Tricks of the trade alter Stanley Cup playoff bubble watch
|Toronto Star 26 Mar 2019 at 15:37|
Those were the words spoken this week by Montreal goalie Carey Price after a costly overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, regarding the Canadiens’ precarious playoff position. But Price may as well have been speaking for players on any of the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Stars, Avalanche, Coyotes and Wild — the teams battling it out for the final two playoff spots in both conferences.
Riley Nash’s Blue Jackets are in a dogfight with Clark Bishop’s Hurricanes for one of the last playoff spots in the East. (Gregg Forwerck / Getty Images)
As clubs at the top start to get that little “x” in the standings, indicative of having clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs , those on the bubble understand all the more that their time is running out.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators have sewn up spots, and it’s just a matter of time before the Toronto Maple Leafs , New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues do the same.
That’s 12 of 16 spoken for. And while there are interesting battles for position in the Metropolitan and Central, the heat is on the teams on the bubble, especially the ones that made big moves at the trade deadline in an effort to make the post-season.
This “bunch of jerks” is trying to end the NHL’s longest playoff drought. GM Don Waddell made only a couple of minor trades at the deadline and still went on a 9-3-1 tear after Feb. 25, the hottest run of this group. The team — branded “a bunch of jerks” by Don Cherry for the fun, fan-friendly post-win celebrations they call The Storm Surge at home — are as close as they’ve been in years to their first post-season appearance since 2009. “It starts with (coach Rod Brind’Amour). He shows a lot of belief in us,” said defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk. “When he says he knows we’re a playoff team and we can make a run, we believe in him.”
Few expected Montreal to be in the playoff hunt when the season began, but GM Marc Bergevin’s summertime acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar gave the Habs speed and offence. Jordan Weal was a solid speedster acquired at the deadline. It helps that Shea Weber is healthy again and at the top of his game, and Price remains a world-class goalie. They have flaws, and their 7-6-1 record since the deadline is not indicative of a team that has a killer instinct. Their Thursday date in Columbus is the game of the week. “We’ve got to attack (this) week,” Montreal coach Claude Julien told the assembled media. “One game at a time, stay positive, focused and compete like we have been.”
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets are all-in. GM Jarmo Kekäläinen decided to keep the club’s key pending unrestricted free agents, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, and added others — Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, plus three more players — at the cost of high draft picks and prospects. With 13 points in 14 games since the deadline (6-7-1), the Blue Jackets and Wild have stumbled the most among teams in the playoff conversation. “We have to treat every game from now on as a must win, really,” said Jackets forward Josh Anderson. “Look at the standings. Other teams are not helping us out too much. It’s the time of the year where it’s fun hockey. We’re playing for something here.
Dallas has survived the injury to its big deadline acquisition: Mats Zuccarello, who broke his arm Feb. 24, a day after being acquired from the New York Rangers. The Stars are in the first wild-card spot and on a decent 8-5-1 run. GM Jim Nill is believed to be on the firing line if the Stars fail to make the playoffs. They missed the last two seasons despite spending right up to the salary cap.
The Avs have been the streakiest of the contenders. They went 9-0-2 in November and December, then had an 0-5-3 slide in January-February. They’re on a five-game point streak at the moment without injured captain Gabriel Landeskog and winger Mikko Rantanen. “Everyone is kind of catching fire at the right time, and (goalie Philipp Grubauer) is the best he’s been all year,” defenceman Erik Johnson said. “Whenever we get those other two guys back, it will just be a bonus.” Derick Brassard has only three goals in 14 games since he was acquired from the Panthers. At 7-5-2 since the deadline, the Avs are aided by the fact the Western Conference race has been more turtle than hare.
The Coyotes, also 7-5-2 in their last 14, are a young team that hasn’t made the post-season since 2012. GM John Chayka tinkered via trade all year, making five in-season moves. The Yotes were in a playoff spot as recently as last week, but seem to be buckling under the pressure down the stretch. “We’re looking for guys to have big games for us,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “This is the time of year you’re looking for big-time plays. We still have time. As long as we are still getting opportunities, we’ve got to keep knocking on that door.”
The Wild are in danger of having a six-season playoff streak come to an end. Like Columbus, they’ve struggled with 13 points in the last 14 games (5-6-3). They were more sellers than buyers — sending Charlie Coyle to Boston, Matt Hendricks to Winnipeg and Mikael Granlund to Nashville. They got younger and faster under first-year GM Paul Fenton, but wins are at a premium. “That’s the way it is right now,” defenceman Jared Spurgeon told twincities.com. “If we’re not winning, we’re going to be out of it. We put ourselves in this spot. We have to work our way out of it.”