The Tampa Bay Lightning and Arizona Coyotes are two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum.
For the former, the first half of the 2017-18 campaign has been a dream. The Lightning have two of the league’s most formidable offensive performers in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, a goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy who is almost assuredly on his way to a spot among the Vezina Trophy finalists and a star defenseman in Victor Hedman who could very well be in the mix for the Norris Trophy. And with a roster chock-full of depth and talent, it comes as a surprise to almost no one that Tampa Bay is staring down the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, are basically living the nightmare of every coach, GM, player and fan. It was supposed to be a season of promise, of growth, in Arizona, but instead the offense has been largely non-existent, the defense has been among the league’s worst and, were it not for the play of rookie Clayton Keller, this might be the most forgettable season in franchise history, which is saying something when it comes to a franchise that has missed the playoffs in all but three of the past 14 seasons.
The thing both teams have in common, at least this season, is that we likely know what to expect from them the rest of the way. Tampa Bay will almost assuredly continue to pick apart opponents en route to the top seed in the Eastern Conference while adding a piece here or there at the trade deadline as they gear up for what they hope will be a deep playoff run. For Arizona, more difficulties are to be expected, especially once they sell off spare parts at the trade deadline in an attempt to recoup some assets and maybe, finally, start to turn the corner.
That’s not to say neither team is worth paying any attention to, but rather that we can more easily forecast what’s to come. But here are five teams whose futures aren’t as certain, with some on the outside charging in, others at risk of losing playoff streaks and a pair of teams who look like they could be contenders with a few additions down the line:
Riding the longest active playoff streak in the league at 11 consecutive seasons, the Penguins are right on the playoff bubble with the Carolina Hurricanes, who have two games in hand, and Philadelphia Flyers, with three games in hand, hot on their heels.
But as much as it’s about the on-ice results for Pittsburgh, the Penguins are worth keeping an eye on for their decisions away from the rink. There’s been no shortage of trade chatter surrounding Pittsburgh since the early season, and the speculation has long been that the Penguins are interested in adding down the middle. Ahead of the roster freeze, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford made some noise with a pair of deals — one to acquire veteran goalie Michael Leighton, the other to bring aboard rearguard Jamie Oleksiak — and those were the third and fourth swaps he’s made since October. And given Rutherford’s track record, which has seen him involved in more than a dozen trades since taking over in Pittsburgh, there’s reason to believe he’s not going to stand pat as the trade deadline approaches.
The good news for the Penguins on the ice is that while the results have been mixed, with a 5-5-0 record across their past 10 outings, their two biggest offensive catalysts have started to get going: Evgeni Malkin has 10 goals and 21 points in his past 18 games, while Sidney Crosby has been a point-per-game player with five goals and 18 points over the same span. If Malkin and Crosby are clicking, and Matt Murray, who has been shaky at best in his first full season as the unchallenged No. 1 netminder, can find his form and Rutherford can swing an influential deal, Pittsburgh should be stretching their playoff streak to 12 years with a shot at three-peating.
From one playoff streak to another. The Penguins rule the roost, as noted, with their 11-year streak, but not far behind are the Blackhawks, who have made the post-season in nine consecutive seasons. Chicago is at risk of missing out this time around, though, and it’s going to be a challenge to either sneak into a wild-card spot or slip ahead of any of their Central Division competition. And while it seemed like it might be the last of the Blackhawks’ worries heading into the campaign, it appears what they could use most isn’t a boost on the blueline but instead another scorer who can help them win some tight games.
Indeed, despite boasting the league’s 11th-best offense (3.05 goals per game) and 13th-best defense (2.76 goals against per game), Chicago has been unable to win tight games this season, nor have they been able to pull away when they have the chance. On 12 occasions this season, the Blackhawks have outshot their opponents and lost. Only the Arizona Coyotes have had that misfortune more often. And in tight games — contests decided by one goal — Chicago has the eighth-worst winning percentage. While never a given, it was at least expected that the Blackhawks would win those games during their heyday.
Putting teams away down the stretch is going to be incredibly important, too, because every point is going to matter in a division that has every team either in or within a point of a playoff position. With no cap space to add, doing so will fall on Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Nick Schmaltz and Brandon Saad. Thankfully, all four have been Chicago’s top scorers since the start of December, with Kane and Toews tied with 13 points apiece over that time.
It has taken almost half a season for the Ducks to get healthy, and even still they’re not all the way there as Patrick Eaves continues to rehab after being diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome. But the returns of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, Jakub Silfverberg and — well, you get the idea — at various points over the past month have helped Anaheim start to climb up the standings.
Undoubtedly the biggest driver for the Ducks has been Getzlaf, whose return has been paired with a remarkable offensive performance. Since Dec. 11, when he returned from a facial injury, Getzlaf has burnt the opposition for three goals and 17 points, the sixth-most points of any player over that span. Not only is Getzlaf producing, though, but he’s skating important minutes in all situations. Consider that only four players have maintained a greater average ice time than Getzlaf’s 21:12 per game since his return.
As of Dec. 1, the Ducks were sixth in the Pacific Division, but thanks to an 8-5-5 record over their past 18 games, they’ve been able to leapfrog the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks to move into striking distance of the playoffs. In fact, Anaheim isn’t just closing in on a wild-card berth — though they are tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the final spot in the Western Conference — but are closing in on the San Jose Sharks for the final divisional seed. While San Jose has three games in hand, the Ducks are only one point back of the Sharks, which will no doubt make the two meetings between the two teams over the next five weeks incredibly important.
Talk about flipping the switch. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Boston was 6-7-4, a mere two points out of the Eastern Conference basement and it appeared at times that the season was going to slip away before it could even really get going. They’ve had an almost complete reversal of fortune since that point, however. Only three times in their past 20 games have the Bruins lost in regulation — they have three shootout or overtime losses, as well — and they’ve slowly but surely inched their way up the Eastern Conference standings. Matter of fact, Tampa Bay might be finally hearing some footsteps with the way the Bruins have been playing.
It’s not just one facet of Boston’s game that is clicking. Since Nov. 16, when this turnaround began, the Bruins have the league’s third-most goals for (83) and fewest goals against (46) while playing a smothering style. The headline, without a doubt, has been the play of Boston’s top line. The trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak has been a match made in heaven, with the line dominating competition on a nightly basis. It’s hard to sleep on the performance of rookies Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk or Charlie McAvoy, either, with each producing in the top 15 among freshman skaters since mid-November.
But the most important player to the entire turnaround may very well be Tuukka Rask. After a brief goaltending controversy, which came around the same time Boston righted the ship, Rask has an 11-1-2 record with an almost unthinkable .939 save percentage. No starter has been better, and with Rask on top of his game, the Lightning getting out of the Atlantic Division might not be as easy as it once appeared.
An injury to top-line center Mark Scheifele, one that stands to sideline him until some point in February, was seen by some as a worst-case scenario for the Jets. Scheifele has evolved into one of the most productive pivots in the league, an offensive force coach Paul Maurice could also rely upon in crucial defensive situations. Some expected a slide down the standings at some point during his absence, if not immediately after he fell injured. Instead, Winnipeg has ripped off four wins in their past five games with a 19-9 combined score.
As impressive about these Jets as their ability to remain among the top teams in the Central Division, though, is that they’re not a one-dimensional bunch. Last season, goal-scoring wasn’t an issue in Winnipeg, but the defensive woes ran deep. This time around, the Jets have the fourth-most potent offense in the league (3.33 goals per game) while goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has more than done his part in ensuring Winnipeg also has top 10 defensive numbers (2.70 goals against per game).
Here’s where things get interesting, however: the Jets are in a battle for top spot in the Central with Scheifele set to return at some point down the line and a roster that is, if all goes well, healthy from top to bottom around the same time. At that point, do the Jets go from a great success story to true top contender? And what will GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who has only once been a buyer at the deadline, do in an attempt to push his team over the top? Those decisions will be the most intriguing for Winnipeg, particularly given the amount of bright young talent the roster possesses.
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