The Puck Handler | Rob Staggenborg
The first thing you realize about hockey fans is that they are crazy.
Now, once you understand that key fact, you can wrap your mind around the post-pandemic National Hockey League this season.
Hockey is a game of numbers, stats, trends, and all kinds of mathematical algorithms, statistical charts, Corsi ratings and blah blah blah. In the old days the game was stick-puck-goalie-net (sometimes stick-puck-net-goalie, depending on the situation.)
The fact is, these hockey number nerds kind of ruin it for the more than casual, less than obsessed sports fan. People like me. I understand goals-against average and power play percentages, but mention Fenwick, and I go apeshit.
So, here is “A Lazy Fan’s Guide to the upcoming NHL Playoffs.”
Based on current standings, the top four division leaders are:
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Vegas Golden Knights
The top teams in each division are as follows: In the Central Division, the Carolina Hurricanes lead the division at 31-10-7 for 69 points through 48 games. The upstart Florida Panthers are pushing them at second at 31-14-5 for 67 points through 50 games played. Defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning (32-14-2, 66 pts) is right on the Panthers’ tails, and Nashville and the Dallas Stars are fighting for the fourth and final spot in that division.
In the East Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins at 32-14-3 for 67 points lead the race, but the Washington Capitals, a recent Cup winner in their own right, is pushing them at 31-13-4 for 66 points. Moving down the division, the New York Islanders have been impressive under Barry Trotz, compiling a 29-14-5 record for 63 points. The Boston Bruins, 2019 Stanley Cup runner-up, is solidly in fourth place at 27-14-6 for 60 points. The New York Rangers have an outside shot, but those hopes dim each day.
In the West Division, it has been a two-team race with the Vegas Golden Knights leading the NHL with 70 points in 47 games by going 34-11-2. The Colorado Avalanche are in second place in the West at 31-11-4. The Minnesota Wild clinched the third playoff birth with a 31-13-3 record for 65 points. The St. Louis Blues and the Arizona Coyotes, and possibly the Los Angeles Kings, are all fighting for the fourth playoff berth.
Which brings us to … Oh Canada!
The North Division has been highly competitive with the storied Toronto Maple Leafs cruising to the division lead at 30-13-5 for 65 points. The Edmonton Oilers have claimed the second spot in the division at 28-16-3 for 58 points. Right behind are the Winnipeg Jets at 27-18-3 for 57 points. The celebrated Montreal Canadians will most likely hold onto the fourth playoff spot in the North. Of course, fans are ready to burn the coach in effigy for making the fourth playoff spot, not the first …
The division was born out of the pandemic which placed travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine periods to travel across international borders.
You will start to hear so much hype about this team or that. These young up and comers and those wily old vets.
It’s all crap. Especially this year.
Because teams have not seen anyone outside of their division all season, who knows what we will find in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Nobody can truly tell what inter-divisional competition will look like when it happens this post season.
DON’T BE SURPRISED IF … These teams somehow shock the world and win the Stanley Cup:
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Washington Capitals
- Minnesota Wild
- Boston Bruins
EXPECT THESE CONTENDERS: You cannot go wrong by jumping on these bandwagons:
- Toronto Maple Leafs – “This is our year!” (again) (maybe)
- Vegas Golden Knights – Viva Las Vegas – this team is stacked with skilled veterans but can knock your teeth out on defense. They are favored to win it all for a reason. These boys can flat-out play. Goaltending is strong with Marc-Andre Fleury and No. 2 Robin Lehner. And they score more than rich man in a Vegas brothel.
- Florida Panthers – Coach Joel Quenneville can actually pull a Stanley Cup out of a hat. True story. He just wins.
- Colorado Avalanche – Maybe I i’s the burnt bong water in Denver, but the Avs are flying high with Nathan MacKinnon, who is the fastest player ever in the history of fast. He’s a lethal scorer and will be in the MVP race for sure, along with teammate Mikko Rantanen (26 goals, third in the league). Oh yeah, they have two fantastic goalies in Philip Grubauer and Devin Dubnyk. But their defense is spotty so don’t sell the farm for these guys. If they get it together in May, watch out for these guys.
THE HART MEMORIAL TROPHY (MVP) RACE
Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs – Leads the NHL in goals with 34, this 23-year-old phenom from San Ramon, California, is known as much for his dominant offensive skills as he is known for his signature ‘porn ‘stache. Is this his time? He’s played an average of 21:58 of ice time this season, notching 10 power-play goals for the Leafs this year. He’s tied for third in the NHL for power-play goals. If the Leafs get to the man-advantage this postseason often enough, expect Matthews to be the media darling Pierre Maguire is gushing about.
Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avs – This is a difficult one to call because MacKinnon may not even be the best player on his own team. That would be Rantanen, who is third in the league in goals. But MacKinnon offers flashy skating skills, a powerful howitzer of a shot, and is as pesky of a player as a team can face. He has been on a 19-game point streak, Again, reads that gain 19 games in a row with a goal or an assist. The offense moves through Mackinnon, that’s for sure. When he’s hot, the Avs win.
Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers – No one can accuse Oilers center Conor McDavid of being selfish. He is so giving, he leads the NHL in assists with 53, and he’s added another 28 goals for a league-high 81 points. He is on the ice an average of 22:38 minutes per game, playing more than 1,000 minutes already this season. He is a pure scorer and with partner Leon Draisaitl dishing it to him or taking the feds and pounding them in, the Oilers hope to return to the form of yesteryear. He either leads the NHL or is in the Top 10, in nearly every offensive category.
Mark Stone – Vegas Golden Knights – With 18 goals and 35 assists, Stone has been the anchor of the Golden Knights offense. He’s posted a 53-point season while playing 18:42 each night. He is kind of hated because more than often his goals/assists have been daggers for opposing goalies. But he’s also playing with Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch, Alec Martinez, and William Karlsson, to name a few. All are proven veterans who add experience to the Vegas core. Stone is both team captain and its QB.
JACK ADAMS (COACH OF THE YEAR) CANDIDATES
Joel Quenneville – Florida Panthers – Took a Panthers team that had zero confidence and has built the Panthers into a legitimate contender. Sound familiar, Blackhawks, Blues?
Rod Brind’amour – Carolina Hurricanes – he won 31 games in his third year coaching the ‘Canes. The players there, the management and the fans love him (so far). If the ‘Canes continue their magical run, expect another Maguire-narrated, teary profile of Brind-amour to run on perpetual NBC loop this May.
Peter DeBoer – Vegas Golden Knights – Vegas posted one of the most impressive NHL seasons it has ever had – including better than their Stanley Cup run their inaugural season. He’s guided the talented Knights to a 34-11-2 record in a dominating performance for Vegas this season. As the team keeps winning and winning decisively, all eyes are on DeBoer, who was cast off from San Jose where he led the Sharks to the 2019 Conference Final. It’s a great comeback story and one NHL writers like to see.
THE CALDER TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR)
Kirill Kaprizov – Minnesota Wild
That is all.
The “Thrill” is turning heads in Minnesota and across the NHL. He leads all Wild scorers with 41 points on 22 goals and 19 assists. But his goals are highlight reel stuff. You just have to see for yourself.
You might hear of names like Stutzle, Norris, Ty Smith, but make no mistake .. Kaprizov will win it. He is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder. Trust me here. If he doesn’t win, it should be investigated as a high crime against hockey humanity.
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATES …
- Rantanen – It is easy to forget about Rantanen, especially because you get lost on the “Hollywood” lineup the Avs roll out with high-profile players like Cale Makar, MacKinnon, Joonas Donskoi, Philip Grubauer, among others. The 24-year-old Finn cost the Avs $10 million a year and fans expect him to show up big in the playoffs. He’s got 26 goals and 26 assists this season for 52 points. He could be the difference making partner MacKinnon needs in the playoffs.
- Draisaitl – Being second fiddle to McDavid has its moments, but expect Draisaitl to have a breakout playoff. He is second in the NHL in assists with 43 – 10 behind teammate McDavid. This combo could prove to be lethal for opposing teams, so expect Draisaitl to get the love for the goals that McDavid will be pumping in during the playoffs. Many, Oilers fans hope.
- Alexander Ovechkin – Surprised to see the 35-year-old Ovechkin on this list? For those who thought he might be in the twilight of his career, no way. He scored 24 goals for the Caps and has 42 points this season, his 16th in the NHL. If Washington puts together a solid Cup run, of which Ovechkin would certainly be a major contributor to, he should get Conn Smythe consideration.
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