Washington Capitals fans have had a lot to celebrate this season. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
The dog days of the NHL schedule has exposed a gap between the haves and have-nots among the league’s 30 teams, with some clubs tearing it up – and others getting torn up.
Winning streaks and losing skids rule the day; here’s a look at some of the league’s hottest – and, yes, coldest – teams heading into the final one-third of the NHL’s regular season:
First, the good news regarding a couple of Canadian teams. (For the bad news regarding a couple of Canadian teams, scroll down to the last item.)
The Ottawa Senators host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night with a chance to set a franchise record of nine straight wins. Their current hot streak has propelled the Senators into fifth place in the Eastern Conference and given them some breathing room in the race for the post-season.
It’s much too early to hand the Sens the No. 5 seed, but if they can play .500 hockey the rest of the way, they’re in. Special kudos to backup goalie Brian Elliott, who has been in net for the past six victories while starter Pascal Leclaire recovers from a mid-January injury.
Out west, the Vancouver Canucks skate into Toronto on a six-game winning streak that has lifted them into first place in the Northwest Division. Good thing, too, since the upcoming Olympics have booted the Canucks from GM Place (oops, we mean Hockey Canada Place) for 44 days.
The Canucks embark on a 14-game road trip that includes seven games in the Eastern time zone and the only team they’ll face twice is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The good news is, Vancouver plays eight games against (current) non-playoff teams and only faces one division leader (Chicago) during the 13,000-mile odyssey.
Yes, there are a lot of things to like about the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals.
For starters, they’ve got more than a 20-point bulge in the race for the Southeast Division title; it’s plausible, in fact, that the Caps will be the only team in the Southeast to make the playoffs. (Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay are in the race, but eight teams are vying for the final three post-season spots and they were all within two points of each other. Stay tuned…)
The Caps have won nine consecutive games – outscoring opponents 45-19 during that span – and gone 12-1-0 in their past baker’s dozen contests. They’re scoring like crazy, with five or more goals in eight of their past 12 games and they’ve been held to fewer than three goals just twice in their past 19 contests. With 211 goals through 54 games, Washington had 29 more goals – about half-a-goal per game – than the second-highest scoring team (San Jose Sharks), and 38 more goals than the second-highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference (Pittsburgh Penguins).
In short, Alex Ovechkin’s team can score – and it’s not just Ovechkin who’s providing the offense. (Although, his 34 goals and 74 points in 46 games – he has missed eight games due to injury and suspension – sure helps.) Three other players – forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin and defenseman Mike Green – are on pace for 80-plus point seasons and no fewer than 10 Capitals players have a legitimate shot at recording 20 goals.
In fact, Washington is on pace for 321 goals this season, which would be (by far) the most by any NHL team since 1995-96, when Pittsburgh (365), Colorado (326) and Detroit (325) surpassed that total. Only two teams – the ’05-06 Ottawa Senators (314) and ’06-07 Buffalo Sabres (308) – have scored more than 300 goals since ’95-96.
The down side in DC? It’s no secret – the Caps’ defense and goaltending are suspect and those just happen to be the two areas that play a big part in playoff success.
Semyon Varlamov, last season’s surprise playoff hero (for a round or two, anyway), has suffered through an injury-plagued campaign and supposed starter Jose Theodore has been in and out of the lineup, too.
In fact, 21-year-old rookie Michal Neuvirth has been the default starter for the past few games and was being backed up by 20-year-old first-year pro Braden Holtby, who started the season in the ECHL. Theodore will be back between the pipes soon enough, but the Caps are likely hoping for a healthy return from Varlamov, who is 12-1-2 on the season and his goals-against average (2.21) and save percentage (.924) are significantly superior to Theodore’s numbers (2.85, .906).
Look for the Caps to be shopping for a bona fide stay-at-home defenseman – or two – and maybe even some netminding help between now and the March 3 NHL trade deadline.
ALBERTA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Things are ugly, ugly, ugly in Alberta right now.
A month ago, the Calgary Flames had aspirations for first place in the Northwest Division and the top-three seed in the Western Conference that comes with it. Now, they’re barely holding onto a playoff spot. That’s what happens when you hit a mid-season tailspin that reads 0-6-3 (and 1-8-3 in their past dozen outings).
And in Edmonton, of course, it’s much, much worse. The Oilers are – brace yourself – an horrific 1-18-2 in their past 21 games. (Over a full season, that translates to something like 4-72-6 – which makes the 1974-75 Washington Capitals look like world-beaters.)
Edmonton’s lone win since Dec. 11 was a 3-1 victory over Eastern Conference bottom-feeder Toronto. The Oilers are 0-10-2 in their past dozen games and have won just once in their past 16 home games. Edmonton lost 2-1 to visiting St. Louis on Thursday night, with the Blues scoring the game-winner early in the third period – on their only shot in the period. That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you can’t win for losin’.
The good news for hockey fans in Alberta?
The Flames and Oilers face off in Calgary on Saturday night. Surely, one of them will put out a long overdue victory. But don’t bet on it…
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.