Like it or not, hockey fans, the season is quickly winding down.
With just a little over a quarter of a season to play, NHL pretenders and contenders are jockeying for playoff position in what might be one of the most hotly contested NHL seasons in recent memory.
That is, just two teams — miserable Colorado and Arizona — are virtually out of it. That leaves 28 teams still in the hunt to varying degrees. The Carolina Hurricanes, dead last in the Eastern Conference with 56 points, are only 10 points out of the last wild card spot held by Florida, with two games in hand. And the Panthers hold that spot tenuously, as both Boston and the resurgent Islanders have 66 point as well. That’s how close.
In the west it’s the same story, as anyone not in an Avalanche or Coyotes jersey is still breathing life. The Calgary Flames cling to the last wild card there at 64 points, with the L.A. Kings and Winnipeg Jets keeping pace with 62 points.
As the calendar is due to flip to March, there are 10 hot and not teams and players we want to focus on, starting with five who are not hot.
10. Philadelphia Flyers – Not Hot
When the Flyers reeled off eight straight wins in the first two weeks of December, they pushed their record to 19-10-3 and were looking for all the world like a contender. Since that hot streak, though, they have been ice cold. They finished up December with a record of 1-4-1 and have registered an 8-10-3 mark in the new year. It’s like a tale of two teams. While they aren’t out of the playoff picture by any means with 63 points, they are just struggling to keep up rather than staying ahead of the game with wins. One area that is in complete disarray is scoring. In eight games this month, they have scored a puny 13 goals, including a five-game stretch where they were shut out twice and scored four times. The other area of concern is goaltending, or lack of it. Steve Mason won seven of those eight games during the December streak, but has been awful since. His record since Dec. 14 is 4-10-3 and he has allowed 45 goals on 418 shots for a save percentage of just .902. Not near good enough.
9. Shea Weber – Not Hot
Someone somewhere in the Montreal executive offices might want to put out an APB for the Shea Weber that so energized the Canadiens earlier this season. Yes, he is still playing meaningful minutes (25:29 average per game), dishing out hits and blocking shots like he’s known for, but his scoring has dried up measurably. Through his first 40 games, the all-star defenceman had 26 points, including 10 goals (eight on the powerplay) and 16 assists. Thoroughly great numbers in our estimation. In his last 20, however, he’s been near invisible scoring-wise, notching just four goals (three on the PP) and four assists. The Habs have struggled collectively in their last 10 (3-6-1 record), where Weber, other than a two-point performance against the Rangers Tuesday night, has not done well. He is also -6 through those 10 contests. They need him to pick it up over the last quarter.
8. Ryan Miller – Not Hot
Now 36, Ryan Miller could be approaching the end of a very good career. That end, we believe, is being hastened by his sub-par performance for the Canucks, who are still within striking distance of a playoff sport, despite most pundits writing them off as an old also-ran this season. The Canucks have given Miller enough rest this season, as he’s played 37 games to back-up Jacob Markstrom’s 25, so he can’t use fatigue as an excuse for his mediocre play. He had a horrible start to the season, going 1-7 in his first eight starts, but picked it up in his next 20 games, fashioning a 13-4-3 mark. In the last month, though, Miller has been nearly as bad as his early season 1-7 record, winning just two of nine. He is responsible for the all seven losses in the Canucks 3-7 recent skid and in the seven losses he surrendered 26 goals for a .889 save percentage. Vancouver is going nowhere fast with unexceptional netminding.
7. Claude Giroux – Not Hot
The old saw goes that if a NHL team is to be successful, the best players (on paper) have to be the leaders. For nine seasons and counting, as Claude Giroux goes, so go the Flyers. When the Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins between Nov. 27, 2016 and Dec. 14, Giroux was the pied piper of mayhem, racking up five goals (all but one even strength) and seven assists and a +10 rating. After those 32 games, book-ended by that 10-game winning streak, he had 9 goals and 21 assists for 30 points and was among the top 10 in scoring. Since then, he, like the Flyers, has hit the skids. In 27 games since, Giroux has a paltry three goals and nine assists and registered a lousy -21 (turning a +1 at game 32 into a current -20). To put a finer point on it, he’s scored just a goal and an assist in his last 10. The only area he has been consistent is at the face-off dot, where he owns a 55.5 percent win rate. Lately, he’s even been rumored as trade bait.
6. Dallas Stars – Still Not Hot
This isn’t just a lost season for the Dallas Stars, it’s a near oblivion. After going to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in eight years last season, the Stars have hit a wall this season and can’t quite climb over. Yet, they are still just eight points out of a playoff spot. But that bulge, we feel, will be insurmountable for a team with more questions than answers as to what ails them. And, they are 2-7 in February, without the benefit of even those single points they were picking up through the first 50 games of the season (10 OT/SO losses). If anything right now, the Stars look more like sellers at the deadline than buyers. Their goaltending is the among the worst in the league and outside of three players (Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Patrick Eaves), they aren’t getting balanced goal scoring like they did in 2015-16. It’s not too late, yet, for the Stars to make a push but we don’t think they have the horses.
5. St. Louis Blues – Hot
It came as quite a shock to us when the Blues fired Ken Hitchcock at the 50-game mark. Hitch, who is among the all-time leaders in games coached and wins, was pink-slipped even though he had a winning record at 24-21-5 and had taken the Blues to the West Conference finals for the first time since 2000-01. But, a funny thing happened when management pulled the trigger early on Feb. 1 — the team got hot. Mike Yeo, who was going to step in at the end of this year anyway, has guided the club to a 7-3 mark, including a historic five-game sweep on the road. In those five games, they shut out Philadelphia (2-0), Ottawa (6-0) and Detroit (2-0). In the month of February, the Blues have scored 29 goals and surrendered 16, boosting what was a -16 differential to a -3. The 14 points this month have also allowed them to leapfrog Nashville for third in the tough Central Division.
4. Patrick Kane And Jonathan Toews – Hot
The Chicago Blackhawks, like the St. Louis Blues, are tied for the hottest recent 10-game stretch with a 7-3 mark. The Hawks are 7-1 in February, heating up at just the right time. In that stretch, they have dispatched tough Central Division foe Minnesota twice (including a 5-3 statement win Tuesday night) as well as Dallas and Winnipeg. And, if the Blackhawks are to remain hot, the play of their battle-hardened leaders Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is needed. Captain Serious, Toews, fired a hat trick and added two assists in Tuesday’s win and has an astounding six goals and eight assists in eight games this month. Kane, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, has been his steady scoring self in eight games this month, with five goals and six assists for a total of 20-40-60 (tying him with Evgeni Malkin for sixth overall). The Hawks are well positioned to take a run at a fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons and Kane/Toews will lead the way.
3. James Reimer – Hot
Florida is the NHL’s hottest team over the last 10 games (8-1-1) and the catalyst in that span has been their back-up goalie, James Reimer. Other than being yanked in what would be their only regulation loss in their last 10 (6-3 to L.A. on Feb. 9), Reimer has posted four regulation wins and a mop-up win for starter Roberto Luongo (two saves on two shots in a 6-5 OT victory against San Jose Feb. 15). Of his four wins, Reimer beat Tampa 2-1 in overtime on Jan. 26, and won two huge road games as the Panthers posted a historic five-game road sweep. After beating Anaheim 2-1 at home on Feb. 3, Reimer then turned the trick against them again in Anaheim on Feb. 17 (4-1). Lastly, he back-stopped the Cats to a monster 2-1 victory over equally hot St. Louis on Feb. 20 to finish off the five-game streak. He is 12-6-4 this season, with a .920 save percentage and a 2.41 goals against average.
2. Nicklas Backstrom – Hot
So much of what is written about the Washington Capitals usually contains the names Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby. Ever so quietly, though, Nicklas Backstrom just keeps on keeping on, offensively and defensively. The 10-year veteran is having another understated offensive year for the first place overall Capitals, scoring 17 goals and 44 assists (second most in the NHL to Connor McDavid’s 47) for 61 points. That ranks the durable pivot fifth overall in scoring, nine points ahead of his more celebrated brethren, Ovechkin. The Caps are 7-2-1 over their last 10, making them the second hottest team in the league over that span and Backstrom has been brilliant, scoring four times and adding 10 assists and logging a +5. He’s also won 51.6 percent of his face-offs this season and contributed 23 of his points on Washington’s fifth ranked powerplay.
1. Florida Panthers – Hot
We’ve already detailed the exploits of back-up netminder James Reimer and as a whole, the Florida Panthers are hot-hot-hot. The Cats were all but written off 21 games in after firing Gerard Gallant, who had a 11-10-1 record at the time and coming off a 3-2 loss to Carolina on Nov. 27, 2016. Seen as a callous move, they didn’t fare all that well under Tom Rowe in their next 10, scuffling to a 3-3-4 mark. They ended the 2016 calendar year with a 1-1-3 run at home and the picture was still murky. In the new year the Panthers have come alive, with the recent 8-1-1 roll part of an overall 2017 record of 13-6-2, which gives them 66 points and the last wild card spot. Other than Reimer, fourth-year center Vincent Trocheck has been smoking hot in the new year, scoring 10 goals and 11 assists in 20 games to double his point total and vault into the team lead in scoring. Ditto Aleksandr Barkov, who missed all of January to injury, but has chipped in five goals and three assists in his last seven games. The Cats are finally rolling again.