It’s time to recap what went on in the NHL this week — including the race for the final playoff spot in the Central and the West, a big name that should be dealt, a big game for Jacob Chyrchun and a successful week for Mat Barzal.
The chase for fourth in the West…
We are 12 weeks into the season. While some teams have already anchored themselves into a playoff spot, there is still some uncertainty with the fourth and final playoff spot, specifically in the West and the Central, where the top three teams have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack.
Let’s start with the West, where the Wild have surprised many this year, including myself, by firmly placing themselves in the top three along with the Golden Knights and the Avalanche. Down the stretch, it will be a three team race for the final spot between the Blues, Coyotes and Sharks.
I would be shocked if the Blues continued on their current trajectory. The team, just two years removed from a Stanley Cup, had occupied a playoff spot in this division for almost the entire duration of the season leading up to this past weekend. But with just two wins in their last ten games, the Coyotes have taken over the fourth spot and San Jose is not far behind, riding a season-long four game win streak. Both the Coyotes and Sharks have gone 6-3-1 in their last ten and are improving at the most critical part of the season. The Blues are still my favorite to claim the final spot in the West, but this is definitely going to be an entertaining finish and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come down to the wire — the teams are currently only separated by three points overall.
It is so hard to pick between the Coyotes and Sharks down the stretch. For the Sharks, defenseman Erik Karlsson is heating up and showing more confidence on and off the ice (see his iconic apple-chewing-response to a reporter’s question here). Up front, Evander Kane is playing like an elite power forward and leading the team in both goals and assists. The team is also getting decent play out of overpaid netminder Martin Jones, which has been a rarity this year. On top of that, they are finding their game at a perfect time — in their next five tilts, the Sharks only face the division’s two worst clubs in the Kings and the Ducks, and they’re all home games.
On the other hand, the Coyotes are also heating up and getting the chance to build on recent success, playing the Kings and Ducks in their next four games. They are a talented group and have solid goalies, but putting everything together always seems to be a problem for the Yotes. I believe the Sharks are tougher and built better for more intense, playoff-style hockey, which is what we will be seeing more and more of towards the conclusion of the regular season. The Coyotes seem to struggle in the tougher games, but at the same time have beaten the Sharks in three of their four meetings so far this season. I have a very strong suspicion that the Sharks and Coyotes will decide their fates when they meet for the final two games of the season on May 7 and 8.
The chase for fourth in the Central…
There is also a race heating up in the Central division, where the Blackhawks, Predators and Stars are looking to claim the final spot, while the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes maintain a firm hold on the top three seeds.
The Predators concluded a six-game win streak last week in a loss to the Stars at home, but have won eight of their last ten, while the Blackhawks, who have held onto the fourth spot for much of the season, are trending in the wrong direction with just three wins in their last ten games. Dallas, who are the kings of losing in overtime, having done it ten times, are still in the hunt as well, despite their pedestrian 13 wins. The Blue Jackets are still in the conversation points-wise, but have hit a tough stretch, dropping six of their last seven, and might be sentencing themselves to an imminent rebuild.
While the Blackhawks exceeded expectations mightily early this season, it seems they are coming back to earth. My instincts are telling me this final spot will go to either the Stars or the Preds, who are both slammed with injuries. The Predators are missing their best scorer in forward Filip Forsberg, veteran center Matt Duchene and a defensive leader Ryan Ellis. The Stars are missing their top center in Tyler Seguin, their top goalie in Ben Bishop, their best winger in Alex Radulov, a solid depth player in forward Joel Kiviranta and over the weekend saw Joel Hanley, Radek Faksa and Jason Dickinson sustain injuries as well. As the old saying goes, the best ability is availability, and I think the return of these players for both the Predators and the Stars will play a big role down the stretch.
In the meantime, however, both the Predators and Stars must find ways to win without many of their key players. The Stars certainly have a tougher remaining schedule, concluding their season playing seven straight road games in a span of ten days, but it’s a tough call to make. The Stars, when healthy, are clearly the better team, and I think even with all the injuries they will find a way to finish in the fourth spot in the Central, but it will be close.
Palmieri on the move…
On Easter Sunday, the New Jersey Devils lost to the Washington Capitals for the eighth time this year. Prior to the game, news broke that Devils forward Kyle Palmieri would not be suiting up as a precautionary measure. This means we can expect Palmieri to be traded in the coming days leading up to the April 12 deadline.
Palmieri is in his sixth season with the Devils, and has been a goal scorer and leader for the team during that span. He posted his best season in his first campaign with the Devils in 2015-16, when he tucked 30 goals and 57 points while playing in all 82 contests.
Surely Palmieri will be joining a playoff team in the final stages of the season. Of the potential suitors for a trade, I believe the Bruins and Islanders are the best fit.
Big game for Chychrun…
Coyotes defenseman Jacob Chychrun scored all three of the team’s goals in an overtime victory over the Ducks in his first career hat trick. He also moved himself into a tie for first in the league for goals by a defenseman with 12. He is fourth on the Coyotes in total scoring and leads their D-men with 25 points this year. Chychrun’s play will have to continue to be excellent for the team to hold on to the fourth spot and earn the Coyotes a playoff berth.
What a week for Barzal…
Forward Mat Barzal posted 3 goals and 7 points on the week, including a mastodonic hat-trick and 5 point effort in an Islanders win over the Capitals. He has been head and shoulders above the rest of the Islanders in scoring, with 13 goals and 34 points. Barzal also possesses a +/- rating of +17 on the year, and is a primary reason the Islanders are in a battle for first place in the East division.
Peter’s Power Rankings: The Top 10 Teams Right Now.
Last week’s ranking in parentheses.
- Colorado Avalanche (2)
- New York Islanders (5)
- Carolina Hurricanes (6)
- Washington Capitals (1)
- Pittsburgh Penguins (8)
- Toronto Maple Leafs (9)
- Florida Panthers (Not ranked)
- Vegas Golden Knights (3)
- Tampa Bay Lightning (4)
- New York Rangers (Not ranked)
What to watch this week…
Montréal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs: Wednesday, April 7 at 4:30 p.m. PT.
Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers: Thursday, April 8 at 4 p.m. PT.
Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues: Friday, April 9 at 5 p.m. PT.