After the NHL All-Star Game, it is go time. There is no more time to waste, no more mulligans and every point earned brightens the light at the end of the 82-game tunnel, and every point lost dims that light just a little. The NHL trade deadline and big decisions also loom. Only a few teams at the top of the Metro and Atlantic Divisions are comfortable, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the rest define the mushy middle and uncertainty.
The New York Islanders made a bedrock-shaking coaching change, installing legendary goalie Patrick Roy behind the pine just a couple of weeks ago, but they remain outside the playoff seeds with just two wins and one loser point in their last 10 games.
The Islanders and New Jersey Devils are shaping up to be the Penguins’ chief competition for a playoff spot, but it may not be a wild card. The Atlantic Division has separated its top five teams, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings holding the wild card spots. Both Toronto and Detroit, the current wild-card holders, have higher winning percentages than the teams chasing them.
No, the best path for the Penguins playoff hopes is third place in the Metro Division. They’ve fallen 10 points behind Carolina for second, with two games in hand. So, at best, the Penguins are six points out of second behind a good Carolina team. That’s not happening.
However, the Penguins are just five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers with a whopping four games in hand. The Flyers will be without their starting goalie, Carter Hart, for the foreseeable future as the Canadian legal system determines the truth of the alleged sexual assault involving five members of the 2018 Team Canada World Juniors squad.
The London, Ont. police have a press conference scheduled for Monday to provide more details on the situation.
From a hockey standpoint, the implicated players, which also includes a pair of Devils (Michael McLeod and Cal Foote), are unlikely to see the ice again this season.
NHL Power Rankings, Eastern Conference
1. Florida Panthers
They trail the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division by five points and have a slightly lower goal differential (+31) than Boston (+45). Yet, we have them as No. 1. The reasons are simple: the Panthers are getting outstanding goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, ample offensive output, and solid defense, and they are easily the feistiest team in the East.
2. Boston Bruins
The All-Star break is a good time to take stock in the Bruins. Without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, they were supposed to fall hard, but they haven’t. They are stout in the cage with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Their lineup is deep. If they don’t underestimate their playoff opponent this season, they will be a very tough out.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
It was only a matter of time before the talented and experienced Lightning put the pieces together and turned up the volume. They’re 8-2-0 in their last 10, solidly in third place of the Atlantic Division ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they have Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. A Florida-Tampa Round One series would be war.
4. Carolina Hurricanes
Just a month ago, the Penguins gained on Carolina and finally beat them. Since then, the Penguins have continued sideways, while Carolina has seven wins in their last 10 games. Antti Raanta has returned to the NHL and is in solid form. Raanta has allowed two goals or less in four of his last six games. Carolina is just two points behind the Rangers, with one game in hand.
5. New York Rangers
Sorry, we still think the Metro-leading Rangers are the 2024 paper tiger. Igor Shesterkin has greatly reduced numbers (.899 save percentage), and the top draft picks, Alexis Lafreniere and Kappo Kaako have not reached their projected ceilings. The Rangers have only four wins in their last 10 games, and the onus is on them to prove they’re better than the others in the Metro. Filip Chytil’s season-ending injury only further weakens their bottom six.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs
Perhaps when the All-Star Game is over, Toronto will refocus. Defense has been an issue as T.J. Brodie has recently come under fire. Goaltending has been a problem, though Ilya Samsonov’s detour through the AHL and back seems to have spurred him to better results. So offensively talented. So defensively troubled
7. Detroit Red Wings
Here come the Red Wings! The Motown maniacs were 9-2-2 in January and have firmly ensconced themselves in the wild-card position. It’s theirs to lose. Coach Derek Lalonde said last week, “This is going to be fun.” And it should be for long-suffering Hockeytown, USA, who are keeping the puck out of their own net.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins could break open the gaggle of playoff chasers or keep it glued together. They are the kings of the mushy middle.
The Penguins are wildly inconsistent. They can slay any dragon but just as easily die by their own sword. Erik Karlsson and Evgeni Malkin may have lost their spots on the top power play, as the Penguins are clicking at only 13.2%. It’s been a morphing and complex puzzle for coach Mike Sullivan, whose methodical changes have improved the team’s fortunes. Their positive goal differential and winning percentage project them into third place … if they don’t self-destruct.
9. New York Islanders
Goodbye, Lane Lambert. Hello, new coach Patrick Roy. The Islanders desperately needed a little more tactical impact and leadership. They got it with Roy, but they’re just 1-2-1 under Roy. The Islanders have played 49 games, one less than Detroit, whom they trail by six points, and Philadelphia, whom they trail by four points.
It’s an uphill climb, but the Islanders’ roster remains one of the best of the mushy middle. Ilya Sorokin in net helps, too.
10. New Jersey Devils
A lack of goaltending has hamstrung the Meadowlands monsters all season. Speed. They have it. Scoring. They have that, too. Jack Hughes is closer to returning, but McLeod’s absence is yet another obstacle for the team. President of hockey operations/GM Tom Fitzgerald has thus far been unwilling to meet the high price tags for goalies, but if he does, the Devils will rocket up this list.
11. Philadelphia Flyers
The NHL’s unruly underdogs. Scrappy. Unrelenting. Their fire will be put to the test with Hart. They’ve lost five straight, and it feels like the clock is about to strike midnight for this Cinderella. It was a fun run, but GM Daniel Briere isn’t going to sacrifice any part of the Flyers’ future to buttress a playoff run.
12. Washington Capitals
A terrible goal differential. A diminished Alex Ovechkin still languishing with only nine goals and 22 points in 44 games. No Nick Backstrom. A perpetually struggling Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yet they’re in the thick of the playoff chase.
We have no idea how.
13. Buffalo Sabres
Another lost season. So much hope. So much promise. It was gone faster than a Beef on Weck after a night of heavy Buffalo drinking. They’re 10 points out of a playoff spot.
14. Montreal Canadiens
The feisty Bleu blanc et rouge has been considerably better than expected this season. Still, they’re well out of the playoff race. You just don’t want to face them when you’re having an off night. They will win, and they will inflict a little damage.
15. Ottawa Senators
Interim coach Jaques Martin hasn’t brought the success necessary to revive the Senators’ busted campaign. They’re finally getting it, going 6-2-2 in their last 10, but the season is about setting up for next year and building good habits. They’re on the NHL trade market for veterans to teach the youngsters well. They should have plenty of options.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets
High St. is always fun. Everyone wishes Patrik Laine well as he joined the NHL’s Player Assistance program last week. From firing Mike Babcock on the eve of the regular season to a string of disappointments, it’s been a nightmare season for Columbus. One wonders how much longer Johnny Gaudreau will take it.