Author: Sam Gemini
MADISON – The Stanley Cup Playoffs are about four weeks away, and the divisional races are heating up. Ordinarily, we would be waist-deep in the first round, but due to the unusual finish to the 2020 season, this year’s fifty-six game schedule began in mid-January and ends in mid-May. Nevertheless, April remains an exciting time for the NHL as teams battle for seeding and playoff births in their respective divisions. Let’s examine some of the most interesting developments as the war for sports’ oldest trophy approaches.
The 2021 Central division has enough drama to write a three-act play, but I’ll try to cover everything in a couple of paragraphs. There are essentially two completely separate three-team dogfights in this division that were, like the other three, constructed solely for this shortened season. The alpha dogs at the top are neck-and-neck-and-neck for first place. The Carolina Hurricanes cling to the top spot, one point ahead of the Florida Panthers and two ahead of the defending champions – the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is surely the most riveting race of the stretch run: We have the gritty, unsung Hurricanes with the slim lead; the tiny Florida market is close behind, turning in its best season since 2016 under the guides of probable coach of the year and second greatest of all time, Joel Quenneville. After being unceremoniously fired from Chicago – where he won three Stanley Cups – Quenneville has coached up this young and talented group into serious Cup contenders.
But objects in the mirror are closer than they appear: The proven superstars of Tampa Bay are breathing down the necks of young Florida and Carolina; Captain Steven Stamkos has yet again been placed on injured reserve, but the return of one of the best players in hockey in Nikita Kucherov is imminent, and monstrous Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman is looking to repeat as Norris Trophy winner, an award given to the best defenseman in the NHL. This is effectively an all-star team that has been playing together for years, and they are not going to settle for a three-seed and road games to begin their defending run.
On the less glamorous side of this division, we have a separate cluster of squads vying for the fourth and final playoff position in the eight-team Central. This spot is currently held by the Nashville Predators. The Preds got off to a disastrous start to the season, struggling to deal with key injuries and poor goaltending. But about six weeks ago, this resilient group has turned it around; backup goalie Juuse Saros has emerged white-hot and has taken over the starting job; this, along with the return of multiple important skaters, has rocketed Nashville up in the standings. The Predators’ penalty kill – which was bottom-five for most of the season – has been the number one PK in the league in the span of the last month, as has their goals against per game. I can’t fully explain what happened to them in the first half of the season, but this is a legitimately good team that can win the Stanley Cup, and it would not be wise to dismiss them if they sneak into the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks are trying to chase down the Predators. The playoffs have effectively begun for Chicago and Nashville, as they play the first game of a three-game series of colossal significance this evening at Bridgestone Arena. The Blackhawks – led by Chicago legend and future hall-of-famer Patrick Kane – are the youngest team in the league. They have been sputtering to the finish but remain just two points behind Nashville going into this season-on-the-line three-game set.
The North division, consisting solely of Canadian teams, is more or less wrapped up, and the West is somewhat uninteresting – there is a fight for the final playoff spot between St. Louis and Arizona, but that’s the only thing really left to be decided. Let’s go to the East – the division of bad blood. For much of the season, the top seed has been a two-horse race between the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. Recently, a third and even more ominous team has risen into the mix.
Nobody in the eastern time zone wants to see Sidney Crosby heating up in the final weeks of the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins had been hanging around the fourth or fifth position in the division for months, seemingly biding their time. As we’ve seen so many times before, the Pens found their stride as the calendar turned to March and are now just three points behind hated Washington for number one. Michigan State is to college basketball as Pittsburgh is to the NHL: No matter what, they find a way to be at the top of their game in spring. Jake Guentzel has had another outstanding season with twenty goals, and Crosby – who won the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons (2016 and 2017) – leads the team with fifty points in forty-four games. Pittsburgh has a two-game set with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals at the end of April that could decide the division. Fans may put on a confident face at the prospect of meeting the Penguins in round one, but the last thing they will think about when going to sleep are the faces of Sid the Kid and Evgeni Malkin, who have won so many times before.
It will be thrilling to see how these scenarios play out down the final stretch of this truncated season. It makes for a wonderful appetizer to the main dish – a postseason that is physically and mentally taxing in a way that isn’t seen anywhere else in sports.