneven Jets or Flames.
We can assume that Anaheim wins this division; no sane person would bet otherwise. If Vancouver can somehow (and inexplicably) stay above the chaos of the teams below it, they look poised to finish second. But who would they play? As of today, it would be the Kings, but who knows what tomorrow brings? If you’re a Canucks fan, hopefully not the Kings. Nobody likes facing them in the playoffs.
The Ducks will be in the same boat as the Blues: they want the best record in the conference, because that means they currently face the Flames or Jets. If the Blues overtake them, though, they would match up against the Wild. What’s mind-boggling is that I can actually picture the Wild tearing through the Pacific in the playoff bracket to face the ‘Hawks or Blues in the conference finals.
Hilariously, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the wild cards could end up as Minnesota and Los Angeles. Meaning that your prize for winning your division would be to either play the hottest team in the league, or last year’s Stanley Cup champions. Division leaders probably find this less funny than I do.
It’s a toss-up for the lead in the Atlantic. Montreal has the top spot now, but Tampa is playing better of late. Whoever wins the division will likely match up against Washington, while the runner-up will face Detroit. Neither of these opponents seems better than the other — both teams have savvy coaches, and avoiding Zetterberg/Datsyuk just means that you face Ovechkin/Backstrom.
The bottom wild card will probably come from this division, and I expect that the Rangers will face said bottom team. I really, really want to see Ottawa in this last spot. Partially because of my cheering against Boston, but mainly because an Senators-Rangers series would have a killer narrative. Two teams buoyed by stellar play from their back-up goalies, both of whom played their college hockey in the old CCHA? Yes, please.
It’s only too bad that I think the Senators would have no chance in such a series.
I don’t think anyone’s catching the Rangers, especially with the way the Penguins and Islanders are playing of late. That means Pittsburgh and the Isles would face each other, which seems like a toss-up right now. Pittsburgh has the better marquee players, but New York has the better overall team. Injuries have killed both teams’ chemistry, and unless something clicks this month, their series will be just for the chance to lose to the Rangers.
No matter who plays the Rangers in the first two rounds, it’s really difficult to believe that team will be little more than a minor obstacle. What was looking like a division of three powerhouses has fallen to the wayside. Pittsburgh, Washington, and the Isles have all scuffled lately. The Rangers have to look to the Atlantic for a challenge.
Unfortunately, it looks like the completely ginned-up “race” for the final wild card spot in the East is down to two teams, the Sens and the Bruins. “Panther-watch” fell by the wayside without Luongo to carry Florida on his back. Montoya’s injury didn’t help, either, but at least the Panthers got a great contest out of the tragedy.
The reality is that the so-called playoff race was little more than a pipe dream. And yet… the Senators are only four points behind Boston with one game in hand. Andrew Hammond is single-handedly pulling Ottawa into the playoffs, whether they belong there or not. Even if Hammond can keep up his impossible run through game #82, opponents will have a full seven-game series to study him.
But I’m a homer for this BGSU alum. Hammond’s story is a great one, and it keeps getting better: the father of Hammond’s college coach owns a few McDonalds in Ottawa. After a fan threw a burger onto the ice (since Hammond’ nickname is the “Hamburglar”), said father worked out a deal to get the Senators’ goalie free McDonalds for life.
In NCAA Men’s hockey, this weekend sees the championships games for many conferences. Hammond’s alma mater is in the final four of the WCHA, hoping not only for a shot at the title, but also a possible berth in the Frozen Four tournament.
On the Women’s side, the Frozen Four is set, including a semifinal game between rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin. The NHL may still be a dozen games from the Stanley Cup playoffs, but universities gives us championship hockey a month early, if you can tear yourself away from that other sports’ brackets.