Weekend NHL rankings: The Lightning are good again, and other stretch-run storylines



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With three weeks to go in the regular season, let’s regroup on where we’re at in the wild-card races.

The Western race is pretty much down to one spot, and the Golden Knights have got it right now with only the Wild and Blues to hold off. In theory, the Kings’ spot could be vulnerable too, but they’ve been holding serve lately, and we may not be far from declaring this one over.

The Eastern turtle derby keeps crawling toward a conclusion, with the Caps continuing to hold down the last spot after a two-win weekend. The Red Wings are right behind despite a tough 1-0 loss yesterday, while the Islanders are fading again and the Devils may have coughed up their last chance by losing to the Senators on Saturday. The Flyers are vulnerable too, and the Caps are technically just ahead of them on points percentage for third in the Metro.

But beyond those two races, is there anything else left to play for? Yes … and no. Let’s use our bonus five to break down some of what does and doesn’t matter over the next few weeks.

Bonus five: Things to keep in mind down the stretch

5. The Presidents’ Trophy is still up for grabs — I’m not sure we’ve ever had a race quite like this, with up to eight teams having a realistic shot at posting the league’s best record. The Rangers and Canucks have been leading the pack over the last few weeks, but the Avalanche are making a big push and the Panthers, Hurricanes, Stars and Jets all have a shot, as do the Bruins, who are chasing back-to-back titles.

Should you care? Not really, as the Bruins reminded us last year. We’ve all kind of collectively decided that regular-season success doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t followed by a playoff run, and most fans probably couldn’t even name the last five Presidents’ Trophy winners. Still, it’s a legitimate accomplishment, and it comes with home ice throughout the postseason. Speaking of which …

4. Home ice matters — But it doesn’t matter a lot. That’s essentially what Dom found when he dug into the question last year, and others have found the same thing. Home ice is hardly a guarantee, and it feels like it means less than ever in the parity era. But it’s not quite meaningless.

3. This would all be so much more fun if we had an expanded playoff — The most common proposal for expanding the playoffs involves having each conference’s seven through 10 seeds play a mini-tournament for the last two spots. While that obviously gives more teams a shot at the postseason, the underrated part is how it would affect the teams above them. Today, seeding feels less important than ever, so we end up just focused on the gap between eighth and ninth place. But with an expanded field, there’d be crucial pressure points at the sixth seed (to avoid the play-in) and at one and two (to get a first-round matchup with a tired team).

Would that be worth watering down the playoff field from the traditional 16 teams? That’s up for debate, and I know a lot of you feel strongly that it wouldn’t. But expanded playoffs would absolutely make the stretch run matter more for everyone, not just the bubble teams.

2. Your bad team’s late-season push doesn’t tell you anything — Look, I’m sorry to break it to you, but at least you’re hearing it from a friend. If your team stinks, and has been losing all season, you’re probably already mostly tuned out. You deserve a little optimism, and that could mean watching your team finish hot down the stretch, maybe even beating a few legitimate contenders. You can build on that, right?

Well, not really. Those contenders were looking past you, and your team was probably facing their backup goalies. Finishing a lousy season with a 6-and-4 record doesn’t accomplish anything other than hurting your draft position and giving your GM cover to stand pat during the offseason. Eat at Arby’s.

1. Late-season momentum doesn’t matter as much as you think — Inevitably, some team will make the playoffs after going 7-1-2 down the stretch, and we’ll be reminded of that constantly as they gear up for the first round. But study and study have shown that a team’s record down the stretch doesn’t mean much in terms of predicting playoff success, especially when you control for the fact that good teams are more likely to finish well than mediocre ones. It’s true in hockey, it’s true in other sports, and it’s annoying because it wrecks a fun narrative, but late-season momentum really doesn’t matter.

On to this week’s rankings …


Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

No Oilers in this week’s top five after an oh-for-Ontario weekend, but one of the most unlikely 50-goal seasons in history is now a done deal:

5. Dallas Stars (44-19-9, +47 true goals differential*) — Am I just furiously cycling teams in and out of the top five now in an attempt to cover my bases before the playoffs start? I cannot confirm or deny.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (45-20-7, +55) — The other rankings have them at No. 1, although that was before they gave up six to the Caps and also started kicking people. I can see it, though, especially given their deadline haul. I’m not sure there’s all that much difference between the top half-dozen teams or so, but I’ll admit this may be too low for the Hurricanes.

3. Florida Panthers (46-20-5, +58) — They held down the top spot for the last four rankings, but with four straight losses against tough competition before finally snapping the skid yesterday, it’s time to take a step back. Bruins fans will want to know why they don’t deserve this spot instead, and yeah, it’s close to a coin flip between the two teams at this point. Luckily for us, they play each other tomorrow, so we’ll let them settle who ranks where.

2. New York Rangers (47-20-4, +47) — It feels like there’s a late push happening among the “Artemi Panarin should be getting Hart love” crowd, and while it’s probably too late to get him into contention, it’s fair to point out he’s been fantastic. Peter does exactly that in this piece.

1. Colorado Avalanche (46-20-5, +56) — They’re back in the top spot for the first time since mid-February, thanks to nine straight wins and a solid grip on the top spot in the Central. It took a comeback from down 4-0 to stretch the streak yesterday, although I’m not sure it ever really felt like they were out of it against the Penguins. Either way, it was nice to see Jonathan Drouin flash some of those old hands.

We’ve gone through the season assuming the division title will be crucial, although there’s a good chance it ends up meaning a first-round matchup with the Predators, so maybe that’s not as easy a path as we’d thought. Either way, the Avs are red-hot and look like the team to beat for now.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Tampa Bay Lightning — Oh right, these guys.

Call it wishful thinking, but it was easy enough to forget about the Lightning for the first half. They weren’t great, but were never some sort of trainwreck. We all figured their season didn’t really count until Andrei Vasilevskiy got back, but even when he did they were just OK. By the second week of January, they were still hovering around fake-.500, a wild-card bubble team that didn’t look like much of a threat. The diagnosis was clear: This was a good team, and a proud one, but also an aging one, and the window was closing.

Or maybe they were just toying with us. Because for the last few months, the Lightning have sure looked like a veteran contender that has decided to start pressing down on the gas pedal.

On Jan. 6, they went into Boston and got blown out 7-3, dropping their record to 19-17-5. Since then, they’ve gone 20-8-2, including wins over contenders like the Bruins, Avs, Panthers, Knights and Rangers. They also mixed in that weird 9-2 loss to the Panthers, but that was just keeping us on our toes. They’ve been rolling. Nikita Kucherov is gunning for the Art Ross, Vasilevskiy is having his first good month of the season, they added reinforcements at the deadline, Brayden Point just hit the 40-goal mark, and you know there’s some Steven Stamkos magic coming in what could be his final run in Tampa. Here we go again.

Through it all, they haven’t really gained much ground in the Eastern race. They’re still a wild-card team, albeit now a much safer one. They could theoretically catch Toronto for third in the Atlantic, but that barely seems like it will matter. Tampa’s path out of the East will be brutal, just like everyone else’s. But we could have said that in 2020, and 2021, and also 2022, and we know how that went. When it’s late May and the Lightning are finishing off the Hurricanes in five in the conference final, try to act surprised, OK?


The bottom five

The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.

It all ended badly because everything does for the Penguins these days, but this was a beauty:

5. Arizona Coyotes (29-37-5, -29) — They had the Stars on the ropes last night with that late five-on-three but couldn’t convert. At least we did get to see Clayton Keller score his 30th for the second straight year.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (23-36-12, -55) — The season is lost and there isn’t much to play for down the line, but at least they’ve reached that fun point where you can give contending teams an existential crisis just by showing up.

Meanwhile, Aaron has more on Rick Nash’s path to an NHL front office, which may or may not end up happening in Columbus.

3. Anaheim Ducks (24-43-4, -78) — They won this week, which at this point is news. Looking ahead, they’ve got a weird double dip with the Kraken this week, playing twice in three nights with both games in Seattle. It’s the start of a five-game road trip that includes the western Canada swing.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (20-46-5, -99) — I promise I’m not going to beat this topic to death every single week, but man, Saturday’s four-goal comeback against the Sharks would have been a Game of the Year candidate in a Gold Plan world, right? Instead, Hawks fans aren’t sure if they’re supposed to have enjoyed it. Scott has the goods on a roller coaster of a win.

1. San Jose Sharks (16-46-8, -126) — With seven straight losses and 16 in their last 17, they’re starting to feel inevitable in the race for dead last. Does that mean they’re going to beat the Stars tomorrow night? Probably, yeah, thanks for noticing.

Not ranked: Seattle Kraken — They’re stumbling down the stretch of a disappointing season, although I suppose there’s an argument to be had about just how disappointing. On the one hand, this was a team that made the playoffs last year and even won a round, so you’d hope for another step forward. On the other, they’re still an expansion team, and there were plenty of signs that last year’s success was going to be hard to sustain.

It’s fair to say the pessimists have been proven right. A year after they surpassed all expectations with an unusually balanced attack that covered up for a lack of true star power, the percentages have evened out and the Kraken just look like a mediocre collection of talent that isn’t quite good enough to contend. That’s been true even with the first legitimately good goaltending season in the franchise’s young history, with Joey Daccord finally breaking through at the age of 27. Heading into the season, you’d have thought finding a starter would be enough to put them back in the playoff picture. It hasn’t worked out that way.

That’s been especially true in recent weeks. They’ve lost eight straight, including last night to the Habs. The Kraken haven’t felt like a playoff team all season — they started the season around 30 percent in Dom’s model and never got any higher — and now it’s all but over. Ron Francis sold at the deadline, kind of, moving Alex Wennberg. But there wasn’t exactly a bidding war for anyone else on the roster, especially once Jordan Eberle re-signed. Instead, they’re left to play out the string.

The question is what comes next. Barring some lottery luck, the Kraken will pick around the fringe of the top 10, meaning they’re unlikely to land an elite prospect. With Matty Beniers struggling in Year 2 and Shane Wright still looking like a project, it’s fair to wonder if there’s a true franchise-level talent anywhere in the organization.

The Golden Knights have messed up all of our perceptions about what an expansion team should look like, and again, this team has already won a playoff series against the defending Cup champions, so it’s not like the first three years have been misery. They haven’t been awful. I’m just not sure whether there’s much here to be excited about. And that’s not a great place to be once that new-team smell wears off.

Kraken fans, let me know where you’re at these days. Am I getting too pessimistic here, or is there reason to worry as Year 3 winds down to an uninspiring close?

(Top photos of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman: Ron Chenoy and Yannick Peterhans / USA Today) 





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