In an ideal world, the Carolina Hurricanes will just keep winning at a torrid pace and ultimately win a playoff spot going away such that the first week of April is low stress preparation for the playoffs that follow.
But having a decent memory, my expectations are that the road from here to the end of the season and hopefully into the playoffs will be more like a roller coaster ride. Yes, the primary factor in a playoff berth will be to what degree the Hurricanes can sustain their winning pace since the beginning of January. But with the Hurricanes facing a tough stretch of schedule, how the competition fares is likely to also play a role.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at what is ahead for the three other teams also battling for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. (I recognize that catching the Capitals or Islanders is not impossible, but that would just be a bonus.)
Columbus Blue Jackets
On Twitter on Thursday afternoon, I tweeted the following:
Can next stretch of schedule kill #CBJ and boost #Canes into a sure playoff spot?. Blue Jackets have #LetsGoPens X2, then #Isles, then 2X #NHLBruins sandwiched around game versus #TakeWarning. Hate to wish bad on anyone, but we NEED playoffs. Here is hoping they stumble mightily.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) March 7, 2019
I really think Columbus’ season is in jeopardy right now. The Blue Jackets played and lost to Pittsburgh on Thursday and must again on Saturday play a Pens team that has had their number in big games. If the Jackets can rebound over their next couple games, I think they will be stronger for it. If instead, Columbus loses a couple more, I think it could start a death spiral. Will the pressure of having the organization go all in at the trade deadline smother this team at that point? Might impending free agents Bobrovsky, Panarin and Duchene check out early and start looking to the summer? I will again be rooting the Penguins, painful though it may be, on Saturday in hopes that Columbus can implode and greatly increase the chance of the Canes winning at least the #8 slot.
The Blue Jackets schedule short-term is a tough one. As mentioned above, their next game is against the Penguins. After that, Columbus plays the Islanders and then sees two match ups against the Bruins sandwiched around a critical game against the Hurricanes. Up after that is Calgary. The Blue Jackets do have easier match ups down the stretch, but my hope is that they are done before then.
The Pens have the aforementioned match up against the Blue Jackets on Saturday. After that, the Pittsburgh plays six of their final 14 games against non-playoff teams including the last three games of the season. Until it does not happen, I figure Crosby and Malkin for somehow finding a way to lift the team up into the playoffs. The case for the opposite is probably the team’s blue line that is banged up and was only able to add ‘iffy’ veteran depth at the trade deadline. In addition, the Canes and Pens meet in games #74 and #79 for the Pens, so the ranking of these two teams relative to each other could come down to those huge four-point games.
In the end, I think Crosby and company leverage their experience and push up into the playoffs. That is not to say that they necessary beat out the Canes, just that I do not see all three other teams finishing ahead of the Penguins.
The Canadiens lost in San Jose on Thursday night. That leaves the Canadiens tied with the Hurricanes having played two more games. The Canadiens finish up a back-to-back set on Friday that should see Carey Price start. After that the Canadiens have a neatly spaced remaining schedule with only one more back-to-back set. The fate of Montreal could well be determined by whether Price can find a hot streak and carry his team to the finish line. The Canadiens are only 5-5 in their last 10 games, so the team could need some kind of spark to maintain playoff position. Also interesting is that the Canadiens close out the regular season with a gauntlet run of Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Washington and Toronto. If those teams are locked into their current seeding and not still jockeying for position, that could be a positive. If instead, those good teams have incentive to win during the last week of the season, it could make for a tough ending.
My 2 cents
Short-term, I am watching the Columbus Blue Jackets closely because I think the Blue Jackets are the team most in jeopardy of imploding and playing their way out of playoff contention the soonest. In the next 3-4 games, I think they either bounce or shatter on the concrete.
I hope I am wrong, but I put a good amount of stock in Pittsburgh’s experience. That said, I think the Pens ‘meh’ defensive corps that is light on puck-moving ability feeds right into the forechecking strength of the Hurricanes. If the Hurricanes win both of the remaining match ups against the Pens, that could tilt things in favor of the Canes.
I am not sold on Montreal. I think they played their best hockey early in the season and could limp to the finish line. It could all come down to Carey Price.
Worth noting is that the Hurricanes started a tougher stretch of schedule with Tuesday’s game against the Bruins. (The fact that the Hurricanes are likely to hit a few bumps of their own down the stretch is exactly why I am checking out and wishing ill on the competition.)
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the Hurricanes can continue at something close to their January/February pace despite the difficult stretch of schedule? Or are we destined for a roller coaster ending with scoreboard watching as a necessary part?
2) Which, if any, of the three competitors do you see faltering down the stretch?