After months of battles, it all comes down to the final seven days of the NHL schedule.
For some teams at least.
Eight teams had clinched a playoff spot and/or division title as of Monday, with eight other spots and some shuffling in the standings left to be determined.
In the Western Conference, the battle for the wild card spots will come down to the final weekend. Los Angeles owns the first spot with 94 points and three games to go. Colorado is a point behind at 93 and also has three games to go. Lurking in ninth place are the resilient St. Louis Blues, who came back from the dead to trail the Avs by a point, with four games remaining. Anaheim, seeded third in the Pacific, is hardly out of the woods at 95 points and three games to go.
In the east, things are pretty much solidified, other than late positioning. Florida, in ninth, still has five games to play, but sit seven points out of the wild card. They would need anyone of Columbus (94 pts, 3 games left), Philadelphia (94 pts., 3 games left) or New Jersey (93 pts., 3 games left) to tank completely to make it.
Prior to the beginning of the season (which seems so long ago, now) we were looking forward to seeing guys like Connor McDavid improving on his Hart and Art Ross winning 2016-17 season. Despite his team’s awful play, he is 1st in scoring with 103 points. Ditto Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, who has 63 points (third among all defencemen) but is a dismal -17. Calder winner Auston Matthews has played to his level, as has Vezina recipient Sergei Bobrovsky.
Here is the sixth and last update to the inaugural monthly NHL rankings, with a twist, in that it will only be who we think are the top 16 squads (i.e. 16 teams make the playoffs). Here they are, in ascending order.
16. Los Angeles Kings – February Rank: 16
The Kings, who had a hugely disappointing season in 2016-17, made one significant move thereafter, firing longtime coach Darryl Sutter and replacing him with John Stevens. From there, the team made minor adjustments, including the signing of back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper and bringing back playmaking left winger Mike Cammalleri. They also signed free agent defenceman Oscar Fantenberg out of Sweden and NCAA star Alex Iafallo from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Much of the team’s offence still revolves around Anze Kopitar and defenceman Drew Doughty. Their success, or lack thereof, in 2017-18 will depend on the health of Jonathan Quick, who played just 17 games last season.
March Results: L.A. had a decent March that kept them in the thick of the wild card playoff hunt. An 8-4-3 mark isn’t anything to brag about, but the Kings can boast victories over contending teams like Columbus, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado. On the flip side, however, they suffered losses to St. Louis (which is chasing them closely), New Jersey, Winnipeg and Anaheim. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar was smoking hot, recording eight goals and 12 assists in 15 games, including a four-goal effort in a 7-1 victory over Colorado on Mar. 22. Defenceman Drew Doughty is making a late push for a second Norris Trophy, notching two goals and 13 assists in March to give him 58 points (tied for seventh among rearguards). He was also +5 to push his total to +23 on the season.
A look ahead: The seventh place Kings can’t take their foot off the gas with three games to go in the season and only a two-point cushion on hard-charging ninth place St. Louis (which has four games left). They could slip into third in the Pacific and tangle with San Jose in the first round, too, or fall to eighth and have to face top dog Nashville. At least all three of their remaining games are at home, starting tonight against Colorado, then Minnesota (Apr. 5) and Dallas (Apr. 7) come to town.
15. Anaheim Ducks – February Rank: 15
The time for the Ducks to win again, like they did in 2007, was likely yesterday. The third oldest team in the National Hockey League at an average age of 28.442, will again rely on 30-somethings Ryan Getzlaf (32), Corey Perry (32), Patrick Eaves (33), Andrew Cogliano (30), Antoine Vermette (35) and, when he gets back from injury, Ryan Kesler (33) to score goals. The Ducks, who made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last year, will be in tough early on without Kesler (58 points last season), who has no clear timetable for return after off-season hip surgery. Defenceman Sami Vatanen (24 points last season) is also out for a while after shoulder surgery, ditto Hampus Lindholm (20 points, +13), who is out until November after shoulder surgery to correct a torn labrum. The Ducks brought back oldster and 2007 Cup champion Francois Beauchemin to shore up the D and will have to count on relatively untested but decent puck-mover Brandon Montour for big minutes. In net, the Ducks made a bold move to bring in veteran Ryan Miller to back up John Gibson.
March Results: Anaheim looked a little streaky to begin a key month of March, but survived it with an admirable 9-4-1 mark to keep them a point ahead of Los Angeles for third in the Pacific Division. The Ducks started March on a 3-0 run, but then dropped three straight, before winning another four in a row (and six of their last eight contests). Netminder John Gibson was absolutely stellar in 13 starts, registering a 9-3-1 mark and posting three of his four shutouts on the season, including a huge 36-save whitewash of Washington on March 6. Surprise leading scorer Rickard Rackell kept up his exploits, scoring seven times and adding eight assists to push his season totals to 32 goals and 34 assists.
A look ahead: The Ducks, like their Pacific Division foes Los Angeles Kings, can’t falter over their remaining three games, what with a slim one-point lead over L.A. and just three points up on ninth place St. Louis, which has a game in hand. Anaheim entertains Minnesota Wednesday, followed by a visit from the Dallas Stars Friday before concluding its season with a tilt in Arizona on Saturday.
14. Colorado Avalanche – February Rank: N/A
Somehow, the trade that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa has had the reverse effect most hockey literati originally predicted, and that is a complete turnaround for the surprising Avalanche. Before that big early season deal, the Avs didn’t tweak their line-up much, other than to add back-up goalie Jonathan Bernier, as well as rookie Alexander Kerfoot, role player Colin Wilson and erstwhile former first overall pick Nail Yakupov. Colorado was horrible in 2016-17 and it was hoped that with a couple of small moves and a good second year from coach Jared Bednar the team would improve. They won 22 games in 2016-17, so there was nowhere else to go but up.
March Results: The Avs supplant the Calgary Flames, who totally tanked in March, for 14th on the list. They went 8-4-3 last month, keeping the heat on L.A. and Anaheim ahead of them and a slim one-point cushion on Central Division foe St. Louis going into the schedule’s final week. Colorado had huge wins over Minnesota (twice), Chicago (twice) and Vegas, while gaining a point in OT losses to Nashville, Columbus and Chicago. Nathan MacKinnon, who has absolutely lifted the lid on his considerable talents, scored nine times and added 13 assists during the month to push his lofty total to 94 points, which is fifth in the NHL. Right behind him is sophomore sensation Mikko Rantanen, who had eight goals and 15 assists to give him a career high 82 points.
A look ahead: Colorado, which lost in overtime to Anaheim Sunday night, has three huge games left this week, starting with a big road game in L.A. Monday night. They also travel to San Jose on Thursday, before what could be the defining game of the season at home to hard-charging St. Louis on Saturday night. The Avalanche need max points in those games to maintain that slim hold on the last wild card spot.
13. New Jersey Devils – February Rank: 13
The Devils won the draft lottery and were able to add no. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier to a changing roster. The team also welcomed, out of training camp, rookies Will Butcher (123rd overall to Colorado in 2013), LW Jesper Bratt (162nd overall, 2016) and Blake Coleman (75th overall, 2011). In a busy off-season the Devils also acquired playmaking winger Marcus Johansson from Washington and veterans Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes from Boston. The Devils have a fairly deep line-up after all that, with Cory Schneider and back-up Keith Kinkaid providing better than adequate goaltending.
March Results: With three games to go, the Devils can breathe a little easier knowing they have a seven point cushion on Florida (which does have two games in hand) for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Just a point also separates them from Philadelphia and Columbus in the Metropolitan Division, each team with three games left in their schedules. It was a tough March with 15 games, but they weathered it with a 8-7 record, including wins in four of their last five in the month (five of their last six after a victory over Montreal on Easter Sunday). Team leading scorer Taylor Hall continued to make the Edmonton Oilers sorry they dealt him away, firing nine goals and adding 11 assists to up his team leading point total to 89. Goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who has taken over the starter’s role from Cory Schneider, fashioned a 8-2-1 record and his first shutout of the season, a 38-save effort in a win over host Los Angeles on St. Patrick’s Day.
A look ahead: New Jersey has three games left to tune up for the playoffs, starting with visits from the New York Rangers on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday. Their last game of the season is a tilt with Metropolitan Division leading Washington on Saturday. With three victories, they may surpass Columbus and Philadelphia for third spot in the division.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets – February Rank: N/A
There will be a few new wrinkles to the Eastern Conference’s fourth most potent attack this season. The Blue Jackets, who scored 249 goals last year, but bowed meekly in five games to Pittsburgh in the first round, weren’t content with status quo and made some changes. First, they traded Brandon Saad back to Chicago for elite playmaker Artemi Panarin. They waived by bye to veterans Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell, which opens up prime spots for young gunners like rookie Sonny Milano, third-year man Oliver Bjorkstrand and 2016 third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois. They will all learn well with veteran centermen Nick Foligno (second line) and Brandon Dubinsky (third line). The defence is as solid and mobile as any, with super sophomore Zach Werenski anchoring a first pair with Seth Jones. And, Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will nearly always give them a chance to win.
March Results: One of the hottest teams in hockey picked a good month to go on a run, winning 10 in a row between Mar. 4 and Mar. 22 as part of a 12-3-1 overall mark. The Jackets surged past equally efficient Philadelphia into third place in the Metropolitan Division and could face Pittsburgh in a first round re-match. In that big 10-game winning streak, Columbus beat San Jose, Vegas, Colorado, Philadelphia, Boston and Florida. The ever consistent Artemi Panarin padded his team leading point total to 77 (which matches his career high in Chicago) with eight goals and 13 assists in those 16 games. Rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois asserted himself in March, too, scoring four times (including a hat trick in a win over Calgary last Thursday) and adding nine assists to give him 45 points on the season.
A look ahead: The Jackets need to pick up as many points as possible, with a daunting three-game slate to finish out. They face Detroit at home on Tuesday, and then host rival Pittsburgh in a big game on Thursday. A great post-season tune-up awaits in Nashville on Saturday against the first-place overall Predators.
11. Pittsburgh Penguins – February Rank: 11
Until proven otherwise, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins are still the class of the NHL. Sidney Crosby and the gang may have dropped a few pieces to a second consecutive title (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley), but on paper they are still scary good. As it is, none of the departed were in their top six in scoring and most are long past their prime. So instead of big name free agents joining the Pens for a possible three-peat, the team welcomed some bottom six depth in guys like Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves (since gone at the trade deadline), along with defenceman Matt Hunwick. Matt Murray will continue on as undisputed no. 1, with Dallas cast-off Antti Niemi riding shotgun (he is also gone). Do all signs point to another Cup? Don’t count Crosby and the Penguins out.
March Results: After winning three of four to start the month, the Penguins were a bit more Jekyll and Hyde the rest of the way, going 6-3-1 the rest of the way. They did finish the month on a high note, beating hated rival Philadelphia and New Jersey, both in overtime. Sidney Crosby tuned up for post-season heroics with another solid month, scoring seven goals and adding 10 assists. His latest goal was vintage Sid the Kid, an overtime winner against the Devils where he batted his own rebound out of the air and into the twine. All the Pens battle tested warriors have cranked up the scoring heat, including team leading scorer Evgeni Malkin (six goals and 13 assists, 96 points overall), Phil Kessel (5 G, 12 A, 87 points) and Patric Hornqvist (9 G, 4 A, 46 points in 68 games). Goaltender Matt Murray is back and is 3-3-1 after being out of action for three and a half weeks.
A look ahead: With just two games left, the Penguins, who lost to Washington on Sunday, will need to win out to keep home ice for the first round of the playoffs. They visit Columbus in possible playoff preview on Thursday, as the Blue Jackets have a game in hand and trail the Pens by two points. Pittsburgh then closes out 2017-18 with a game at home against Ottawa on Friday.
10. San Jose Sharks – February Rank: 10
A 99-point campaign in 2016-17 was good, but a first round playoff exit — after making the Stanley Cup finals in 2016 — could not have sat well with players or management. Long-time veteran Patrick Marleau headed to free agency and signed with Toronto, and stay-at-home D David Shlemko was picked up by Vegas and then dealt to Montreal. Even with Marleau gone, the core is still fairly old, with Joe Thornton (38), Joe Pavelski (33), Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns (32) and D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (30). Much more will be expected from youngsters Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc and Chris Tierney, if the Sharks are going to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are one of the best one-two tandems in the league.
March Results: The Sharks, who were smoking hot to start the month, going 10-2, fell to earth in three key games to end it. They lost to St. Louis 3-2 in OT on Mar. 27, then dropped a 5-3 decision to Nashville and suffered a 3-2 setback to Vegas on Saturday. Before that mini losing streak, though, the Sharks posted wins over St. Louis, New Jersey, Vegas and Chicago (twice). Evander Kane, who was obtained at the trade deadline, continued his red-hot pace, scoring nine times and adding three assists to give him 14 points in 16 games in a Sharks uniform. Included in his goal total was a superb four-goal game in a 7-4 victory over Calgary on Mar. 16. Otherwise, the Sharks have spread their scoring well, with 11 players in double digits in goals. Goaltender Martin Jones continued his unsung heroics, posting 9-4 record and his fourth shutout in the month.
A look ahead: The Sharks are sitting fairly comfortably in second in the Pacific Division with 98 points, three ahead of Anaheim and with both teams slated to play three more games. They control their own destiny, with three home games, all against Central Division teams, including Dallas on Tuesday, Colorado on Thursday and Minnesota on Saturday.
9. Philadelphia Flyers – February Rank: 9
The Flyers, who had plenty of scoring in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier to start the season, welcomed no. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick to the fold this season. Other than the youngster with the good bloodlines (uncle is James), Philly added veteran goaltender Brian Elliott last summer, as well as depth centerman Jori Lehtera from the St. Louis Blues. After missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons, it was hoped that the team would compete in a fairly tight Metropolitan Division. For that to happen, they’ll need a bounce back season from Shayne Gostisbehere and a good sophomore campaign from fellow defenceman Ivan Provorov, who had 30 points as a rookie and was -7.
March Results: The Flyers, so hot in February, landed with a thud in March, but still maintained their hold on the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Even by losing 10 games, they still managed to pick up points in four of them, ending the month with an overall 5-6-4 record. And, they started April on a high note, beating high-flying Boston 4-3 in overtime on Easter Sunday. Goaltender Petr Mrazek, obtained from Detroit at the deadline, was a little too up-and-down after posting three straight wins in February for the Flyers. He was 2-5-3 and got yanked in a game against Columbus. However, he started April on a high note, stopping 36 of 39 in the victory over Boston Sunday. Team leading scorer Claude Giroux stayed in the NHL’s top 10 with five goals and 14 assists on the month. He scored twice against Boston, too, including the overtime game-winner and has 95 points on the season, good enough for fourth overall.
A look ahead: The Flyers have as many points as division rival Columbus, with 94 and are one up on New Jersey in the wild card standings with three games to go. Fortunately for them, their three remaining contests are against non-playoff bound teams, including a visit to Brooklyn on Tuesday to face the Islanders, followed by home games against Carolina on Thursday and the Rangers on Saturday. They control their playoff positioning, for sure.
8. Minnesota Wild – February Rank: 8
While the playoff result, a first round, five-game loss to St. Louis doesn’t show it, the Wild’s first year under Bruce Boudreau signaled a big change. The team scored the second most goals in the NHL (266), with the scoring spread all around, led by Eric Staal’s 28 markers. Fully 12 players scored double digit goals and nine players had 40 or more points. Jason Zucker, who had 22 goals and 47 points, was tops in the NHL in plus-minus at +34. They return their six top scorers but will have to do without Zach Parise for the early going, as he has a back injury. They picked up plenty of grit and some scoring by acquiring Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis from Buffalo and signed free agents Daniel Winnik and former Wild forward and Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen. On defence, their top four are formidable, with a great top pair in Ryan Suter and Mathew Dumba. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is coming off a stellar campaign, where he got in 65 games, winning 40 and posting five shutouts.
March Results: If the Wild can figure out how to close out top-shelf opponents, look out. Minny finished the month of March with a 7-5-3 mark. The three extra-time defeats came at the hands of L.A. (4-3 in OT on Mar. 19), Boston (2-1 overtime defeat on Mar. 25) and Nashville (2-1 loss in a shootout on Mar. 27). Those 17 points in March put the Wild firmly into third place in the Central, three points up on Colorado, with a game in hand. Team leading point-getter Eric Staal fired seven goals to reach 40 for the first time since 2008-09 and added three assists to run his point total to 74. Defenceman Matt Dumba is quietly have a career year, logging two goals and 10 assists to run his personal best point total to 46, while playing a shade under 24 minutes per night.
A look ahead: The Wild have four games remaining to get their post-season act together. They host Edmonton Monday night, before embarking on a key three-game road trip with stops in Anaheim Wednesday, Los Angeles on Thursday and finally San Jose on Saturday. They won’t catch Winnipeg for second in the Central and barring a complete collapse to fall into the wild card, will face the Jets, who they are 1-3 against, in the first round.
7. Washington Capitals – February Rank: 7
The magic potion to winning a Stanley Cup continued to elude the Capitals in 2016-17. Despite boasting some of the game’s great scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom), great defence and a yearly Vezina candidate in goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps succumbed to the eventual champion Penguins, yet again. So, this year, instead of fishing about in free agency to try and buy a championship, the Caps stood relatively pat and will go at it with a still very formidable line-up. They lost trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency, which will open up more ice time for the likes of Dmitri Orlov and John Carlson. Up front, Marcus Johansson and his 58 points are gone, which opens the door for former first rounder Jakub Vrana to pick up the slack on the first line with OV and Kuznetzov. The most changes came in the bottom six, with newcomers Alex Chiasson (24 points for Calgary), Tyler Graovac (seven goals and nine points in 52 games with Minnesota) and Devante Smith-Pelly (nine points in 53 games for the Devils), providing checking, grit and a little scoring.
March Results: The Capitals served notice to Eastern Conference opponents that they won’t go quietly into the night in April. One of the hotter teams in the season’s last full month won 10 of 14 to run their Metropolitan Division leading point total to 101, five ahead of Pittsburgh (who they beat 3-1 Sunday), with a game in hand. Alex Ovechkin added six goals to his league leading 45 and chipped in six assists to give him 83 points on the season, his highest total since 2010-11, when he had 85. Defenceman John Carlson, who leads all defencemen with 66 points, scored four goals and added 11 assists in March. His career best output should garner him some votes for the Norris. With Braden Holtby struggling this season, the Caps have turned to back-up Philipp Grubauer of late, with outstanding results. He was 7-2 in March, with shutouts against Detroit and San Jose. He followed that run up by stopping 36 of 37 shots in that key victory against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
A look ahead: The Capitals conclude their season by tangling with St. Louis on the road on Monday, then hosting Nashville on Thursday and New Jersey on Saturday — which could be a playoff preview.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs – February Rank: 6
Depending on who is talking, the Leafs are either a) primed for a major move toward a Stanley Cup or b) due for a tumble because their young core won’t sneak up on anyone this year. With the load of talent up front and a capable goalie in Fredrik Andersen, the former may be a more realistic outcome than the latter. Auston Matthews leads this team into a season where many expect the team to push a little further than last year. He was a 40-goal man and the Calder winner in 2016-17 and will only get better. The veteran/youngster mix up front is sound and got a boost in leadership when they signed Patrick Marleau. The defensive corps looks a little better, given that Cup-winning veteran Ron Hainsey was added to the mix and will help in the further development of Morgan Rielly. Undrafted Swede Andreas Borgman, a sturdy defenceman who surprised all by making the opening night roster, might be this year’s Nikita Zaitsev.
March Results: All things considered it was a good month of March for the Buds, who won eight of 13 and are on pace to record the most points in team history, if they can scoop three in their remaining three games (their all-time high is 103, set in 2003-04). James van Riemsdyk, a free agent at season’s end, had a hot hand in March, scoring 10 goals to give him a career high 36, along with three assists to run his point total to 54. Mitch Marner picked up some of the scoring slack with Auston Mathews shelved for a period, scoring five times and adding 11 assists, upping his team-leading point total to 69. Speaking of Matthews, he had three goals and three assists in six games after missing a month with a shoulder injury. With 31 goals, he became the third Leafs player along with van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri to have at least 30 — the Leafs being the only such team with three 30-goal scorers. Goaltender Frederik Andersen, who won’t likely win the Vezina, has been a wall for Toronto, tied for the league lead in games played at 64.
A look ahead: The Maple Leafs, with three games to go, will finish third in the tough Atlantic Division and face either Tampa Bay (108 points, three games left), or Boston (110 points, four games left). They can tune up for the post-season by beating Buffalo at home Monday night, then the Devils in New Jersey Thursday and finally the Canadiens at home on Saturday.
5. Vegas Golden Knights – February Rank: 5
The Knights, for a throw together team, plucked a few gems out of the dispersal draft, as well as free agency. GM George McPhee had his work cut out for him but did well with dispersal and entry draft wheeling and dealing to stock the cupboard. Of the more notable names available in the dispersal draft, they got James Neal, Reilly Smith, Nate Schmidt, Jonathan Marchessault and Marc-Andre Fleury. Other reliable veteran acquisitions included David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Cody Eakin, Colin Miller, Oscar Lindberg and Erik Haula. McPhee’s wrangling at the entry draft netted him three first round picks, including Cody Glass (6th overall), Nick Suzuki (13th) and Erik Brannstrom (15th).
March Results: We now know the Golden Knights are for real, seeing as that even when they lose, it’s typically very close. Vegas was 9-5-2 in March, with only one blowout loss to New Jersey (8-3 at home on Mar. 14), otherwise five defeats were settled by two goals or less. They also rebound nicely from tough losses, especially a 3-2 clunker at the hands of the lowly Arizona Coyotes on Mar. 28. The Golden Knights clipped St. Louis 4-3 in overtime two nights later and finished their month with a 3-2 triumph — their 50th of the season — against San Jose. Wunderkind expansion draft pick-up William Karlsson, who is tied for third in goal scoring with 42, tacked on eight in March and added 10 assists to push his team leading point total to 75. That sum actually ties him with Florida cast-off Jonathan Marchessault, who had five goals and seven assists last month. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury continued his excellent play, going 8-5-1 with two shutouts. He is first in the NHL in save percentage at .931 and second in goals against average at 2.14.
A look ahead: The Golden Knights are home and cooled after a grueling March, having clinched first in the Pacific a while ago and likely to play the first wild card team, which could be Los Angeles. They are on the road for their final three games, including Vancouver Tuesday, Edmonton Thursday and Calgary on Saturday.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning – February Rank: 1
Like the Stars, the formerly glorious Bolts are due for a climb in the standings after narrowly missing the playoffs last season. With a healthy Steven Stamkos back (he missed all but 17 games last year), the rudderless Lightning have their captain. The Lightning fixed a couple of holes with kids and vets in the off-season. They brought in D Dan Girardi to provide grit on the blue line, then signed former Penguin Chris Kunitz for scoring depth on the left wing. In a bold move, they flipped playmaker Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in return for highly touted young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who will be tutored by partner Anton Stralman. The forward lines have great depth, with leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (40 goals) only getting better and the defence is very capably quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets a second season as starter after a fairly decent 2016-17 season.
February Results: With a 9-5 record in March, some would think we were to harsh for dropping the Lightning three full spots to fourth in the rankings. But, a deeper look at just how they won and lost suggests something is amiss in central Florida. In seven particular games, three of them losses, they surrendered four or more goals. The Bolts gave up six in wins over Philadelphia (7-6 in a shootout) and six more to the Islanders (7-6 victory on Mar. 22), while allowing seven in 7-4 loss to Ottawa. Most telling recently have been losses in four of five, including defeats to New Jersey (2-1 on Mar. 24), Arizona (4-1 on Mar. 26), Boston (4-2 on Mar. 29) and Nashville (4-1 on Sunday. Good thing they are still scoring in bunches, with Nikita Kucherov leading the way at 97 points.
A look ahead: Having slipped to second place in the Atlantic, the Bolts can right the ship starting with a home tilt with Boston on Tuesday. They trail the Bruins by two points, but Boston has four games remaining to their three. Buffalo comes to town on Friday and the Lightning wrap things up with a game in Carolina on Saturday.
3. Winnipeg Jets – February Rank: 4
The Jets are opposite their confreres in Montreal, in that they will score in buckets, but may be nip-tuck to keep the biscuit out of the basket. There was virtually no change to their starting four forward lines, headed by leading point producer Mark Scheifele (82) and followed by top goal scorer Patrik Laine (36 in his rookie campaign) as well as Blake Wheeler (74 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (64 points, tied with Laine). The Jets also get an offensive boost from a blue line that features heavy hitter Dustin Byfuglien (13 goals, 52 points) and Jacob Trouba (33 points in 60 games). Winnipeg did make one major move in free agency, scooping veteran netminder Steve Mason from Philadelphia. A renaissance year of sorts will be required of Mason, who wasn’t brilliant for the Flyers last year (2.66 GAA, .908 save percentage in 58 games). He forces incumbent starter Connor Hellebuyck to the second banana — nice insurance if Mason flames out.
March Results: Of all the teams heading into the post-season, the Jets are going to be one tough nut to crack for whoever they face. Blending speed, skill, toughness and top-notch goaltending, Winnipeg posted a superb 11-3-1 record in March. And they didn’t beat all slouch teams either, recording triumphs against New Jersey, Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Nashville, Boston and Toronto. Sophomore sniper Patrick Laine was scorching hot to begin the month, firing 12 of his team-leading 43 goals in the first nine games of the month. He added three assists to give him 68 points, but has been held pointless in the last six Winnipeg games. Leading scorer Blake Wheeler was again a model of consistency, scoring twice and adding 12 assists in 15 games. Last year’s leading point-getter, Mark Scheifele, made up for some lost time (he’s missed 21 games this year), registering seven points in his last seven games to give him 58 in 57 contests. Ace netminder Connor Hellebuyck, second in the NHL in wins with 41, went 9-1-1 in March and is riding a six-game winning streak.
A look ahead: The Jets, who are more than likely going to start the playoffs at home against Minnesota, have four games this week to fine tune their game. They are ending a four-game road swing with contests in Ottawa Monday night and Montreal Tuesday, followed by home games against Calgary on Thursday and Chicago on Saturday.
2. Nashville Predators – February Rank: 2
Smashville came pretty close to winning it all last year and with the line-up they have now, will beat teams on the scoreboard and in the trenches. On the grit side, the Preds picked up noted banger D Alexei Emelin (1,235 hits in 380 games) as well as bringing back gritty scorer Scott Hartnell, who will man the left side on the second line. Speaking of that second line, the Predators poached the Penguins for center Nick Bonino, who will ably replace Mike Fisher (since come out of retirement). Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are two of the better offensive defencemen in the league and man the point in a scary good first powerplay unit that also sports Hartnell, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Pekka Rinne returns for a 12th season and will mentor up-and-coming countryman Juuse Saros, who looks like the goalie of the future. The Western Conference is tough but the Predators have the horses to go far.
March Results: The Preds climb to the top of the NHL standings had few blemishes in March, but with four losses in their last six, they don’t quite take top spot in our rankings. In the first 10 games of the month, they lost once, in a shootout against visiting New Jersey. But, that nice streak was stopped by losses to contending teams, including Toronto on Mar. 22 (5-2), Minnesota on Mar. 24 (4-1) and Winnipeg on Mar. 25 (5-4 in a shootout). They then beat Minnesota 2-1 in a shootout and San Jose 5-3, but let that good will slide by losing 7-4 to lowly Buffalo on Mar. 31. The silver lining to it all is that they started the push for the post-season by beating Tampa Bay 4-1 on Sunday. The key component to a team that boast 13 double digit scorers is Vezina front-runner Pekka Rinne. He is tied with Connor Hellebuyck for wins at 41 (second in the NHL) and fashioned a 8-3 mark in March, along with two of his NHL leading eight shutouts on the year.
A look ahead: That big victory in Tampa Bay Sunday is part of a three-game road journey that will take them to Florida on Tuesday and Washington on Thursday, before they host Columbus to end the 2017-18 season. Likely to have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs, the Predators are a good candidate to win it all and erase the bitter taste of losing to Pittsburgh in last year’s final.
1. Boston Bruins – February Rank: 3
The Bruins were good last year, just not good enough. After missing the playoffs in two straight seasons, the B’s made it back to the big spring dance, only to lose in six to the Ottawa Senators in the first round. There wasn’t a wholesale changing of the guard in the off-season, as they shed some veterans in Dominic Moore, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes and John-Michael Liles to make room for youngsters. Among the new faces in the line-up are D Charlie McAvoy, who debuted in the playoffs, as well as C Danton Heinen (116th overall pick in 2014), LW Jake DeBrusk (14th overall in 2015), LW Anders Bjork (146th overall, 2014), C Sean Kuraly (133rd overall to San Jose in 2011) and D Matt Grzelcyk (85th overall, 2012). Tuukka Rask still mans the pipes as the no. 1, while very capable back-up Anton Khudobin bides his time.
March Results: Boston picked up points in 14 of a hair-raising 16 games in March, vaulting it into first place overall in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins played everyone tough in March, going 11-2-3, including big victories over Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay (twice) and Minnesota. And they did a lot of their winning with injuries/suspension to several key players at various times, including Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and Rick Nash. Super pest Brad Marchand is having his finest season ever, tallying 84 points in just 64 games. He was massive in March, scoring 10 times and adding 16 assists in 16 games. David Pastrnak has broken out in a big way and has showed no signs of slowing down, notching 10 goals in March and adding 12 assists to run his career best total to 78 points. Tuukka Rask has capably backstopped the B’s to the top record in the east, recording an ovation worthy 9-0-1 mark in March, with one shutout.
A look ahead: Having picked up another point in a 4-3 OT loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, the Bruins still have four games left and a two-point cushion on Tampa Bay (which has three games remaining) for top spot overall in the east. Therefore, Boston controls its own home ice destiny, with a big road game in Tampa Bay Tuesday, followed by a visit to Florida on Thursday and back-to-back games on the weekend at home to Ottawa and Florida again. We like them to come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs.