NHL Teams with Toughest Schedules Heading into All-Star Break

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2016

NHL Teams with Toughest Schedules Heading into All-Star Break

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    In December, the National Hockey League shut down for three days for its annual Christmas break. At the end of January, a select few players will travel to Nashville while the rest will hit the beach—or the couch—during the annual All-Star Weekend.

    The All-Star break begins on Thursday, Jan. 28 and extends until Monday, Feb. 1. Games will resume on Feb. 2. For many players, this break is a much-needed opportunity to refresh themselves both physically and mentally before digging in for the regular-season stretch run and, if all goes well, the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    We're at the halfway point of the season, yet only a few teams have effectively been eliminated from playoff contention. In the second half, each club's schedule will play a role in determining which ones improve or maintain their positions and which ones are more likely to fall back.

    Here's a look at the teams that will endure the toughest challenges in the time between Jan. 11 and the All-Star break.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Record through January 10: 43 GP, 15-24-4, 34 pts, eighth in Metropolitan Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight. Four home and four road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: Life never seems to get any easier for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They've made up some ground on the rest of the league since John Tortorella was brought in as head coach in October and recently completed a blockbuster trade to acquire young defenseman Seth Jones, but Columbus remains stuck in 30th place overall in a year when the team was expected to make big noise in the standings.

    With eight games to play before the All-Star break, the landmines in the Blue Jackets' schedule are two sets of back-to-back games. The first one comes on the road against the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, then the team heads into its break after a home-and-home with the struggling Montreal Canadiens.

    Throw in games against the excellent Washington Capitals and the hungry Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, and the Blue Jackets will continue to need to scratch and claw for every point they earn.

7. Buffalo Sabres

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Record through January 10: 42 GP, 16-22-4, 36 pts, eighth in Atlantic Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight. Three home and five road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: The Buffalo Sabres have shown plenty of signs of improvement in the 2015-16 NHL season but continue to hover near the Eastern Conference basement.

    The Sabres are celebrating the ongoing evolution of Ryan O'Reilly into a top-level player, a first-career hat trick by Sam Reinhart in their 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on January 10 and are even hoping to get their No. 1 goaltender Robin Lehner into the lineup soon after his opening-night ankle injury back in October.

    Buffalo will be challenged by a string of quality opponents heading into the All-Star break, with Boston and Washington visiting First Niagara Center for back-to-back games starting Jan. 15 before the team hits the road for a long trip out west to visit the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche.

    After that, it's back home for another tough Atlantic matchup with the Detroit Red Wings before finishing out the pre-All Star schedule with back-to-back games against the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

    The bright spot for Buffalo? Playoffs are almost certainly out of reach and the rebuild looks like it is proceeding nicely. A few more losses might help put the Sabres in the driving seat for another last-place finish and the best odds of winning a shot at Auston Matthews in the 2016 draft lottery.

6. Colorado Avalanche

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    Record through January 10: 43 GP, 21-19-3, 45 pts, fifth in Central Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Nine. Four home and five road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: The Colorado Avalanche are having an up-and-down season. Because they're in the tough Central Division, they're in a dogfight with the slumping Nashville Predators for the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

    The last week before the All-Star break will be the toughest part of the Avs' schedule thanks to two challenging back-to-back sets. Colorado will host the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 22 before travelling to Texas the next night to take on the Dallas Stars. Then, it's out to California for consecutive-night visits to the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.

5. Nashville Predators

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Record through January 10: 42 GP, 19-16-7, 45 pts, fifth in Central Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight. Two home and six road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: After their breakout season in 2014-15, the Nashville Predators have fallen back to earth. Their playoff position is in jeopardy after a three-game losing streak, and so far, the Jan. 6 addition of promising center Ryan Johansen has not boosted their fortunes in the win column.

    Nashville will play six of eight games before the All-Star Break on the road before acting as the host team for this year's All-Star festivities. All eight of those games will be against Western Conference foes; the most important are the pair against the Winnipeg Jets, who sit four points back of Nashville.

    Now 10 points behind St. Louis and seven back of the Minnesota Wild, the Predators need to shift their focus over the next couple of weeks from preparing for the playoffs to ensuring they'll earn an invitation to the postseason dance.

4. Vancouver Canucks

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    Rich Lam/Getty Images

    Record through January 10: 42 GP, 16-16-10, 42 pts, third in Pacific Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight. Two home and six road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: The Vancouver Canucks will have completed their entire Eastern Conference road schedule by the time the All-Star break finally arrives. 

    Having played 22 of their 42 games to date away from Rogers Arena, they'll spend all of February, March and April in the relative comfort of the Pacific, Mountain and Central timezones after one last six-game road trip that starts with back-to-back games against the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes and ends nine days later with a matinee against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    The Canucks went 2-3-1 through a similarly challenging six-game trip in December and 1-4-2 in a seven-game stretch during November.

    Being situated in the northwest corner of the NHL grid presents its challenges. The good news for the Canucks is that despite their unspectacular record to date, they're still holding down a playoff spot in the Pacific Division.

    Vancouver will have a real chance to solidify that position once the team's travel challenges ease up after the All-Star break.

3. Boston Bruins

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Record through January 10: 40 GP, 21-14-5, 45 pts, fourth in Atlantic Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Nine. Four home and five road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: They won't be facing the toughest opponents and will be staying in the Eastern time zone, but the Boston Bruins have a heavy nine-game schedule heading into the All-Star Break, starting with the last three games of a five-game road trip.

    Boston's toughest opponents in January will be the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 11, their 2011 Stanley Cup foes from Vancouver in Boston on Jan. 17, a pair of road games against the surging Philadelphia Flyers and a visit to the Bell Centre to try to avenge their Winter Classic loss against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 19.

    With just three points separating second from sixth in the Atlantic Division, the Bruins can't afford to let a tough schedule derail their quest to get back into the playoffs.

2. San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Record through January 10: 39 GP, 19-18-2, 40 pts, fifth in Pacific Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Nine. Six home and three road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: The San Jose Sharks head into the stretch before the All-Star Break buoyed by their biggest blowout win of the season, a 7-0 thrashing of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    They'll continue at the Shark Tank for six of the next nine games on their busy schedule, but that's not good news for San Jose this season. After being an inhospitable host for years, the Sharks have the worst record in the NHL on home ice this term at just 6-12-0.

    All but one of San Jose's pre-All Star opponents are Western Conference teams, and four games will be against Pacific Division opponents. Each one could prove crucial in a tight playoff race that sees just two points separate third place from sixth.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Record through January 10: 44 GP, 27-13-4, 58 pts, second in Central Division.

     

    Games Before All-Star Break: Nine. Three home and six road.

     

    Why They're In Tough: The Chicago Blackhawks have one of the heaviest schedules heading into the All-Star Break, and two-thirds of their games are away from the United Center. Chicago's 18-5-1 record at home is tops in the league—on the road they're a much more pedestrian 9-8-3.

    Chicago's forthcoming schedule looks like one of a frequent-flying businessman who comes home every weekend. After hosting the Nashville Predators on Jan. 12, they head to Canada for back-to-back games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. After a Sunday home game against the Canadiens on Jan. 17, it's off to the south for three games against Nashville, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.

    They'r then home on the Sunday again for a big rivalry game against the St. Louis Blues before travelling to Carolina to face the Hurricanes ahead of the break.

    The Blackhawks are on a seven-game winning streak that has propelled them back to the top tier of the NHL standings. If they roll into the All-Star break on a winning note, they'll be serving notice they're well prepared to defend their Stanley Cup title when the playoffs begin in April.