The end of the regular season is quickly approaching and there is a lot going on in the NHL This week’s takes look into the Flames transformation, a classic fight, and a Wild Card Race.
1. The Flames Are Hot
Yesterday, the Calgary Flames clinched a playoff spot. It’s the first time they have made the playoffs since the 2016-17 season and the third time since the 2008-09 season in a league with more parity than ever. The Flames were not expected to be this good and have exceeded expectations the way most teams do. By having all of their best players have a career year at the same time. Of their top five leaders in points, all five have already surpassed their previous career high. This season’s point totals and their previous career highs are below.
• 2018-19 Point Total: 91
• Previous Career High: 84
• Difference: +7
• 2018-19 Point Total: 77
• Previous Career High: 45
• Difference: +32
• 2018-19 Point Total: 76
• Previous Career High: 64
• Difference: +12
• 2018-19 Point Total: 73
• Previous Career High: 49
• Difference: +24
• 2018-19 Point Total: 67
• Previous Career High: 56
• Difference: +11
The Flames are getting 86 more points than they would have if their top five players would have JUST matched their career best. Not to mention they still have ten games left to play. Lindholm and Tkachuk especially. Obviously, both are young, skilled forwards. I just don’t think everyone expected them to make this kind of jump so soon.
Tkachuk is a bit less surprising because he was a first-round pick who put up 48 points as a rookie. Most knew he would be good, just not this fast. Lindholm is another story. I wrote a bit about him earlier in the season. After underperforming significantly for five years in Carolina, the Hurricanes shipped him off to Calgary. He has blossomed into a star this year and has Carolina regretting not giving him chance. Without the evolution of Lindholm and Tkachuk, god knows how good the Flames would be this year.
2. Taro Hirose and the Incoming NCAA UFAs
As many NCAA conference tournaments are ending and the NCAA tournament soon beginning, many college stars will have played their last game as amateurs. For those old enough that went undrafted, they will be eligible to join NHL teams as UFAs. One of the more notable eligible players is Michigan State forward, Taro Hirose. After MSU lost to Notre Dame in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Hirose left school a year early to join the Detroit Red Wings. Hirose is the NCAA’s leader in points, with 50, and assists, with 35. He was also a participant in the Maple Leafs development camp last summer.
Being an MSU alum, I’ve had the chance to see Hirose play live four or five times over the last year. He is a dynamic playmaker who excels with the puck on his stick. I’m excited that he is joining my hometown Red Wings and I hope he can make an impact over the last 10 or so games this season. Over the last few years, there have been a few players that have left school and jumped right into the NHL playoff race. One of the most notable was Chris Kreider. Kreider joined the Rangers out of Boston College right as the 2012 playoffs were starting. He played 18 games during the playoffs, scoring 5 goals and 7 points. Two of his goals were game winners. He didn’t even plan in a regular season game.
Hirose won’t have the chance to have an impact on the playoffs in Detroit. That doesn’t mean your favorite team won’t have some help these playoffs from a guy about to play his last collegiate game.
3. Unloved Team: Las Vegas Golden Knights
I think it’s fair to say that the Golden Knights might be one of the most loved teams in the league. They were the league’s most compelling story last year as they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. It’s also not easy to hate a team that has only played less than two full seasons in the NHL.
If anything, the Golden Knights have proved that they were not a flash in the pan. They currently sit in third place in the Pacific division and will no doubt make the playoffs. They aren’t the force they were last year, as they sputtered out of the gate. They have proved that the guys they got out of the bargain bin last year are really solid NHL players.
The Knights have scored by committee this season. Six players on their roster have at least 14 goals and four have 40+ points. Alex Tuch has been a pleasant surprise as he leads the team in points with 48. 48 points is a low number to lead a playoff team, especially with the talent they have on their roster. The Knights are deep at forward with last year’s breakout stars Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also added a few names over the last nine months via free agency and trades. Most notably, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, and Mark Stone. Pacioretty and Stastny haven’t put up the point totals you would expect from the two veterans, but there is no doubt they will play a huge role come playoff time.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been their best player all season. Fleury has proven that he is still one of the best goaltenders in the league and is having arguable his best season. He is 35-10-0-5 with a 2.46 GAA, and a .914 sv%. He also has eight shutouts. He is forcing his doubters to eat their words after many ripped the organization for rewarding him with a new contract in the offseason.
My outlook on Vegas is that they have a real shot to do some damage in this year’s postseason. They have a ton of postseason experience and valuable veteran depth at forward. If Fleury gets hot down the stretch, they are the team I would not want to play come May.
4. Lucic vs. Gabriel Bout
I turned on the Oilers vs Devils game on Wednesday while I was making dinner. I wanted to watch Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play as I haven’t watched many of their games since they have been in the league. McDavid would notch his 99th and 100th point that night. The part of the game I remember most had nothing to do with either. It was the heavyweight bout between Edmonton’s Milan Lucic and New Jersey’s Kurtis Gabriel. Fights are quickly becoming scarce across the NHL landscape. Even if you do see a few punches thrown, the players are almost always immediately separated by the referees.
That wasn’t the case in this fight. This is the first fight I’ve seen live where the referees let the players drop the gloves and go at it. It was old-time hockey at its finest. I have mad respect for Gabriel because Lucic is probably the last guy I would want to go toe-to-toe with. Both players got a few good punches in but I would give the edge to Lucic. Gabriel definitely held his own and avoided the knockout blow.
I know that the league is trending towards cutting out fighting entirely. All I can hope for is that when a fight does break out, the officials let them go at it the way they did on Wednesday night. I know the fans definitely enjoyed it and I certainly did.
5. The Wild Card West
If you haven’t looked at the wild card race in the Western Conference, go do it right now. As of Sunday night, there are three times fighting for two spots. All are within four points of each other. The Dallas Stars hold the first spot with 80 points. Two points ahead of the surprising Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes are 7-2-1 in their last ten and stand one point ahead of the Minnesota Wild, who remain on the outside looking in. The Colorado Avalanche also have an outside shot to make it with 74 points.
The Coyotes and Avalanche both have 10 games left and the Wild have 9. That leaves the Wild at a disadvantage with one less game to make up ground. I looked at each team’s schedule to see how hard their last stretch of the season is. The Coyotes have four games left against teams that are currently sitting in playoff position. The Wild have eight and the Avalanche have seven. The Coyotes clearly have the edge based on their schedule.
Each of the three teams plays the other once more before the season ends. Those will be the most important matchups that will almost certainly decide who snags the last wild card spot. If any team can win both of those games, they will put themselves in a tremendous position to play Calgary in the first round of the playoffs. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.
Photo Credit: NHL