Three and a half weeks.
The 2021-22 regular season is all we have left, a journey marathon after last season’s 56-game sprint. Now a bad expansion could either end your season, or leave you to enter the post-season with complete uncertainty and lack of confidence.
It’s too late now – teams that start to heat up in April may be able to run it in May or June.
Every game now has some meaning or the other. So, again, we look at today’s play-off pictures and some of the stories for the rest of the week.
If the playoffs start today, these will be the first round matchups of our previous conference:
(A1) Panther Vs. (WC2) Capital
(A2) Maple Leafs Vs. (A3) Bruins
(M1) Hurricane Vs. (WC1) Lightning
(M2) Rangers vs. (M3) Penguin
Can Leafs still catch Atlantis first Florida?
Toronto in Florida: Tuesday, April 5, 7 pm ET
In Toronto, the next appreciation or panic, peak or valley, seemingly always a game or two away. And as we woke up Tuesday morning, Leafs, in a 6-2 win over Tampa Bay and in a five-game winning streak, is rising again. If they manage to get out of Florida with a win against the Panthers, the confidence around this team will go into the stratosphere.
To be sure, there is a lot going on for this team right now. Jack Campbell is back and has had two wins and a .924 save percentage since his return, yet no bad effects have been seen due to a rib injury that kept him out. Mark Giordano has been a great fit since the trade deadline and now it looks like Jake Muzin will be back in the lineup for the first time since February 21st. And of course, Mitch Marner and Austin Mathews are playing with the NHL at the moment – equal to Rick Vive’s franchise record for 54 goals in a 10-game point streak of Marner and one season. He will have a chance to break that mark in Florida on Tuesday.
The most achievable regular-season goal for Leafs now is to claim second place in the Atlantic and a first-round home-ice advantage against Tampa Bay or Boston. And it’s no small thing. But can they achieve something bigger? Leafs started the first division seven points behind the Panthers on Tuesday and both teams have 13 games left. It’s a long question, no question, but a rule win would put them back five points and the two teams would still play each other again on April 23rd.
Florida could lock up the division with a win tonight. But if Leafs wins? Maybe there’s still room for a chase – and can you imagine the prospect for Toronto if they enter the playoffs with this kind of run?
Can Capitals stop their slides and enter a high note in the playoffs?
Tampa Bay in Washington: Wednesday, April 6, 7:30 p.m. ET
When you get to the playoffs, it’s often more important how many points you’ve finished in the 82-game season and how you’re playing when the post-season starts.
The Capitals are no longer moving up or down, nine points behind the Tampers and 11 points behind the chased Islanders. Washington will be the East’s second wild card and the conference’s No. 1-ranked team will meet in the playoffs. Today that will be the Florida Panthers, 6-2-0 in their last 10 and four-game winning streak. Washington has lost two in a row, and the most worrying thing is: the Caps have been 6-10-2 against teams currently in the play-off spot since February 1, 22nd in the league in terms of expected goal percentage and 20th for shots for percentage.
On Wednesday Washington will face a hungry Tampa Bay team for a bounce back and then get to Pittsburgh and Boston over the weekend. It’s time for them to start building confidence and momentum again against meaningful opponents.
Penguin-Rangers first round preview?
Pittsburgh at NY Rangers: Thursday, April 7, 7 p.m.
There are still some picks left in the top three of the Metro Division, but with Carolina leading by four points and a game in hand, it looks like the Penguins and Rangers will likely face off in the first round. If so, we’re getting a preview on Thursday night.
These teams have met twice in the last two weeks, both have been won by Rangers. And these two games were actually something even better played by Eger Shestarkin lately, who pushed a bit into the final days of his heart trophy.
The winner of Thursday’s game may still have enough runways to catch a hurricane in the division – Carolina has won just four of its last 10 and is not pulling right.
When the playoffs end today, these will be our first round matchups of the Western Conference:
(C1) Snowfall vs. (WC2) Golden Nights
(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Blues
(P1) Flame Vs. (WC1) Hunter
(P2) King vs. (P3) Oilers
Is Minnesota Wild being flat?
Nashville Minnesota: Tuesday, April 5, 8 p.m. ET
Where would the Minnesota Wild Slots be if you kept the Stanley Cup competitors level?
If we start with the back-to-back champs at Tampa Bay, this season you have to put Florida, Colorado, Carolina and even Calgary in that top grouping. You may also be interested in having Toronto there. This will leave the second tier of competitors with a choice of Pittsburgh, Boston and Rangers.
Wild has been devastating lately. They are 9-0-1 in their last 10, winning two in a row and their only defeat because the trade deadline overtime was a 4-3 decision for Pittsburgh. Wilde has earned at least one point in every game since March 13th. The rate came home to Nashville, whom they will meet again on Tuesday.
The most fruitful change since that game was the addition of Mark-Andre Flurry, who is 3-0-0 with a 1.34 GAA and .958 save percent wild. This is a team we knew Can Be Dangerous – Young, Exciting, Nick Deslaurius and Jacob Middleton have added some muscle over time. We know this could be a factor in post-season times, and besides, it’s a team that challenged Vegas in the first round of the full seven-game series in 2021.
But above all, a game-changing goalkeeper can take your team to the singles level and Flurry can do it for the Wild here. Is this recent expansion just a race for good luck, or is Wilde really leveling up on a team that could possibly come out of the Western Conference?
Calgary Flames: Shaken or controlled events?
Anaheim Calgary: Wednesday, April 6, 10 p.m. ET
San Jose Calgary: Thursday, April 7, 10:30 ET
The Flames have been a lucky team on the injury front this season – they have lost very few man-games, although that number has only recently begun to rise again. They are not missing their most important players by any stretch, but the depth is being tested right now. And, closer to the playoffs, this is probably a good challenge.
The problem is that the Flames dropped some games recently and went to their Monday night game in Los Angeles with just four wins in their last 10. The teams have a tough time in an 82-game season, so there’s nothing unusual or common here. Play-offs during slides can lead to questions if they don’t turn it around – you don’t want to go into the post-season in the worst spread of hockey you’ve played all season. And a continuous slide could open the door for other teams in the Pacific to pass them.
So Monday’s 3-2 win against the Kings was huge. This gave the Flems two points (and the Kings importantly none) against a direct opponent and again opened a five-point lead. Flems still has three games on his hands.
Anaheim and San Jose represent light competition in this California swing and then Flames will end the road trip to Seattle, allowing for more chances to earn points. Time swings end speed and really pull away.
What will the Dallas stars do with their game in hand?
NY Islanders in Dallas: Tuesday, April 5, 8:30 p.m. ET
Toronto in Dallas: Thursday, April 7, 8:30 p.m.
For the longest time, there has been an asterisk beside the Western Conference Wild-Card Race. Teams that were in these two positions may have a point advantage for the people around them, although there was always this important caveat: the Dallas Stars had games in their hands.
Even today, when you open the standings, Dallas is one point behind Vegas for its second wild-card berth, but they still have three games on their hands. The Stars have won seven of their last 10 games so they are not going backwards or doing anything. They have the eighth-best point percentage in the West and should probably be in favor of them ending up on the wild card.
Of course, having games on hand is one thing. Doing something with them is completely different.
The Stars will play five to seven games in Vegas over the next two weeks, so their advantage is about to evaporate, making this upcoming expansion important. Dallas gets the Islanders, a non-play-off team with four consecutive wins and a dangerous spoiler, and Toronto next, none of which will get a soft touch. Vegas will play once more this week, against Vancouver.
The Eulers have two power points before the tough seven-game stretch
San Jose Edmonton: Tuesday, April 5, 10:30 ET
Edmonton in Los Angeles: Thursday, April 7, at 10:30 p.m.
The defeat of Los Angeles near Calgary on Monday opened the door for the Eulers to charge and claim second place in the Pacific. With two games in hand in Tuesday’s action, the Oilers could take control of that spot with a win against the San Jose Sharks. It should get them a couple of points.
At this time of year you have to take advantage of every window of opportunity that comes your way, because who knows what challenges await the next hill? After San Jose, the Oilers’ next seven games: Los Angeles, Colorado, Minnesota, Nashville, Vegas, Dallas and Colorado again. It is not unimaginable that it will turn into a nightmare.