Predators make playoffs, Blues don't and more bold predictions for the second half of the NHL season
The Predators make a surprise second half playoff push while the Oilers cost Connor McDavid another Hart trophy
The All-Star break may not mark the official halfway point of the NHL season, but it's generally considered to be the road marker that splits the season between "first half" and "second half." Most of us are lazy and dumb, and it's just easier this way.
With said break point now behind us, it's time to take what we learned from the "first half" and look ahead to the "second half." Let's take some leaps of faith and blindly stab at predicting how things may play out in the NHL down the stretch. Presenting some bold-ish predictions for the rest of the season:
The Blues don't win the Central
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Blues held the top spot in the Central with at least a six-point margin on everyone else. They've been there for a while too and they've accomplished that without the help of their best forward, Vladimir Tarasenko, who may or may not be back this season. They're a very good team that will be a threat to defend their Stanley Cup title this spring/summer.
But they're not exactly running away with the Central, and just behind the Blues in the division are the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars -- eight and ten points back with two games in-hand each. Colorado has had their bouts of inconsistency this year but they've got most of the pieces you look for in a legitimate threat: Explosive offensive with elite playmakers, solid defense and reliable goaltending. They also have the easiest remaining schedule in terms of opponents' point percentage. (St. Louis has the sixth-easiest.)
Colorado is probably the biggest challenger, but don't underestimate these Stars either. They've got a great defensive group and league-best goaltending that has allowed the least goals per game this season. If they can start getting a bit more from their top-end forwards and add some secondary scoring at the deadline, they could also push for that division crown.
It seems very likely that whoever takes the Central will also hold the West's top seed, but don't be surprised if that team isn't the St. Louis Blues.
The Predators will make the playoffs
This one seems a bit spicy considering Nashville currently sits last in the Central division and their season has been pretty much a disaster when weighed against expectations. But despite the thoroughly disappointing first half, the Preds are still in the hunt. They're six points out of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and have at least a game in-hand against all of the teams above them.
Nashville is also a team with talent and pretty good underlying numbers at five-on-five -- they're fourth in shot share and goals for percentage -- and their goal differential (minus-1) is better than three teams above them in the division (Wild, Jets, Blackhawks). Their biggest issues are goaltending (ranked 29th) and special teams (PP ranks 24th, PK ranks 29th).
Given that Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are having uncharacteristically bad years in Nashville, there's reason to believe that the goaltending situation may get figured out, or at least improve. But it has to happen soon.
That being said, don't write off Nashville, especially with a pretty weak Pacific division this year. There's a chance that the Central could claim five spots in the West playoff bracket, and the Preds are talented enough to be one of them if they can figure it out before it's too late.
The Bruins and Leafs will play each other in the first round
At the beginning of the year, I never would have considered this a bold claim. The Bruins and Leafs had met in the first round in each of the previous two postseasons, with the Bruins winning in seven games both times. Given the state of the Atlantic division and the NHL's playoff format, it seemed pretty likely that the Bruins and Leafs would round out the top three behind the Lightning and secure another first-round meeting.
But then Boston got off to a hot start to begin the year while both Tampa and Toronto struggled with major issues. The Lightning have since surged out of the hole they created early and are one of the hottest teams in the league over the past few months. Now, they're threatening to catch the Bruins in the standings. Meanwhile, the Leafs have improved but still sit outside a playoff spot.
So, how do I envision them meeting in the first round this year? Not as the typical No. 2 and No. 3 meeting, but rather in the Division Winner vs. Wild Card spot. Boston, helped by the strength of some much-needed deadline reinforcements to round out their lineup, manages to hold off Tampa and claim the top seed in the Atlantic, while Tampa and Florida finish behind them. Meanwhile, the Leafs get their act together enough and pry a Wild Card spot away from a Metro team to set up another series against Boston.
Connor McDavid wins the Art Ross but not the Hart
Connor McDavid is the most talented and the most valuable player in the league, and that's pretty evident by how heavily the Oilers rely on his contributions (as well as those from Leon Draisaitl.) Both of those guys currently lead the league in points, and it seems likely they'll be near the top of the points leaderboard when the season ends. But we all know how the Hart voting works; Fair or not, players lose credit if their team falls out of the playoff picture.
The Oilers certainly aren't a lock to make the postseason -- they've missed in each of the past two years and the Pacific is tightly contested with five teams at the top holding between 57-60 points. Edmonton went through a massive slide earlier this season when McDavid and Draisaitl experienced a dip in production, so if that happens again then there's a good chance they may fall out of contention against the likes of Vancouver, Vegas, Arizona and Calgary.
McDavid won the Ross but not the Hart when the Oilers missed the playoffs in 2018 and it's conceivable that it could happen once again this year if things don't go Edmonton's way on the back end, especially with a guy like Nathan MacKinnon putting up monster numbers while his team is gunning for a division title.
The Blue Jackets will fall out of playoff contention
Perhaps no story has been more surprising and intriguing recently than the rise of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have soared back into the East playoff picture on the back of rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins. Nobody expected Columbus to be here, especially after they lost so many key pieces (Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, etc.) in free agency last summer. Yet, here they are.
However, I don't expect it to last. Perhaps Merzlikins continues to be a revelation and takes the baton from Jordan Binnington as a relatively older rookie goalie who sparks his team's unexpected surge into the postseason. But, ultimately, I think the Metropolitan division is too good and the Jackets too unspectacular in front of Merzlikins to make it happen. Things will even off, Columbus will fall back down to earth and the Hurricanes or Flyers will finish ahead of them in the standings. This recent surge, while a nice story, will just become a blip on the radar.
The Los Angeles Kings win the Draft Lottery
This is simply a complete guess, but I'm going with it. The Detroit Red Wings are committing to the tank harder than anyone this season and it seems inevitable that they'll finish with the best odds of winning this summer's draft lottery, which comes with the prize of teenage Canadian phenom Alexis Lafreniere.
But the draft lottery often comes with surprises, and the Kings have a good chance to pull the upset. With the league's second-worst record at the break, the Kings will likely have very good odds when the lottery balls are drawn. They're an old, dilapidated team with a dire need for a young franchise cornerstone, and Lafreniere would certainly fit the bill. Plus, they're in Los Angeles, and that's always nice!
I'm not saying the league would rig it to be so, but I'm not NOT saying it either. Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko defying the odds and becoming divisional rivals in New Jersey and New York was rather interesting last year... wasn't it?
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