Each Monday during the NHL season, Rob Mixer takes a look at the biggest storylines from the hockey week that was.
Three teams for two spots, and two of them don’t seem to want to lose.
The Eastern Conference’s wild-card race is ridiculously compelling.
All ye who discounted the Florida Panthers are now having to reconsider that position. Same goes to those who crowned the New Jersey Devils as a playoff participant a couple of weeks ago; those Devils are now perilously clinging to a playoff spot as they embark on a six-game road trip out west, one that could have a big say in their fate.
And then we have the Columbus Blue Jackets, who recovered from a stumble out in California to win their next four, and host Montreal tonight looking for a fifth win in a row. They’re trying both to hold off the Panthers — who have the hammer with three games in hand — while also chasing down the Devils, who have sputtered along lately and have a daunting trip ahead.
So, all things considered, how can we handicap these postseason hopefuls? Here’s this writer’s semi-educated prediction:
1. Florida Panthers
It’s hard not to be impressed by the Panthers. They were decimated by injuries earlier in the season but hung around, limping into the All-Star break all the while knowing they had reinforcements on the horizon. Not only did they get help, but they simply took off in the second half. The Panthers are 15-3-1 since the All-Star break and have shown no signs of slowing down.
They play the majority of their remaining games at home, where they’ve won eight in a row, and they’re getting a ton of production from their stars. That’s a strong formula for success and I’m betting heavily on the Panthers to get in the dance. Who’d have thunk it?
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Perhaps the most perplexing team in contention, the Blue Jackets have shown us a few different faces this season.
They opened with 14 wins in their first 21 games, then cratered out around the new year and many wondered if they would be able to recover in time to stay in contention. Thankfully for the Blue Jackets and head coach John Tortorella, they have arguably the best goaltender in the world to keep them afloat even when they were averaging fewer than two goals per game (and still racking up points).
The Blue Jackets did solid work at the trade deadline: they added to an already-deep defense, boosted their forward group and subtracted little in the way of crucial futures. They’ve won five of seven since the deadline and have, on the whole, played markedly better than they did a few weeks ago — but they’ve got to keep the pedal down and keep winning.
A somewhat favorable schedule awaits: six of Columbus’ final 13 games are at home (though they wrap up a four-game home stand tonight) and seven, maybe eight of those games are against non-playoff teams. It’s by and large up to the Blue Jackets, but if they can get a little help, all the better.
3. New Jersey Devils
How long can Taylor Hall lift his club?
If I had a Hart Trophy vote, he would get mine. No player in the NHL means more to his team than Hall does to the Devils, who are clinging to a playoff spot after comfortably resting above the bar for most of the season. Without Hall, who has been the league’s most impactful player over the last little while, the Devils are screwed, but they did show some resolve in winning a shootout in Nashville last weekend.
What works in the Devils’ favor is their positioning. They have the No. 1 wild card spot for now, so if they keep accumulating points, they control their destiny.
What works against them is their schedule: the Devils are on the road for the next five games, with dates against Vegas, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Pittsburgh on the docket. That’s rough, but these Devils have reminded us throughout the season that they should not be counted out.