I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
For years, the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues have produced brilliant regular seasons … with very different playoff results.
While the Blackhawks only authored one recent defeat for the Blues (beating them in six games back in 2013-14), the narratives have been consistent. Chicago goes deep, winning three Stanley Cups in the Patrick Kane – Jonathan Toews era. Meanwhile, St. Louis falls with frustration, whether Ken Hitchcock’s troops fall in round one or two.
So, yes, the Blues nearly won the Central Division and they’ll have home-ice advantage in this series … but they’re probably still the underdogs to many, if not most.
Plenty is on the line for both teams – who knows how much longer Chicago’s window will remain open – but there’s no doubt that the Blues are under big-time pressure.
Even after navigating a minefield of injuries this season, few will give this group the benefit of the doubt if they fall in the first round once again.
If their 2014 series was any indication, it should be a lot of fun, at least for those watching.
(The Blues saw their division title hopes die by getting clobbered by the Washington Capitals, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway since the Dallas Stars edged the Nashville Predators.)
Other series set
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
The Dallas Stars ended their season edging one Central Division team (the Nashville Predators) to win the Central Division over the St. Louis Blues.
For their troubles, they’ll face another Central Division team in the Minnesota Wild after grabbing the division crown, and with that, the top seed in the Western Conference.
That means that the Stars will hold home-ice advantage for every round unless they face off against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. (They’d probably be OK with that deal, too, being that they’d be in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final in that scenario.)
By grabbing the Central Division crown, the Stars avoid facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who will instead take on the St. Louis Blues.
The obvious historical tie-in between the Stars and Wild comes from the dissolution of the Minnesota North Stars (who, of course, became the Dallas Stars). For plenty of fans, especially in Minnesota, that will be something in the back of their minds.
On the other hand, it’s a match between a dominant-if-unproven Stars team against a Wild club that clawed into the playoffs … and then sputtered toward the end.
Well, of course he did.
Alex Ovechkin came into Saturday with 47 goals on the season, eyeing a rare full campaign in which he (and thus the rest of the NHL) might not hit that 50-goal mark. The St. Louis Blues certainly had every reason to stop him, too, being that they’re in a dogfight with the Dallas Stars for the Central Division crown.
The Washington Capitals, meanwhile, had little to play for beyond milestones (speaking of which, Braden Holtby‘s likely to tie Martin Brodeur for the single-season wins record at 48).
So, those thoughts might swim in your head and make you believe that Ovechkin might not make it.
And then you remember just how automatic No. 8 really is.
He reached 50 on Saturday thanks to a hat trick, and he didn’t need an empty net to do it. Check out his third goal of the evening in GIF form, with video of the trio to be added soon enough:
To little surprise, he’s made some history:
The “Shanaplan” continues to come together for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After getting pummeled in their season finale to the New Jersey Devils, the Maple Leafs “locked down” the final standings spot in the NHL for 2015-16.
This gives them the best odds at getting the top pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, whether that means that the Leafs would grab Auston Matthews or a different high-end prospect.
The Globe & Mail’s James Mirtle spells out what it all means in more detail:
Expect more on draft lottery odds later on, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs continue their rebuild in an impressive way (albeit with the cognitive dissonance that comes with absorbing some humbling defeats).
Even Mike Babcock acknowledged the writing on the wall.
This might be one of those situations where people use the 20/20 vision of hindsight to question why a player was in the lineup during a “meaningless” game.
Some might complain louder thanks to what’s been a somewhat bumpy season for Tyler Johnson, sometimes for injury reasons.
Of course, the counterargument is that Johnson needs to get his confidence going heading into the playoffs, as the Tampa Bay Lightning would need a focused forward against the Detroit Red Wings.
(Not to mention the possible “You can’t sit everyone” retort …)
However you feel about the decision to suit him up, the Lightning need to cross their fingers after Johnson was shaken up by a frightful fall, which you can see in the video above.
He won’t be back tonight against the Montreal Canadiens:
But that only tells us so much. Perhaps the team will elaborate on his condition beyond tonight, but considering the circumstances, it may take quite a bit longer to get a better feel for what Johnson is dealing with.