Tri-State could have no NHL Playoffs thanks to Florida
March 20, 2018 3:00 AM
by Nick Pellegrino
The tri-state area could be left without an NHL playoff participant for the first time since the New Jersey Devils relocated from Denver for the 1982-83 season to make it three teams within a few miles from each other all packing golf clubs.
The squad suddenly surging, ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple: the Florida Panthers.
Despite an ugly setback to Ottawa last week to end a red-hot 9-0-1 streak, snapping a franchise-record home-ice winning streak at BB&T Center, the Panthers are poised to overtake the Devils by going 16-5-1 since Jan. 30 despite performing in front of a near-empty building every home game.
It actually may be the key for Florida, which just started a 7-of-8 stretch on the road before closing with three home contests – every outing seems like a road game. Plus, among Florida’s final 11 opponents six are against the Atlantic Division and none with first-place Tampa Bay.
With few well-known goal-scorers it’s the goalie tandem of James Reimer and Roberto Luongo who keep the Panthers winning. For nearly seven years, Reimer often shared blame for a lack of success in Toronto, yet the Maple Leafs never made him their No. 1 goalie, gaining more than 29 starts yet no more than 37 while always being considered the No. 2.
In Florida, Reimer immediately gained the starting nod and posted a solid 39-18-16 record, with prospects of topping 39 victories again this season. Luongo has been in the news lately because Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury reached the 400-win plateau. Luongo is fourth all-time in wins, including more than 200 with the Panthers, and is on a 7-0-0 run at home.
Holding the Panthers together among the skaters is D Keith Yandle, a two-time All-Star in Arizona who has posted 40-plus points over 10 consecutive seasons. Yandle is the current NHL ironman for most consecutive games played.
Florida is also healthy with the return of winger Frank Vatrano, while winger Dennis Malgin’s return (knee) is imminent. With Florida’s moderately not-so-tough schedule and a defense-first attitude, NYC might need to ignore the Stanley Cup Playoffs and instead focus on the NBA… oh, never mind.
At one point in the NBA last week, the Western Conference playoff race found eight teams within two games of each other, all battling for the final six postseason berths. And the media goes wild over it.
It’s too bad the wild card race in the NHL doesn’t seem to deserve as much attention, also with eight contenders for five postseason berths, one in the Central Division, two in the Pacific Division, and a pair of wild-card spots.
With San Jose starting to pull away from sluggish Los Angeles, the Kings are in a dogfight with Anaheim, Colorado and Dallas for wild card berths. The key to breaking the deadlock is another club that thought it should be there, too, but fell on their face: Edmonton.
The Oilers just don’t possess enough speed on the wings to keep up with their standout centers. Oilers management knows what its homework assignment will be this summer. Meanwhile, once returning from an eastern swing, Edmonton will play many of their playoff prospects… and they would love to leave a calling card for next season by knocking them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Oilers also play this week in Tampa Bay, who only lead Boston by two points in the Atlantic Division.
Too many cooks
All of the above about playoff races could become moot if NHL general managers have their way.
There is talk the GMs will forward to the Board of Governors a proposal to expand the postseason from 16 or 20 clubs, with the bottom eight playing a one-game play-in similar to Major League Baseball’s wild card game.
For those from the United States asking why, remember some history. “Back in the day,” especially among youth leagues, all teams traditionally made the playoffs no matter what, similar to the Indiana state high school basketball championships.
Those growing up in Canada think nothing about a playoff expansion; Americans think otherwise, unless you’re among those left-wing (political) thinkers who believe everyone deserves a participation trophy. Plus, four additional GMs could claim, “We made the playoffs,” and avoid getting fired.
Just hope the League governors are smarter than that.