During the stretch run of most National Hockey League seasons, the lack of playoff races would be a cause for concern for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
When the calendar turns to April, many distractions take viewers away from following NHL games. For an avid sports fan, there is a smorgasbord of options to get their attention. The conclusion of March Madness, the beginning of the Masters, NBA playoff races, along with the beginning of the Major League Baseball season, is just the tip of the iceberg that can divert eyes elsewhere.
Lack of Playoff Races Doesn’t Mean a Lack of NHL Storylines
An additional problem this year is that almost half of the NHL markets don’t have a realistic chance to make the playoffs. The Eastern Conference’s eight playoff representatives have been decided for quite some time. The Western Conference has a little less predictability, but few teams remain in the hunt for a playoff ticket. With apologies to fans of the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks, in all probability, a combination of the Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, or Nashville Predators will likely attain the last three playoff positions.
Despite the lack of playoff races, there are many reasons why both hard-core and casual fans of the NHL should continue to tune in over the last dozen or so games. For that, Mr. Bettman must be thankful that these stories will help keep the NHL in the spotlight.
Jockeying for Playoff Seeding
While most playoff teams are known, many playoff seedings are still to be determined. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning look like they will be fighting to the finish for third place in the Atlantic Division. In all likelihood, whichever team doesn’t finish third, ends up as the top Wild Card team and a date with the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round. Both teams also still have a chance to catch the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place in the division and home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff series.
Suddenly, there is also a first-place battle in the Metropolitan Division between the Hurricanes and New York Rangers. Perhaps, finishing second would be preferable to avoid a possible first-round clash with the wildcard merry-go-round of the Leafs, Bruins, and Lightning. The Eastern Conference has a myriad of possible playoff matchups to sort out over the next few weeks.
In the Western Conference battles for second place in both divisions and home-ice advantage in the first round are likely to go down to the wire. As of April 10th, the St. Louis Blues lead the Minnesota Wild by two points in the Central Division. In the Pacific, the Edmonton Oilers are four points up on the Kings. Plus, the Kings are trying to hold off the Golden Knights within the Pacific while also trying to stay ahead of Predators and Stars in the Wild Card race. If the Canucks or Jets should go on a hot streak to close out the year, it will only add to the excitement.
Captivating Individual Stories
The offence has returned to the NHL and with it are some intriguing storylines.
Auston Matthews‘s passing of the Leafs’ team goal-scoring record has been a topic of conversation for weeks. Although he surpassed Rick Vaive‘s record of 54 goals this week, this story still has legs. With two goals against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday to reach fifty-eight for the season, the milestone of sixty or more is clearly within reach. He would be the first to reach that number since Steven Stamkos a decade ago. The two goals against the Habs also made him the first player to score 50 goals in a 50-game span since Mario Lemieux almost 30 years ago. Even broadcast giant ESPN has brought mention of his scoring prowess to its mainstream talk shows.
Roman Josi of the Predators is trying to become the first defenseman to record a hundred points in a season since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers did it during the 1991-92 season. He has a legitimate shot to finish in the top 10 in scoring.
The race for the Hart trophy for the league’s Most Valuable Player is the most intriguing it has been in years. Some of hockey’s biggest stars are strong candidates to take home the MVP. There are perennial contenders such as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, along with Matthews of the Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames, Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers, and Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers will also get consideration from voters.
For fans of teams that are lottery-bound and ready to say goodbye to this season — stay tuned. There is still plenty to see.
Embed from Getty Images