With less than two weeks of regular season hockey to go, it will be safe to say that 13 NHL teams should clinch their playoff berths with some form of comfort. As for the remaining playoff spots, that is a different story. Just more than a week ago, eighth and ninth place in each conference were separated by less than a point. I promised in my last Nerdy 30 to give it another week to see if there has been any separation from those spots.
The answer is both yes and no. Yes, the Colorado Avalanche might be finally seeing the beginning of the end, but in the Eastern Conference, Boston has shockingly joined Detroit and Philadelphia for survival. Let’s take a look to see how each team is doing in a playoff race edition of this week’s Nerdy 30.
As it’s been stated not just this season, but throughout the entirety of the Patrick Roy era, Colorado will live and die off of the performances of Semyon Varlamov to compensate for getting out-shot more than any team in the NHL. Over time, that strategy has always been a recipe for disaster and it becomes much harder when Nathan Mackinnon and Matt Duchene are out with knee injuries since March 19th.
Despite beating Edmonton, it would be the only game out of their five most recent games where they also had more than 50-percent of the score-adjusted shot attempts at even strength. Even though the Avalanche also out-attempted the Wild in their crucial encounter last Saturday, they couldn’t get anything past Devan Dubnyk. Along with that, their shot quality was not at it’s most ideal, getting outmatched in scoring chances (24.4-20.1 score-adjusted) and high danger scoring chances (11-6). To make matters worse, despite having the same number of power plays at five a piece, Colorado’s penalty kill was atrocious. Despite giving up only one goal in that situation, the Avalanche gave up 21.5 score-adjusted attempts in only 5.8 minutes of power play time. Varlamov might as well have been Neo in the Matrix by stopping every bullet all by himself. To top a horrific week all off, the Avalanche could only muster 36.9 shot attempts per hour at even strength in their most recent loss to St. Louis.
Now Colorado sits with only a three-percent chance of making the playoffs. With their remaining five games, they will have to face Washington, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Anaheim. That’s five 100-point teams either clinching or competing for first place in their respective divisions.
The injuries to Mackinnon and Duchene has really affected newcomer Mikkel Boedker’s production during this five game span. While being Colorado’s best forward since being acquired the trade deadline, he has racked up 10 points in 13 games and has formed good chemistry with Mackinnon and Blake Comeau. Since the injury crisis, however, Boedker has been forced to play with Shawn Matthias and Mikhail Grigorenko. Meanwhile, Comeau was moved up to the top line with Carl Soderberg and Gabriel Landeskog. To be blunt, Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau struggled to play on third lines for playoff teams before ever donning Colorado Avalanche jerseys. That’s how awful that top forward line looks. Add in the fact that you had Jarome Iginla resorted to playing with John Mitchell and Andreas Martinsen and you have a recipe for disaster for a top nine. Depth at forward has to be priority number one for Colorado’s offseason.
Along with that, general manager Joe Sakic has to find a way to draft guaranteed NHL talent en-masse with their small load of 12 picks in two years. Otherwise, it will be another year of being ranked this poorly in NHL prospect rankings.
Congratulations Wild, you only needed to conquer a flawed and frail team just to get the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Sure, Minnesota just had their six game winning streak come to an end (including outscoring the opposition 14-3 in their last three games before their most recent loss to Ottawa), as well has having a four game winning streak previously this month, but don’t let the narratives of John Torchetti turning the franchise around fool you. Since being hired before Valentine’s Day, Minnesota has only seen 46.8-percent of their shot attempts go in their favor, yet their 102.4 PDO has carried them massively to a 15-7-1 record during that stretch.
Sure, Torchetti is giving more playing time to younger forwards Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund and has so far found Mike Reilly to be the team’s least damaging sixth defensemen, but their’s still flaws on this team.
For one, Jonas Brodin is still awful at playing hockey and has lacked the ideal defense partner that will make him the player he was when he broke into the NHL scene in 2013. So far, he’s been mostly paired with Marco Scandella with not so great results after spending almost the entirety of the first three years of his career with top defensemen Ryan Suter. If anything, the former first round pick is better being suited to play with Matt Dumba this year, but that will mean Scandella will have to play with Nate Prosser to maximize the team’s puck possession, and Prosser is individually among the worst on the team in that category. Either way, things are not ideal in Minnesota over there and signing a veteran to fill a second or third pair role in a positive manner will be the team’s biggest need.
Up front, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker have missed plenty of playing time due to injury. Meanwhile, a top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle only seems to be quite average at 50.2-percent puck possession that is carrying too much puck luck with an on-ice save percentage of 95.5-percent. The injuries have forced the Wild to play way too much of Jared Stoll and Jordan Schroeder: two forwards who seemed to be out of the league as of last Christmas. As much as Haula has been brilliant with his 21 points in 23 games since the coaching hire, is having him with Pominville and Nino Neiderreiter on the second line the most ideal for the team? Where does that leave Granlund, Thomas Vanek and Zucker? How about a fourth line that contains the likes of Ryan Carter, Justin Fontaine, Stoll, Schroeder and newly-acquired David Jones? No matter what, it seems like the forward lines are a shambles and it will take beyond the playoffs for Torchetti to set his blueprint as to how they should really look like.
Now that we have a suddenly predictable Western Conference out of the way, let’s talk about the Eastern Conference that is expecting to see it’s eighth seed hit at around 93 points. That’s a full four points greater than the Western Conference.
We start with a franchise that might finally see it’s 24-year playoff streak snapped in Detroit. It’s been strange times in Motown with a new head coach and a team that is in transition by hoping to find the next crop of young stars to carry them into the future. It seems like they have, at least, one in Dylan Larkin. The rest of the team is a bit of a mystery.
As I’ve said before in one of my previous posts, Detroit seems to be more focused in playing like the boring New Jersey Devils than they are dominating teams on puck possession like they did for the better part of the last decade. Whether that is due to a lack of high end talent or the product of the system Jeff Blashill is running, the Red Wings are struggling to have anyone rack up 50 points, let alone become one of the best players in the NHL.
That’s why Detroit has been un-Detroit like in promoting Anthony Mantha recently in the middle of a playoff push. The 21-year old super prospect has been serviceable with three points in eight games and playing with Pavel Datsyuk and Darren Helm on the team’s second line. However, the Red Wings have actually seen more offense and puck possession when Tomas Tatar is on that line instead of the 29-year old Helm to the tune of 66.7-percent puck possession in less than 19 minutes of even strength play. Yes, that is a small sample size, but desperate times for the ninth best team in the Eastern Conference surely should be time for desperate measures.
However, that removes Tatar from a strong third line of Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, who have been together for 308 minutes this season. Even so, if Helm gets replaced on the second line, a third line with him and Brad Richards should come in very handy for these last five games with Sheahan. Still, where does that leave Nyquist? Either way, things are not ideal for at least one skilled forward or high class checking forward like Sheahan or Tatar as someone is going to have to play on some island of misfit forward combination that is the fourth line. It’s sad to see such a great puck possession forward like Richards become the odd man out, but that’s probably what happens when you’re 35 years old and only racking up 25 points in 63 games nowadays.
On the backend, the pairings are a bit wonky as well. It’s one thing to have Mike Green be the team’s best possession defensemen. It’s another thing to have him paired with Jonathan Ericsson, one of the team’s better shutdown players. Sure, the puck possession is still good, but Green and now-healthy scratched partner Brandon Smith is the team’s most ideal fit in terms of generating offense on the team’s third pair. With Ericsson and Nicklas Kronwall missing so much time to injury, it is understandable to see the pairings jumbled more than Detroit would have liked. Still, having Kyle Quincey playing top pairing minutes when he should be fortunate to get a sweater is not a good sign. Along with that, Smith is losing playing time to Alexey Marchenko despite generating almost twice as much offense from the point. Yes, all these complaints about line combinations and defense pairings have pros and cons and “chicken and egg” situations, but Detroit is on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in 24 years. There’s no time like the present to find a winning formula, right?
Even with Detroit facing an uphill battle, their schedule isn’t the most intimidating in the world. Of their five remaining games, Philadelphia is the only team that has posed the most challenging in terms of their analytical play. Meanwhile, The Rangers and Wild just have strong goaltending, Toronto is in the middle of an en-masse rebuild and the Bruins have been banking on special teams all year. Still, Detroit is also banking on having Philadelphia and Boston lose in the process and, most of the time, that’s better said and done. Most of the time…
Meanwhile, life has to be great if you’re a Flyers fan. First, the team has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star Break. Also, Shayne Gostisbehere has been an emoji icon and now they are expected to beat the President’s Trophy winning Capitals according to Micah Blake McCurdy.
That being said, this team can be better. As I mentioned two weeks ago, it’s time to give the man they call “ghost” free reign and have him play top pairing minutes. Weirdly enough, his possession hasn’t improved dramatically when he hasn’t been skating with eternal buzzkill Andrew MacDonald. The real question could actually be which player would get the most out of the 22-year old rookie. So far, that has been Evgeny Medvedev, but as the team’s seventh defenseman, he hasn’t played since March 12th.
On a more positive note, Steve Mason has played well very recently and all questions about whether he should sit on the bench come playoff time are probably retracted right now.
Along with that, for the first time in years, I have no complaints on any of Philadelphia’s forward lines. Jakob Voracek has teamed up really nicely with Michael Raffl and Sean Couturier for the team’s best shutdown line, while Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn have formed an extremely balls-to-the-wall scoring line. Weirdly enough, the Matt Read-Sam Gagner-Nick Cousins third line has worked so well that Gagner is my recipient for the 2016 Kyle Turris Memorial Trophy for former top-ten draft pick that went from a bust to a revelation.
Now it is important to note that the Flyers still have a tough road ahead. They will finish the season with two games against the Penguins and another against Detroit among their remaining six games. While the Penguins will be hoping to have home-ice advantage against the Rangers in the first round, the Islanders will be hoping not to face the Capitals again, Cal Clutterbuck comments aside. Still, Philadelphia’s style of play is having them play some of their best hockey in four years and it will be very difficult to deny them a playoff spot this year.
As mentioned last week, Boston is in dire straits and whether it’s the construction of their roster, or their lack of strong five-on-five play, they have crashed into panic mode by losing six of their last seven games. This week, they lost two out of three to the Panthers, Maple Leafs and Devils. During that stretch, the Bruins were only able to score two goals out of 87 even strength shots. In Boston’s only win against Toronto this past week, they only scored once during 4-on-4 and twice on the power play. Again, Boston can’t afford to have their even strength play even if they do make the playoffs.
Tuuka Rask’s play has gotten better, but that’s still not enough to convince me that the rest of the team has major flaws and weaknesses in the forward groups. In defense, things have actually gotten better. Way for me to miss out on this last week, but Zach Trotman has been a healthy scratch since the tail end of February. Since then, Zdeno Chara has been playing with Kevan Miller and Chara’s puck possession has gotten much better ever since. Still, Torey Krug is playing with Adam McQuaid while Dennis Seidenberg is playing with insert ‘young but not good enough NHL defensemen here’.
With Boston set as they are, they’ll have to finish the season against St. Louis, Chicago, Carolina, Detroit and Ottawa. For the exception of the Senators, the remaining teams are have their own set of goals coming into the postseason or have much better even strength puck possession than the Bruins do and more talent offensively. It will be a hard finish for them the rest of the season, but they will also hope the same can be said for their rivals Detroit.