Suddenly the start of the 2022 NHL Playoffs are only a week away.
After many years being out of the playoff picture by this point in the season and a couple years suffering horrible disappointments at the very end, the recent lack of suspense and drama in the last week is a good thing.
The goalie injury situation obviously moved to the forefront today, but I will hold off on that until we get more information in the next couple days.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe tackles three different topics related to the transition from the regular season to the playoffs.
1) The division title
Pulling out consecutive not overly impressive but ‘good enough’ road wins against non-playoff teams coupled with the Rangers loss to the Bruins on Saturday, the Hurricanes are now in the driver’s seat with a couple different paths to winning the Metropolitan Division. Though Bally Sports will pitch Tuesday’s match up against the Rangers as deciding the division title, that is not really the case. With a four-point lead over the Rangers, the Hurricanes could lose on Tuesday and still claim the division title with a win in the season finale at PNC Arena on Thursday.
Ten days ago, the benefits of winning the division were murky. The Tampa Bay Lightning were close to falling to fourth place in the Atlantic Division which could have seen them playing the Metro champion. When the goal is the hoist the Stanley Cup at the end, a team has to play its way past some good teams obviously, but with the Hurricanes struggling to find a higher gear right now, much better would be to catch a team like the Lightning after finding a rhythm.
But at the most basic level, winning the division is significant in that it guarantees home ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs and possibly farther if other division winners are toppled in earlier rounds.
2) Playoff seeding
Going deeper on playoff seeding, I think the biggest thing past having home ice advantage will be if Tampa Bay stays in the Atlantic Division bracket. Right now, the Florida Panthers are the best team in the NHL at least in terms of full season and recent results. And toting consecutive Stanley Cup championships into the 2022 NHL Playoffs makes the Lightning a team to be reckoned with. Having to beat only one of those teams is a positive.
The near-term risk that I see for the Hurricanes is finding their way into a first-round series that takes a massive toll physically. If the Hurricanes do emerge as the Metro Division champion, they are mostly likely to face Boston (current match up), Washington or Pittsburgh. A Capitals match up especially has the potential to become a physical war. The Bruins similarly could go down that road. Though any team will likely try to dial up the physicality against the Canes, I think the Penguins present a bit more favorable match up in that regard. Of the three options, the Pens would be my preferred choice for a first-round match up.
3) Preparing for the playoffs
In total, the Canes play has been lackluster of late. The current four-game winning streak glosses over the ‘meh’ level of play. After a 3-0 home loss to the Red Wings and a porous effort losing 7-4 to the Avalanche, the Hurricanes have to a large degree benefitted from a stretch of favorable schedule. The Canes gave up three goals that could have been four or five in a 5-3 win against a struggling Coyotes team that currently has an 10-game losing streak and had lost each of the six games prior to the Hurricanes meeting by four or more goals. The next three wins also came against non-playoff teams who are not playing great hockey right now.
On the positive side, the favorable stretch of schedule has helped carve a path to a division title after a sub-par April and has the potential to become a building block in terms of gaining confidence and finding a rhythm entering the playoffs. On the negative side, finishing the regular season primarily against bottom type teams might not be the best preparation for finding the higher gear needed to beat playoff teams.
But as much as teams aim to be playing at a high level coming out of the regular season, I am not sure it really matters that much. A single good win to start the playoffs can quickly right the ship. And the NHL playoff tragedies are full of teams that stormed through the regular season only to inexplicably fall flat against supposedly lesser teams in the first round of the playoffs.
The bigger thing right now is getting an experienced NHL goalie ready to go.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of the likely options (Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh), who would you prefer that the Canes face in the first round of the playoffs?
2) To what degree do you think finishing strong after a sub-par April matters entering the playoffs?