More predictable than the reappearance of Halley’s Comet every 75 years, it’s late March in the National Hockey League with St. Louis on a massive march while Chicago is on a slide.
Do not be fooled.
At this time almost every year, the Blues can be found piecing together a nice winning streak, with articles spewing from the Midwest on how this is their year. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks don’t look anything like the recent Stanley Cup champions.
I yawn in boredom.
Since the lockout in 2004-05, St. Louis has produced some sparkly finishes, anticipation from the fan base grows, then it’s quickly to the golf course. The Blues have just one postseason series win in the past decade, downing the one club in the Western Conference with a poorer playoff record than themselves this century (San Jose in 2012, before getting swept by “my” L.A. Kings.)
St. Louis enters the week in a virtual tie for first place in the Central Division (Dallas owns the ROW tiebreaker), thanks to the return of goaltender Brian Elliott. While Jake Allen was solid in Elliott’s absence, Elliott has been a rock star.
After missing nearly a full month, Elliott came off the bench and posted three straight shutouts – two against Vancouver, sandwiched around San Jose. Shots: 71 faced, 71 stopped. The problem with Elliott (and the Blues) is when it comes to money games.
When Ottawa dealt the goalie to Colorado for the home stretch at the trade deadline, he posted a 2-8-1 record, as the Avalanche finished 30th (dead last) in the NHL in goals allowed. His career postseason record is 6-10 with no series won, then he missed all but 26 minutes of the 2015 playoffs due to injury.
If current Chicago coach Joel Quenneville couldn’t find an answer in his eight seasons on the St. Louis bench, then who can? There are plenty of motivating factors that could signal a turnaround, but it is wait-and-see as far as my money is concerned.
Wild Card West
Meanwhile in Chicago, the Hawks could’ve exited the weekend out of the Central’s Top 3 and into a wild card spot if not for a pair of weekend wins in Calgary and Vancouver.
Sure, a 7-9-3 record since early February is suspect, but after playing more than 100 games last season, Quenneville has stayed off the accelerator and been patient – for now.
Nashville, thanks to a home-ice win over the Kings, is charging fast as the club I expected to see following a poor January. Head coach Peter Laviolette has reassembled the pieces to make the Predators a hungry team hoping to put away the thoughts of last year’s early playoff exit – one of the best first-round series in recent memory against Chicago.
Nashville opened 11-3-3, then came a stretch going 9-20 ATS, spiraling the team back to near .500. However a trip to Florida got this Tennessee Choo Choo moving, igniting a 9-0-5 run. The streak ended in Vancouver, but they are now winners in 5-of-6 for an overall 14-2-5 freight train.
Plus, the Preds have a soft schedule over the final two weeks, especially at home, with the lone road games in Dallas (twice) and Pittsburgh. Should they gain some points against the Stars, the door is open for St. Louis to take the division, but No. 1 in the West could also shift to the Pacific Division, meaning the wild card scenario is completely confusing.
The second wild card currently belongs to Minnesota, which just shut out contending Colorado, 4-0, in Denver. Goalie Devan Dubnyk recorded 29 saves. After surviving a horrific 0-8-1 skid in January, he captured his fifth straight win.
East Wild Card
“Gee, thanks” is all I can offer to my friends and family in Pittsburgh for showing my “death of the Penguins” articles to the players. They’ve not only won 7-of-8, but raced past the N.Y. Islanders into one of three guaranteed Metro Division playoff spots.
The Isles, hoping to survive the balance of the regular season without No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak, also have not been scoring, an indication their centers are not that strong and need to help too much on defense. Things looked so promising in their first season in Brooklyn.
Detroit, in its final season at Joe Louis Arena, could miss Cup action for the first time in 25 years.
Philadelphia is the comeback story of the year, but may have run out of time, while Boston (No. 3 in the Atlantic) is guaranteed nothing with the Red Wings on the Bruins’ back.
Contact Nick at [email protected].