- The wild-card race, the Lightning chasing history, the Lose for Hughes sweepstakes and some divisional madness highlight what’s to come in the final week of the NHL regular season.
April signals the end of the 2018–19 NHL regular season, with one final slate of games concluding on Saturday. Here’s what we know: The Lightning are one of the best teams in recent history; last year’s Stanley Cup participants are poised to make another deep playoff run; the Golden Knights and the Sharks will meet again; the Bruins and Maple Leafs will likely have a first-round rematch; and, conjuring Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk’s name enough times results in ill-fated public appearances and the haunting of Sens fans.
Outside of that? Uncertainty. The Lose for Hughes sweepstakes enters its final stretch while the Metropolitan and Central divisions shake into place. Two of the four divisions need a champion. There are records to rewrite, playoff matchups to be made and early vacation plans to hatch. Here’s a look at everything that’s at stake as the regular season draws to a close:
The Wild Card Hunt
There’s no wild-card race with more weight than the Blue Jackets’ fight to enter the postseason. After using the trade deadline to bolster their lineup, cling onto their unrestricted free agents and send away a slew of draft picks, Columbus went 5-7-1 in their next 13 games. Now, the final three games of the season are three of the most important games in franchise history. The good: the Blue Jackets have outscored opponents 24–4 in their last five games and they close the season against the Bruins, Rangers and Senators, while the Canadiens play the Lightning, Capitals and Leafs. Even better: the Hurricanes have hit a skid, giving an opportunity for the Blue Jackets to avoid a first-round matchup with the Lightning. Columbus isn’t in the clear yet, but a regular-season disaster is looking less likely.
Ever since the St. Louis Blues ignited and the Vancouver Canucks plummeted, the Western Conference wild card has been a four-way battle between the Stars, Avalanche, Coyotes and Wild. The gap between those teams has widened: the Stars need two points to clinch a playoff spot while the Avalanche and Coyotes battle for the last spot. Minnesota, still technically alive, could see their playoff hopes erased on Tuesday night in a game against Winnipeg.
The Metropolitan Division has been in flux throughout the entire season and that isn’t about to change with one week remaining. The Capitals should claim the division title, but the Islanders trail them by just three points. None of the Metro’s top teams will face each other until the Islanders play the Capitals on Saturday— and that game could determine the division’s winner on the last day of the regular season.
Less crazy, but just as unstable, is the Western Conference’s Central division. The Winnipeg Jets hold the tiebreaker advantage over the Nashville Predators for the division’s title and a two-point lead over the St. Louis Blues. None of those teams play each other, but the Blackhawks play all of those teams once before the season ends. Chicago will likely miss the playoffs, but they can cause divisional chaos and have a say in who gets home-ice advantage.
Playoff Dress Rehearsals
The best team in the league also happens to be the only team in the league with a chance to test its potential playoff opponents before season’s end. The Lightning will play the Canadiens, Leafs and Bruins in consecutive games to end the season. Barring a first-round upset, the Lightning will play either the Leafs or the Bruins in the second round.
Lose For Hughes Sweepstakes
The NHL’s draft lottery system has the league’s worst teams competing in a race to the bottom for Jack Hughes, this year’s consensus No. 1 overall pick. Hughes, equipped with super speed and the ability to make plays at top gear, is the embodiment of the league’s shift from plodding action and brawny stars to a faster game with a plethora of smaller, skilled forwards. He has a USNTDP-record 202 points and projects as a potential franchise-changing first-line center in the NHL. The Avalanche, gifted the Senators 2019 first round pick, currently have the best odds at landing Hughes. The Kings and Devils are a close second and third. The dark horse in the Lose For Hughes sweepstakes? The Buffalo Sabres. After holding the league’s best record in November, the Sabres are 3-16-3 in their last 22 games and now have the NHL’s fifth-worst record.
The marquee tank-off clashes start Monday when the Rangers face off against the Devils. It continues when the Rangers play the Senators on Wednesday and the Senators play the Sabres on Thursday, and concludes with Saturday’s games, highlighted by a Sabres and Red Wings (hold your excitement) matchup. Games in between will solidify the draft odds, and then fate is left to the whims of the Ping-Pong balls.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a shot at tying the 1995–96 Detroit Red Wings record for wins in a season (62). They need to win four games to break the record, and their final four games include matchups against the Canadiens, Leafs and Bruins. Not easy, but doable. Meanwhile in San Jose, Joe Thornton (with three games left) needs three assists to pass Steve Yzerman and rank eighth all time for career assists.
Alex Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season on Saturday and carries a four-goal lead in the Maurice Richard Trophy race heading into the final week of the season. The Vezina and Norris trophy races are less clear cut. The Islanders’ Robin Lehner and the Stars’ Ben Bishop—with both of their teams having meaningful games left down the stretch—have one last week to strengthen their campaigns against Andrei Vasilevskiy. The same goes for the Flames’ Mark Giordano and the Sharks’ Brent Burns, who are locked in a tight race for the Norris trophy.