NHL playoff race nearly settled in Eastern conference, but wide open out West
Preds, Golden Knights, Stars in battle for wild cards as Jets, Canucks still linger
Playoff races coming down to the final days and hours of an NHL season have largely been the norm in the league's salary cap era.
There's usually edge-of-your-seat moments as the schedule churns towards Game 82 and a handful of teams on the playoff bubble desperately claw for every last point in pursuit of one of the final spots.
It looks like that will once again be the case in the Western Conference. But the other side of the post-season bracket? That's been settled for quite some time.
The Eastern Conference has seen the same eight teams — the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins from the Atlantic Division, and the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan — occupy its playoff positions since Jan. 2.
The Detroit Red Wings were the last team outside that group to sit in a post-season spot when they resided in the East's second wild-card berth on New Year's Day. And even that wasn't an entirely accurate reflection because the Bruins had five games in hand due to a COVID-19 shutdown.
The West, meanwhile, has been more a classic story of jockeying for playoff positioning. Things have thinned out somewhat over the last week, but the Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars were separated by just three points in the battle for West wild-card berths heading into Wednesday's action.
The Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, have fallen off the pace and possess little margin for error sitting seven and nine points, respectively, back of the cutline.
WATCH | Canucks drop 3rd straight game:
The Calgary Flames have some breathing room atop the Pacific Division, with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings four and five points adrift.
In the East, Washington is cemented in the second wild-card spot, 11 points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets and nine back of Boston. The current races are for positioning rather than playoff inclusion as the Leafs, Bruins and Lightning battle for second in the Atlantic, while first in the Metropolitan remains up for grabs.
"The race in the West is like the race in the West always is," Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "And the East has got eight fantastic teams in the playoffs."
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe couldn't put his finger on why there's been such a disparity in the conferences this season.
But Keefe added every outing presents a challenge regardless of the standings.
"You're facing a team that's probably in three different predicaments," he said. "They're either confident that they're going to be in the playoffs and jockeying for position, and really looking to refine their game. Then you've got [teams] that are trying to stay alive and stay in that fight. And then you've got other teams that are competing for jobs and trying to build the culture and change culture or whatever it might be.
"No matter who you're playing, you're going to be in for a game."
Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau had two goals and three assists Tuesday in Florida's 7-6 overtime victory against Toronto to become the first player in franchise history to reach 100 points in a season.
The 28-year-old is also the first Quebec-born NHLer to reach the century mark since Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in 2006-07.
Mario Lemieux in 1996-97 is the only other Quebecer to crack 100 points in the last 25 years.
WATCH | Huberdeau leads Panthers past Maple Leafs:
Josi's Norris push
Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon said earlier this season he expected teammate Cale Makar to run away with the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman.
Looks like no one told Roman Josi.
The Nashville Predators captain leads all blue-liners with 84 points in 67 games in 2021-22, nine better than Makar and 17 more than 2021 Norris winner Adam Fox of the Rangers.
Josi, who won his first Norris in 2020 and should also garner some Hart Trophy votes as NHL MVP, registered four goals and 24 assists in 14 games last month to be named the league's first star for March.
Marc-Andre Fleury allowed five goals on 32 shots in Minnesota's 6-2 loss to Nashville on Tuesday, but the veteran goaltender has been a welcome addition for the Wild.
Acquired just before the NHL trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks, the 37-year-old nicknamed "Flower" stopped 92 of the first 96 shots he faced with his new team to pick up victories in his first three starts.
Fans in Minnesota have taken to the netminder, with some throwing flowers on the ice following his wins.
"Feels like I'm figure skating picking up those flowers," Fleury said with a grin recently. "The fans have treated me well, but they don't have to waste money [buying] flowers.