NHL races to keep an eye on over the final stretch of the regular season
Which teams and players will be jockeying for awards and positioning down the stretch?
As you make your way down the winding, bumpy road that is any NHL season, it's important to stop and take a look around once in a while. Catch your breath, gather your bearings, survey what road is left ahead.
One thing to appreciate at this juncture is how up-in-the-air things seem to be around the league. We're far enough into the season to have somewhat of an idea which teams and players will be worth keeping an eye on, but not far enough to know the exact destination of those players and teams ... or their competition.
There are several intriguing races to monitor over the final few months. Let's take a look at a few of the best ones.
The Rocket Richard
Through the first half of the season it looked as though David Pastrnak might pull away with the Rocket Richard as the league's leading goal scorer. He led the NHL with 29 goals in the first half, but it has since become a three-player race for the title -- and the Bruins winger is currently in third.
Here's how things break down right now:
Yeah, that's 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin leading the pack ... again. Ovechkin's incredible recent surge, in which he's scored 14 goals in seven games, has vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard. He's led the league in each of the past two seasons and has eight Rocket Richards in total.
Ovi projects to finish with 61 goals in 80 games played. That would be his second-most prolific scoring season ever, behind the 2007-2008 season when he finished with 65 goals. Meanwhile, Auston Matthews projects to finish with 59 while Pastrnak is pacing 57 -- both career highs for the two young forwards.
Prediction: Before the season, I predicted Pastrnak would finish atop the goals list with Matthews and Ovechkin right behind him. I'll keep Pastrnak at the top but revise to say Ovechkin finishes ahead of Matthews.
Top of the Atlantic
Coming into the season the Atlantic was largely projected to be a three-team race with the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs all vying for the top three spots. But Boston got off to a supremely hot start while the Leafs and Bolts struggled mightily out of the gate, allowing the Bruins to build up a luxurious division lead in the first half.
However, Tampa Bay has rediscovered its status as one of the league's most dangerous and potent teams. The Lightning have managed to get close enough to Boston to seemingly make things interesting down the stretch. Tampa has been the best team in the league since the start of December, going 22-6-2 and earning 77 percent of its possible points in that 30-game stretch. Currently, the Lightning are just five points behind Boston, who sit atop the entire league, and Tampa has a game in hand.
Considering the home-ice factor and the potential first-round playoff matchups, it could be a dogfight down the stretch. The Bruins have gotten comfortable in that top spot but the Lightning have been so impressive over the past few months that their footsteps are impossible to ignore.
Prediction: Bruins hold off the Lightning, finish in first by three points or fewer.
The East wild card
Don't let the top of the Atlantic distract you from the fact that there's some other interesting jockeying going on in that division. Behind the Bruins and the Lightning, the Maple Leafs and Panthers are separated by a single point as they battle for the third Atlantic playoff spot.
Both teams are strong yet flawed, but either one of them would be a really tough draw in the first round of the postseason, which makes winning the Atlantic that much more important for Boston and Tampa. But this battle is so interesting because there's a possibility that only one playoff spot will be up for grabs here.
The Metropolitan division is stacked this year and, as it stands, six Metro teams rank above the Panthers and Leafs in the league table. There's a reasonable chance that a Metro team slots into both wild-card spots, leaving only the top three teams from the Atlantic in the playoff picture.
It'll be enthralling not only to watch the Leafs and Panthers duke it out for the remainder of the year, but also see how things continue to shake out in the Metro. The Capitals and Penguins sit atop that division (and clearly look like the best two squads) but the Islanders, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Flyers are all within three points of each other. It should be a wild finish with plenty of playoff scenarios in play around the end of the season.
Prediction: Panthers finish third in Atlantic. Hurricanes finish third in Metro. Leafs get first wild card. Islanders get second wild card.
Much of the discussion about the Calder Trophy, which annually goes to the NHL's top rookie, has surrounded two stud defensemen -- Colorado's Cale Makar and Vancouver's Quinn Hughes. Both have a compelling case for the award:
Makar's edge in points per game could benefit him, but the defensive factor leans in Hughes' favor. While both players lead their respective teams in shot attempt share, the biggest trump card for Hughes is his deployment. He averages more TOI per game (21:36 to Makar's 20:38) and gets more defensive zone starts than his counterpart in Colorado.
This race is still incredibly close and that's because both guys have been fantastic. Whether it's fair or not, this could ultimately come down to who puts up the bigger number in the point column by the end of the regular season.
Prediction: Makar by a nose.
A wide-open Pacific
While it's undoubtedly the worst division in hockey this year, the Pacific may be the most interesting. Bad parity is still parity, and the top five teams in the Pacific are currently separated by five points or less. It's pretty much anyone's division as we head down the stretch:
- The Vegas Golden Knights are probably the best of the bunch (at least on paper) but they've battled inconsistencies all year long and have been disappointing enough to cost Gerard Gallant his job behind the bench
- The Vancouver Canucks currently lead the pack and they're a fun young team, but they haven't been good enough away from home
- The Oilers are a roller coaster, but they can go as far as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will carry them
- The Coyotes are heavily dependent on its top-notch goaltending to overcome an offense that relies on the contributions of a few players
- The Flames' offense took a nose-dive because their top players weren't able to replicate the career years they delivered last year, but they're still in the hunt
So, what happens next? I don't have a damn clue. It's very easy to talk yourself into or out of any of these teams. Logic says Vegas is the best bet, but logic doesn't always win... especially in hockey.
Prediction: Vegas first, Vancouver second, Oilers third.
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