NHL Observations & Predictions after Week 3
By: Shane Bryant
Nathan MacKinnon / insideedgehockeynews.com
The calendars have turned over to February, and we are starting to quickly realize which teams are contenders and the clubs that will be looking forward to the NHL Draft Lottery later this year.
Covid-19 Starting to Impact the League
Despite the divisional realignments and the frequent scheduling of back-to-back contests, it was only a matter of time before the effects of the virus would reach the NHL. The Dallas Stars were the last team to start their season after having players and staff test positive for the virus in the weeks leading up to the season. However, more teams have started to see their games postponed as a result of Covid-19 exposures.
The New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, and Minnesota Wild have all had multiple games postponed this week as a result of positive tests for players and/or staff. The MLB was able to complete a season in which teams played in their home ballparks, and the NHL should be able to do the same so long as clubs ensure that all members are following protocols and being diligent in their effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Divisional Headlines and Playoff Predictions
Honda West Division - MacKinnon Week-to-Week, Playoffs Set?
After hovering around the .500 mark to start the season, Colorado finally started to show flashes of the Stanley Cup contending team that many predicted them to be. However, no sooner than they started to emerge, they saw their star center and captain Nathan MacKinnon go down with a lower-body injury. The team is calling the 2020 Lady Byng winner “week-to-week”, which would be a big loss in any season, but especially a condensed one like we have in 2021.
The good news for Colorado is that the bottom four teams in the West division have not shown any desire to be in the postseason. Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, and San Jose all have a Point% below .500, and they all have a negative goal differential. There is a clear tier break in the Honda West Division following the top four teams, who I still project to easily be the postseason teams.
The Vegas Golden Knights last played a game on Tuesday January 26 in which they suffered a shootout loss against St. Louis. They sit with a 5-1-1 record, and have a goaltending tandem that is not only the best in the West but in contention for best in the NHL. It is unclear who will man the crease in the postseason, but Marc Andre-Fleury and Robin Lehner will undoubtedly ensure that the Golden Knights are playing games after the conclusion of the regular season.
Honda West Playoff Predictions:
Vegas Golden Knights
St. Louis Blues
Discover Central - Tampa Continues to Dominate Without Kucherov
No team lost a more significant player in the preseason than Tampa Bay, when it was announced that RW Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season. In contention for the Art Ross trophy each season, the loss for Tampa Bay could not be overstated. However, the team has demonstrated its depth and sits with an impressive 6-1-1 record. Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to provide the Lightning with excellent goaltending, and the Lightning have plenty of scoring thanks to the efforts of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat.
After the beginning of their season was delayed, the Dallas Stars were extremely impressive in a two-game sweep over Nashville in which they scored eight power play goals. The Stars showcased their high-powered offense during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they appear to have picked up right where they left off. Blue liners John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, and Jamie Oleskiak are contributing from the back end, which helps take the pressure off the forwards for a team that wants to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Detroit, a team that many figured would be selecting in the NHL lottery once again, managed to split its two opening series against Carolina and Columbus. I believe that speaks more to the current state of the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets than it does about the possibility of a drastic improvement for Detroit. However, perhaps the story of the season so far is the resurgence of RW Bobby Ryan, who held the NHL lead for goals with four heading into Thursday’s action. It is a great story for Ryan, who has managed to regain some of his old form after admitting to substance abuse issues during the season last year.
Florida is the only team in the NHL that has yet to suffer a regulation loss, but there are definitely questions about its strength of schedule to this point. The Panthers only have one win against a team that currently has a .500 record, which was a 4-3 win over Columbus last week. However, taking care of business against the struggling teams in the Central division like Chicago, Detroit, and Nashville could be enough for the Panthers to make the playoffs.
Columbus is hoping that Patrick Laine can bring a much-needed spark to their locker room. While I’m excited to see what Laine can do in a feature role, I still have doubts that this team has the depth to compete with the top teams in the Central division.
Carolina could be off to the most impressive start in the NHL, not just the Central division. Even after a long layoff due to Covid-19 protocols, the Hurricanes were able to shutout Tampa Bay 1-0 before taking a two-game sweep over Dallas. Splitting up Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov has spaced out the Canes’ scoring threats and made them a more balanced club. I expect them to make another postseason run.
Discover Central Playoff Predictions:
Tampa Bay Lightning
MassMutual East Division - Boston and Washington show Resilience
Is there any doubt that this is the most competitive division in the NHL at the moment? The West could have better teams at the top, but the worst team in the East could defeat the best team in the division on any given night. In the last article, I mentioned how this division was the toughest to predict in the preseason. Even after three weeks of play, it is difficult to confidently state which teams will be on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason.
After losing many key players to the Covid-19 list, Washington still managed to rattle off several key wins. The team is playing well under new coach Peter Laviolette, and they will be a tough out each and every night when they are full strength.
Boston has seemed to sort out its scoring issues, which may or may not be related to the return of star winger David Pastrnak. The team currently sits atop the East division with a very impressive 7-1-2 record in a division full of teams vying for a playoff spot.
Philadelphia could be the biggest surprise so far, as they have established themselves as one of the contenders in this stacked division. The team is full of veterans that can help steer the ship during a season that is sure to have many ups and downs.
Many ranked Buffalo as the team with the worst goaltending tandem in the NHL, and the concerns were certainly valid. However, Linus Ullmark has been terrific between the pipes for the Sabres, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.55 GAA. Unfortunately, the Sabres have seen their recent games get postponed. Rescheduled games for back-to-back nights would limit Ullmark’s starts, but as long as he gets the majority of the games in net, I think that Buffalo’s scoring talent can lead this team to a playoff spot in this ultra-competitive division.
MassMutual East Playoff Predictions:
Scotia North - Who will snag the 4th spot?
When I’m looking at the NHL schedule each night, more often than not I am most intrigued by games in the North division. I have never seen so many hockey games feature an over/under of 6.5, but it’s fitting that we at least get some scoring excitement in this strange NHL season.
Montreal has been one of the most impressive teams in the league with its ability to stifle the otherwise high-powered offenses in the North division. They have allowed three goals or less in their last seven games, though they did just hand Ottawa its second win of the season in a 3-2 game on Thursday. While the scoring in the division is exciting, Montreal’s defensive prowess and strong goaltending should be more than enough to keep them in contention.
Toronto had high expectations for the season, and they have looked the part thus far. While they do not have the same level of players on defense as Montreal, they have a goaltender in Frederik Andersen that can help keep the puck out of his own net in a division that features plenty of talented skaters. The Toronto power play leads the league with a remarkable 40% success rate. As long as they can put Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Wayne Simmonds over the boards with the man advantage, teams will have a difficult time slowing down this offensive attack.
Scotia North Playoff Predictions:
Toronto Maple Leafs