Six NHL storylines to keep an eye on as the regular season comes to a close
From points records to playoff implications, there's still plenty of intrigue left this regular-season
The NHL regular season is winding down and the postseason is only a few weeks away, which should come as exciting news for those who enjoy the months-long adrenaline rush that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And while we're starting to get a clearer picture on how this regular season will wrap up, there are still a number of intriguing storylines and races to keep an eye on as these final few weeks play out. Here are half a dozen that are worth monitoring as the season comes to a close.
Can the Lightning break the regular season point record?
The Lightning have already locked up the Presidents' Trophy as the team with this season's best record. But they've also got a shot to finish as the best regular season team in league history. Tampa could eclipse the league's all-time regular season point mark of 132, set by the 1976-1977 Montreal Canadiens.
With 116 points and nine games remaining, the Lightning would basically have to win out (or take eight of nine, plus an overtime loss) to surpass 132. Considering how dominant they've been for stretches this season, it's certainly not out of the question. However, seven of those remaining games are against playoff-bound teams. There's also the chance that Tampa Bay gives their key players rest or even shuts them down for the final few games of the regular season in preparation for the postseason.
However, even if the Lightning fall just short of Montreal's record, they've already established themselves as one of the most dominant regular season squads ever.
Who gets crowned in the Pacific?
But there's significantly more than just pride on the line for San Jose and Calgary. Whichever team finishes first in the division will draw a wild card (and, given the current projections, likely the second WC) in the first round of the playoffs, and that's a far more desirable fate than finishing runner-up and drawing the Vegas Golden Knights, who seem all but destined to finish third in the division.
No disrespect to the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche or other potential wild card finishers, but they all present a far less fearsome matchup than the Golden Knights. Vegas has really come on strong in the second half of the season, especially since acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline. They are looking like one of the West's most dangerous teams.
The Flames currently have a one-point lead on the Sharks with a game in-hand, so it could be a tight battle that goes down to the wire. San Jose will have to contemplate whether they value winning the division (and having the better first-round matchup in the playoffs) enough to potentially rush an injured Erik Karlsson back into the lineup...again.
Ultimately, you're going to have to go through tough teams if you want to make a deep run for the Stanley Cup regardless, but any time you can avoid a potential grueling first-round matchup in favor of a significantly inferior opponent...well, that's probably in your best interest. So, yeah, the Pacific crown is going to be a pretty big deal.
Can the Bruins hang onto home ice?
Given Tampa's yearlong dominance at the top of the Atlantic division, we've basically known for months that the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs will round out the division's top three and meet in the first round of the playoffs. What isn't a foregone conclusion, however, is which team will have home ice.
Boston, sitting four points above Toronto in the standings, is currently in line for that advantage. They won't meet again this regular season, but both teams have nine games left to play and there remains a significant possibility that their positioning could flip before the postseason starts.
Regardless of who gets the advantage, that inevitable matchup will be the headliner of the playoffs' opening round. Boston and Toronto are among the league's top-five teams overall and they've got a rivalry with plenty of history behind it, so it should be a great series either way.
However, that history suggests that the Leafs could do themselves a serious favor by scoring the extra edge. Toronto hasn't beaten Boston in a postseason series since 1959 and the last two playoff meetings between them have ended with the Bruins winning Game 7 in Boston.
For a Leafs team that's trying to turn the page on a long stretch of postseason misfortune and find success in a new era, they probably want to limit exposure to the playoff demons that seemingly haunt them in Boston.
Will the Blue Jackets get in?
The Blue Jackets may be the most desperate team over the final stretch of the regular season given what's on the line in Columbus. The Jackets absolutely need to make a playoff run this year considering how aggressive they were at the trade deadline.
Rather than part with expiring assets in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus decided to go all-in and be buyers instead. They acquired Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Senators, as well as Adam McQuaid from the Rangers and Keith Kinkaid from the Devils.
As a result of those pickups, the Blue Jackets have just two selections in this summer's draft (a third-rounder and a seventh-rounder) and face decisions with four major expiring assets (Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel and Bobrovsky). They may be able to re-sign some of those pieces and recoup some draft picks with offseason trades, but it's clear that Columbus was willing to put a lot on the line for a chance at a playoff run this year.
Still, those deals haven't exactly put them over the top in the second half and there remains a chance that they could miss the playoffs completely. Columbus currently has the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Canadiens are just three points behind with 10 games remaining.
If Columbus doesn't get into the postseason after their bold play at the deadline, there could be jobs lost as a result.
Who finishes in the cellar?
With 10 games left to play, the Ottawa Senators and Los Angeles Kings are neck-and-neck in the race to the league's basement. Ottawa currently holds the distinction as the league's worst team with a pathetic 56 points. But, at 58 points, the Kings are right behind them...or in front of them? Whatever, you know what I mean.
And while that chase may not be as exciting as some of the ones with playoff implications, it's still important considering the NHL Draft Lottery odds. After all, the team with the league's worst record has the best odds of scoring the top overall pick and, at the very least, is guaranteed a top-four selection in the draft.
However, the Senators don't even own their first-round pick this year, which makes their pathetic season that much more embarrassing. The rights to Ottawa's first-rounder belong to the Colorado Avalanche, who acquired the selection in the 2017 trade that sent Matt Duchene to the Senators. (A reminder that Duchene spent less than two full seasons in Ottawa before being traded at this year's deadline. Ouch.)
So if Ottawa stays the course and finishes as the league's last-place team, they could effectively be gift wrapping consensus top overall pick Jack Hughes to Colorado this summer. That may be hard to swallow for years to come.
How many players will finish with 100 points?
Over the past five seasons, only five different players have managed to hit the 100-point mark in a season -- Connor McDavid (twice), Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Claude Giroux and Nikita Kucherov. Last season was the only year in that span where more than one player accomplished the feat.
This season, however, three players (Kucherov, McDavid, Kane) have already hit the century mark and there will likely be several more to follow. Crosby, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Blake Wheeler, Brayden Point, Brad Marchand, Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner are among those who could approach the milestone in their final 10 or so games to close out the season.
Will all of them hit 100? For sure not, but the fact that so many guys are in the conversation is pretty exciting and it'll be fun to see if they can find another gear to reach the mark. With three guys hitting the century club last year and that number set to rise again this season, it would seem that the Dead Puck Era is...well, dead.
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