This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Faceoff: Central Division
The phrase "best division in hockey" gets thrown around a lot. It's faint praise, in a way—there are only four divisions, so by definition each one has a 25 percent chance of earning the honour. At any given time, someone has to be the best.
And so we probably need a better term to describe what's happening in the Central Division these days. It's not just the best division in hockey, it may well be the best division in sports, period. It's also a bar fight, one that's taking place on a Tilt-A-Whirl during a tornado. It's beautiful.
This isn't new. Last year's Central made its way into the best division ever discussion, then went on to produce the season's Stanley Cup champion. This year's edition doesn't have the same top-to-bottom excellence, but it's even more impressive in a way because it's so top heavy. For much of the past few weeks, the Central has featured three of the league's top four teams in terms of overall points.
That would be the Hawks, Stars and Blues. Or maybe the Stars, Blues and Hawks. Or the Blues, Hawks and Stars. The order shifts around pretty much every day, which is a big part of the fun. Nobody has been able to pull away for the lead. And that's important because this isn't some battle to see who'll get to fly a meaningless "division champ" banner next year. The two teams that don't finish first will have to play each other in the first round, a prospect that's as cruel to the teams and fans involved as it is amazing for the rest of us.
Imagine being, say, the Stars, storming through the regular season on your way to one of the best year's in franchise history only to start the playoffs on the road against the Blackhawks. That's the kind of outcome waiting for one of these teams based on how the last nine games play out.
And it may well be the Stars who end up falling to the dreaded third spot, even though they own the top seed today. They've got a tough schedule, one that features teams like the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, and they've now lost Tyler Seguin to a gruesome Achilles injury that you definitely shouldn't click on. The Blues won't have much sympathy, given the injury problems they've suffered through all year. But they're starting to get healthy just in time for the stretch drive, with Brian Elliot the latest name to resurface. They've got an ugly schedule of their own, one that features a pair of meetings with the Capitals (although it's possible that Washington could have wrapped up the top seed and be resting stars by that point).
And then there's Chicago, the team we'll all be picking no matter where it winds up. The Blackhawks haven't dominated the Central's regular-season standings over the years the way you might assume they have—they've started the playoffs on the road in four of the last five seasons, including last year. They've got the easiest schedule of the three by far, with patsies like the Flames, Canucks, Jets and Blue Jackets showing up. They're also stumbling somewhat down the stretch, losing five of their last six including Sunday's shootout decision to Minnesota.
The Stars sit at 95 points, with the Blues at 93 and the Hawks at 91. All three teams have played 73 games, and while it's still too early to go too far down the tie-breaking rabbit hole, it's worth noting that the Blues are well behind in the ROW column, which could turn out to be big. It's not as if the division winner will get a bye—they'll face a wild-card team, and we'll get to them in a minute—but in a league where the playoffs are a war of attrition and a short series or two can go a long way toward a championship run, it's not hard to see which matchup looks preferable.
But for now, the race to the top of the Central should be fantastic fun for the rest of the season. And for two unfortunate teams, the bar fight will spill over into the opening round.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. St. Louis Blues (42-22-9, +8 true goals differential)—Elliott posted a shutout in his return, which stopped a disturbing mini-slide; they'd lost to Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the week, giving up 13 goals in the process.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (42-24-7, +25)—They lost to the Wild? Man, someone's not in playoff form yet.
3. Los Angeles Kings (44-22-5, +36)—With Saturday's win over the Bruins, they became the second team to clinch a playoff spot. More importantly, they're starting to pull away from the Ducks atop the Pacific.
2. Dallas Stars (43-21-9, +25)—You went ahead and clicked that Seguin link, didn't you? I warned you. For what it's worth, he says he's aiming to be back in time for the start of the playoffs.
1. Washington Capitals (51-15-5, +56)—Sunday's loss to the Penguins aside, the Caps are still racking up wins. But they're no longer dominating, which could be a cause for concern if you happened to be looking for one.
So we've gone over the Hawks/Blues/Stars car crash at the top of the Central. But the rest of the division isn't too shabby, either, and is all but guaranteed to produce both of the West's wild-card spots for the third straight year.
The Predators have been holding down one of those spots for the better part of the last few months. They've largely been the West's forgotten team in recent weeks, largely because their grip on the first wild card (and therefore the conference's seventh seed) seems so locked in. There's still an outside chance that they could make a run at the Central's big three, but it seems more likely that they'll end up facing one of the division winners in the opening round.
That second wild-card spot is a tougher call, with the Wild and Avalanche flipping back and forth in recent weeks. The Wild have held strong since firing coach Mike Yeo, going 11-6-1 under John Torchetti. But they've been leaving some crucial points on the table lately, including March losses to the Oilers, Senators and Devils, the last of which was an embarrassing 7-4 defeat in New Jersey.
The good news is that if losing to bad teams is the problem, they'll have a chance to redeem themselves down the stretch. While the schedule features some tough matchups with teams like the Hawks and Kings, there's also a rematch with the Senators, a trip to Winnipeg, and a pair against the Flames. None of those games will be what you'd call sure things, but they represent points the Wild will need to have as they chase down Colorado.
We've covered the Avs in this space before, and it was a familiar story for anyone who's followed this team over the course of their perpetual rebuild. They were an awful possession team, but one that was exceeding expectations thanks to special teams and shooting percentage. The shooting has come back to the pack since then, and their possession remains downright awful—dead last in the league (even strength, score adjusted) by a wide margin. And yet they're still hanging around, holding down a one-point lead over Minnestoa going into this week's action.
They're doing so largely on the strength of Semyon Varlamov, who's been looking better as the season wears on, and an uncanny ability to rally from bad starts. The road ahead isn't looking any easier, with Nathan MacKinnon suffering a knee injury on Friday—he was out for Sunday's win over Edmonton, and the team says it should know more about his prognosis today. And after a four-game stretch against the western Canadian doormats, the schedule gets ugly the rest of the way, especially a brutal April finish that features some of the league's best teams.
And speaking of schedules, there's one upcoming game that both teams have surely circled by now—that would be this Saturday, when the Wild travel to Colorado to face the Avalanche in the only remaining head-to-head meeting between the two clubs. We can expect a playoff atmosphere; for the team that loses, it could be the last one.
Race to No. 1
The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Buffalo Sabres (29-34-10, -21)—Here's a fascinating look at the Sabres' attempt to build a spare-no-expense department of player performance, and the surprise firing at the top that's called it into question.
4. Vancouver Canucks (27-32-12, -39)—And welcome to the "respected veterans accuse the kids of not working hard enough" phase of the implosion.
3. Winnipeg Jets (29-37-6, -31)—Sportsnet's Jeff Marek is leading the charge on an intriguing idea: Encouraging fans to root for the Jets to win the Auston Matthews lottery, under the logic that Arizona stole their team, so they get revenge by stealing the best prospect the state has ever produced.
2. Edmonton Oilers (29-39-7, -40)—Save the date, Oiler fans.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (25-35-11, -38)—The Leafs and Oilers have officially become the first two teams eliminated from the playoffs, and you know what that means: It's time to start banking points in the furious charge to the first overall pick under the awesome Gold Plan. Oh, what's that? The NHL never put that in place? Never mind, continue cheering for losses.
So we've covered six of the seven teams driving the Central's claim as the league's best division. That leaves the Winnipeg Jets, and, uh... well, hey, the exception that proves the rule, right?
We covered the Jets two months ago, back when they were falling out of the playoff race. They've since completed that fall, thudded into the ground, then rolled slowly toward the edge of a ditch and fallen again. The Jets are flat out bad, and the best we can say for them is that at this time of year, it's better to be flat out bad than merely below average.
So instead of continuing our Central theme, let's change course and do a quick check-in on the Eastern race, where the Flyers are hanging in despite a tough home loss to the Penguins on Saturday. It was the second piece of bad news to hit the club over the weekend, joining word that injured goalie Michal Neuvirth will miss three weeks. While the Pens, Islanders and Bruins are all still barely within range, the Flyers are basically chasing the Red Wings now, trailing them by three points for the final wild card while holding two games in hand. They have one game left against the Wings, that one coming on April 6 in Detroit.
The Red Wings, of course, have more than a playoff spot on the line here. They've made the playoffs in 24 straight seasons, a streak that dates back to 1990, which was basically a different era. They earned a big win in Florida on Saturday, and have four of their last ten against some combination of the Sabres, Leafs and Habs, so they should finish strong.
As for the Penguins, that Saturday win nudged them ahead of the Islanders and into third place in the Metro, and they followed that up with an impressive stomping of the Capitals to move into a dead heat with the Rangers. Losing Evgeni Malkin last week hasn't slowed them down; they've won six straight, at least temporarily messing up the Rangers/Islanders first-round matchup we've all been counting on, and now have their eyes set on home ice. Then they'll get Malkin back. Are the Penguins getting scary? I think they might be getting scary.
And that's about it as far as the East goes. While none have been mathematically eliminated, we can all but close the book on the Senators, Hurricanes and Devils. All three have gone cold over the last few weeks, and would need a ridiculous finish to even get back into the race. Barring that, it's Flyers or bust for the Eastern bubble, with everyone else watching the lottery standings.
Around the league
- We had a very weird moment during Saturday's Flyers/Penguins showdown, when a disputed goal by Kris Letang was reviewed, declared no goal by the referee, and then declared a goal seconds later. That made it 4-1 for Pittsburgh, which held up as the final.
- The Canadiens continue to hit new lows, this time by surrendering three short-handed goals in a game for the first time in franchise history during Saturday's 5-0 loss to the Senators.
- The Bruins stint at the top of the Atlantic was short-lived, thanks to three straight regulation losses on their California trip that dropped them back down to third.
- The Rangers continue to tread water, giving up 52 shots during a one-sided loss to the Sharks on Saturday. Let's just say they weren't happy about it afterward.
- Speaking of the Sharks: Joe Thornton, MVP candidate? There's a good case to be made.
- After various injuries and a six-game losing streak, Sergei Bobrovsky picked up his first victory since early December in the Jackets' 6-3 win over New Jersey on Saturday.
- Forget basketball. Here are your NCAA Frozen Four brackets.
- A big moment from last night's Wild/Blackhawks game: Mathew Dumba's big hit on Patrick Kane. It's a hit to the head, but one that falls under the league's "unavoidable contact" rules.
- Niklas Backstrom returned to the lineup for the first time in 14 months last night, making 21 saves and earning the decision in a 4-1 win for the team you'd completely forgotten he plays for now.
- Finally, the undisputed highlight of the weekend: Kevin Spacey night in Florida. The Panthers had adopted the actor as an unofficial team mascot for reasons that nobody is quite clear on, and when he heard about it, Spacey apparently decided to play along. That culminated in his attendance at Saturday's game, when Spacey donned a Spacey mask and Spacey sweatshirt and made Spacey faces at the crowd.