For the most part, we know which teams are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the West, it will be Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago from the Central Division. Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose will make it from the Pacific Division. And Nashville and Minnesota from the Central should claim the final two wild-card spots. The Wild got a huge win in that regard on Saturday against Colorado; the Avs are now five points behind the Wild for that final wild-card spot and Minnesota holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
In the East, Washington (will clinch the Presidents' Trophy this week and remains +400 Cup favorite at Bovada), the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh are locks from the Metropolitan Division, as are Florida, Tampa Bay and Boston from the Atlantic. The NY Islanders, Philly and Detroit are battling for the two wild-card spots. I expect the Flyers to be the odd team out.
But perhaps the most interesting race to monitor the rest of the way is at the bottom of the standings and the best chance to win the NHL Draft lottery and select touted prospect Auston Matthews with the No. 1 overall pick this June. Matthews was the first player to be named by USA Hockey to the U.S. roster for the upcoming world hockey championship in Russia (starts May 6). Matthews finished second in the top Swiss league this season in voting for league MVP after scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games. He's just 18.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have the fewest points entering the week with 65, and they badly need a franchise-changing talent like Mathews could be. Some other teams are making a late push to try and "catch" Toronto or at least get as low as possible. Vancouver appears to be in full tank mode, having lost eight straight games and scoring a total of seven goals in them. The Canucks have 67 points. So does Edmonton, which could be frightening if it lands Matthews to pair with Connor McDavid.
Ottawa is fading and has decided to shut down defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Clarke MacArthur the rest of the way. Phaneuf was acquired at the trade deadline from the Maple Leafs, but the Sens are playing only about .500 hockey since and they aren't making the playoffs. MacArthur played four games this season because of a concussion.
My point being: bet big against those teams near the bottom with nothing to play for. Might not be a bad idea to also wager against the Caps for a bit as they might start resting guys with nothing left to prove in the regular season.
This Week's Games To Watch
Colorado at St. Louis, Tuesday: National TV game on the NBC Sports Network. Blues goalie Brian Elliott was named the NHL's No. 2 star for last week. He stopped all 52 shots he faced in winning both starts. He has three straight shutouts overall and leads the NHL with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Elliott won't win the Vezina Trophy, however, because he has played in only 37 games and splits time with Jake Allen. St. Louis has shut out its past four opponents, a franchise record, and impressively won in Washington 4-0 on Saturday. Allen was in net for that one. St. Louis is the 11th team to post four consecutive shutouts. Elliott is expected in net for this game. The Blues are up to +1200 to win the Stanley Cup. Colorado, now on playoff life support, will be without top forwards Matt Duchene and Nathan McKinnon for at least two more games each. Neither played last week. They might just be shut down if the Avs continue to fade out of the wild-card chase.
Calgary at Anaheim, Wednesday: The Flames are in the mix for the worst record in the NHL as they have 68 points and have dropped three straight. The Flames already are looking ahead as they have essentially moved 24-year-old goalie Joni Ortio into the No. 1 role as he's expected to be the team's future there. This game starts a big four-game homestand for the Ducks, who are three points behind the Kings for the Pacific lead. Anaheim has one game in hand. Those two play once more during the regular season, next Thursday at Staples Center. Anaheim is 4-0 vs. Calgary this season and has won an amazing 22 straight at home in the series. Calgary hasn't won a regular-season game at Honda Center since Jan. 19, 2004.
Nashville at Pittsburgh, Thursday: Nashville has been playing as well as anyone for several weeks. The Predators are 19-5-5 since Jan. 21 and 12-2-2 since Feb. 22. Pekka Rinne is 12-1-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average and .936 save percentage since Feb. 18. Only Tampa's Ben Bishop has had a better GAA and save percentage during that span. The Preds are right on the heels of Chicago for third in the Central. Pittsburgh is third in the Metropolitan and could be looking at a great first-round matchup against the second-place Rangers. Phil Kessel is starting to get hot for the Pens. He was the league's No. 3 star for last week when he led the NHL in assists (five) and points (seven). He has 54 points, his eighth straight season with at least 50. Sidney Crosby has at least one point in 14 of his past 15 games. Pittsburgh won in Nashville 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 24. Kessel scored the winner.
Dallas at Los Angeles, Saturday: Matchup of division leaders, although it may not be by Saturday. The Stars remain No. 1 in the NHL in scoring and haven't missed the injured Tyler Seguin too badly yet. Dallas got back center Mattias Janmark from a six-game injury absence on Saturday and he had two goals in a 4-2 win over San Jose. Coach Lindy Ruff still hasn't said whether Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi will be his playoff goalie. Lehtonen had taken over as the primary guy but Niemi was in there against the Sharks. Led by Jonathan Quick, the Kings are No. 1 in the NHL in goals against. The Kings are 2-0 vs. the Stars this season, winning 3-2 at home and 5-2 on the road. These teams won't play again unless it's the Western Conference Finals. The Kings are +350 to win the West and Stars +550.
Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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