10 Storylines to Watch in the Final Weeks of the 2013-14 NHL Regular Season
There are two weeks remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season and there are plenty of things that remain unsettled. There are playoff spots up for grabs and individual milestones within reach for some of the league's biggest stars.
Who will grab the wild-card spots in each conference? Who will claim the Presidents' Trophy? Can anyone get to 50 goals? Can anyone besides Sidney Crosby reach 90 points?
The following slideshow will look at the pressing story lines around the NHL with the playoffs just around the corner. So click through and see what you can expect over the rest of the season.
(All statistics via NHL.com unless otherwise stated)
Will Alex Ovechkin Score 50 Goals This Season?
This one seems like a slam dunk, as Alex Ovechkin has 48 goals with seven games to play. But Ovechkin can be streaky and has a shot to fall short.
Ovechkin has one seven-game run this season in which he didn't score two goals, a stretch from Dec. 23 to Jan. 7. So it would not be unprecedented for Ovechkin to go dry over the final two weeks, which would be devastating to the Capitals' playoff chances.
Three of the Capitals' final seven games come against teams that rank in the top 10 defensively.
Prediction: Well, we have the Capitals reaching the playoffs in the previous slide, so to remain consistent, we will say Ovechkin will hit the 50-goal mark for the fifth time in his career.
Who Will Be the Wild Card Teams in the Western Conference?
As it stands now, the Minnesota Wild have control of the first wild-card berth after their come-from-behind 3-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night. The Wild have 87 points in 74 games while the Coyotes hold the second wild-card spot with 84 points in 75 games.
Breathing down the necks of the Coyotes are the Dallas Stars, who have 83 points in 74 games. It's a three-team race for two postseason berths, although the Wild appeared to solidify their spot Saturday.
The Coyotes and Stars will meet in Phoenix on April 13, the final day of the regular season. The Stars and Coyotes possess similar schedules the rest of the way, as each have four games remaining vs. non-playoff teams.
Prediction: The difference here will be goaltending. Mike Smith of the Coyotes is out at least another week with a lower-body injury, leaving the team with Thomas Greiss as their go-to guy for potentially the rest of the season. The Stars will get to lean on Kari Lehtonen, a better and more-experienced goaltender.
It will be close, but the wild card spots in the West will go to the Wild and Stars.
Can the Toronto Maple Leafs Turn Things Around Before It's Too Late?
Like a gallon of milk left out in the sun on a hot summer day, the Toronto Maple Leafs went bad in a hurry. They have lost eight straight games—all in regulation—to go from third to 10th in the conference in a span of two weeks.
The sky is falling in Toronto, no doubt, but the Leafs are still only two points out of a playoff spot with plenty of time to recover. Four of their remaining six games are against Calgary, Florida, Winnipeg and Ottawa, all of which are very winnable.
While the Leafs have been losing, they've been a little better possession-wise in their past two losses to the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers. They're still on the wrong end in the shot attempts battle, but they've played their last two games almost even that regard.
Prediction: It's all over. If the Leafs magically go 6-0-0 in their final six games, that gives them 92 points. All the Columbus Blue Jackets would need to stay ahead of the Leafs is get 10 points in their final eight games. All the Red Wings would need to avoid being surpassed by the Leafs is eight points in their final seven games. The Leafs are done.
Who Will Be the Wild Card Teams in the Eastern Conference?
Now that we've (well, I've) decided the Maple Leafs won't be reaching the postseason, that leaves three teams (Detroit, Columbus, Washington) vying for the two wild-card spots in the East. It's a tighter version of the race of the West, as there seems to be no clear-cut favorite for either of the berths.
The Red Wings own the first wild-card spot with 84 points in 75 games; the Jackets have the second spot with 82 points in 74 games, while the Capitals have 81 points in 75 games. All three teams are playing well right now, but each has issues that could keep them out of the postseason.
Detroit has won two in a row and is 5-2-1 in their past eight games. However, they won't get Henrik Zetterberg back until the (hypothetical) playoffs and four of their final seven games are against some of the NHL's top teams—Boston, Montreal, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
Columbus is healthy but its offense has gone mostly dry since trading Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline. In 12 games since shipping Gaborik to Los Angeles, the Blue Jackets have 24 goals.
Washington has been the hottest of the three teams, going 4-1-3 in its past eight games. The biggest thing working against the Capitals is their 25 regulation/overtime victories, which would cost them a playoff spot in the event they finished tied in points with either the Red Wings or Blue Jackets.
Prediction: The final two spots will go to the Red Wings and Capitals. They are the two teams that are playing the best and while the Capitals' lack of regulation/overtime wins says they're not that good of a team, points are points and the Capitals will have enough of them to reach the playoffs.
Will Anyone Reach the 90-Point Mark Besides Sidney Crosby?
Sidney Crosby has 99 points, so it's just a matter of time before he eclipses the 100-point plateau. The real question is whether anyone will break 90 points this season.
The only two players with a chance to get to 90 points are Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. Getzlaf needs nine points in the Ducks' final eight games while Giroux needs 12 points in the Flyers' final eight games to reach 90 points.
The last time only one NHL player had at least 90 points in a season was 2003-04, when Martin St. Louis led the league in scoring with 94 points. That hasn't been the case since the NHL returned from its second lockout with new rules to open up the game starting in 2005-06.
Prediction: No one besides Crosby will break 90 points this season. Getzlaf faces the Oilers twice, so he could get nine points in those games alone, but he will still fall just short.
Which Coaches Will Lose Their Jobs After the Regular Season?
Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators, Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Peter DeBoer of the New Jersey Devils are three of the stronger candidates to lose their jobs. All three teams have underperformed and will likely miss the postseason.
The Senators were a popular pick to win the East (I had them reaching the Eastern Conference finals before the season) and they have been nothing short of disappointing. The expectations were high after they reached the second round of the playoffs in 2013 and added Bobby Ryan via trade during the offseason.
There's not much to add when it comes to chronicling the Leafs' collapse, but they have looked like a lost team most of the season and were only winning because of spectacular goaltending. If you watch a couple Leafs games, you wouldn't be out of line guessing that they didn't have a coach.
Not too many people had the Devils in the playoffs before the season, but they spent a lot of money in free agency (Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, Damien Brunner, Jaromir Jagr) and acquired Cory Schneider at the draft. Despite bringing in Schneider, DeBoer has opted to split the playing time almost evenly between him and Martin Brodeur.
Prediction: Only Carlyle will be gone after the season. MacLean received lukewarm support from general manager Bryan Murray over the weekend, but it would seem reactionary to fire him after he won the Jack Adams Award in 2013. As for DeBoer, his players still seem to enjoy playing for him and if not for an 0-10 shootout record, the Devils would be a playoff team if they had gone 5-5 in the skills competition.
Who Will Win the Presidents' Trophy—Boston or St. Louis?
The Bruins (110) and Blues (107) are the front-runners for the Presidents' Trophy, given to the team with the most points in the NHL. The Ducks (104) and Sharks (103) are also in the mix, but this trophy will likely wind up in the hands of either the Bruins or Blues.
The Blues have a game in hand but besides a layup against the Buffalo Sabres at home Thursday, they have a daunting remaining schedule. The only non-playoff team on the docket besides the Sabres is the Dallas Stars, who are right in the thick of the playoff chase in the West.
Meanwhile, the Bruins have four non-playoff teams left in their schedule, although only two will be played at home.
Prediction: The Bruins are too hot right now to be caught by anyone. Don't let anyone tell you the Bruins are a product of playing in the weak Eastern Conference, but the fact they only face two Western Conference teams the rest of the way will make the difference.
Who Will Face the Kings in the First Round—San Jose or Anaheim?
The prize for winning the Pacific Division means a first-round date with a wild-card team, probably the Minnesota Wild. For the team that finishes second in the division, it's about as rough as it gets—a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, who are 14-3 in their past 17 games.
Entering Monday's games, the Ducks hold a one-point lead on the Sharks, who have played two more games than the Ducks. Two of those games the Ducks have in hand will be against the Edmonton Oilers, the second-worst team in the NHL.
The one good thing the Sharks have going for them is a showdown with the Ducks on April 9 in Anaheim. If the Sharks want to overtake the Ducks, winning that game in regulation would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
Prediction: The Sharks squandered their opportunity to win the Pacific with losses in four of their past five games, including a particularly odorous home loss to the lowly Winnipeg Jets. The Ducks will take the division and put off facing the Kings (or Sharks) until the second round.
Who Will Get Home-Ice Advantage in the First Round—Chicago or Colorado?
With the Blues running away with the Central Division, the Blackhawks and Avalanche are in a heated battle for second place in the division and the right to play a Game 7 in their home arena.
Home-ice advantage might mean more to the Blackhawks—they are 24-7-7 at United Center (and Soldier Field) and 18-12-8 outside of Chicago. The Blackhawks lost four of five to the Avalanche this season, with the only victory coming at home.
Those numbers could be quite meaningless if Avalanche center Matt Duchene can't play. He suffered a knee injury Saturday and results from an MRI are expected to be reported Monday. Duchene leads the Avalanche with 70 points, a career-high for the 23-year-old.
The Avalanche hold a one-point lead on the Blackhawks with two games in hand but play five of their final seven games on the road.
Prediction: The Blackhawks have lost four of five in regulation and have been off their game since December. The Avalanche also hold the tiebreaker advantage with 43 regulation/overtime wins. Unless Duchene is lost for the season, the Blackhawks won't be able to leapfrog the Avalanche in the final two weeks.
Is This the End for Martin Brodeur?
Martin Brodeur told Rich Chere of the Star Ledger that he is committed to testing the free-agent market this summer and isn't ready to retire. The NHL's all-time leader in victories and a three-time Stanley Cup champion, Brodeur has a .903 save percentage this season and there were no takers for him at the trade deadline.
The Devils' final game of the season is at home on April 13 vs. the Boston Bruins. Will it be the last of Brodeur's Hall of Fame career?
Brodeur clearly does not want to retire, but that may not be up to him. He believes there will be suitors for him on the open market and he is not ruling out a return to the Devils, but how many teams need a 42-year-old goaltender whose best days are behind him?
Prediction: This is it for Brodeur, who believes he can still play but the fact is very few people, if any, share that belief. He may get an offer or two this summer from teams that aren't exactly contenders or from teams looking for a backup goaltender, but he'll come to his senses and realize he'd prefer to call it a career than play somewhere else besides New Jersey. Unless he is in some sort of financial distress that requires him to play another season, this will be it for Brodeur.