A Wild NHL Season Inches Closer to the Stanley Cup Playoffs
From the huge COVID outbreak, to some of the highest-scoring games in NHL history, and all the way into teams having to call up tons of AHL players, this season has had it all. And now that some of those events are in the past, many questions arise as the NHL approaches the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Did the Colorado Avalanche peak too early? Is the Rangers’ defense enough to give them a shot at the cup? Is new head coach Martin St. Louis the long-term answer for the Montreal Canadiens? There are so many unanswered questions and so much to look at throughout this unpredictable season in the NHL.
This year seemingly began on the wrong foot, when they were forced to shut down due to the massive COVID outbreak throughout the league. They were shut down from December 22nd until December 26th and resumed play on December 27th. While this does not seem all that long, several games were postponed prior to the lockdown, ultimately extending the break that was already set. While this helped jumpstart the season again and got everything up and running, there were still several COVID cases amongst players and staff members.
Now with the huge surge in COVID cases in the NHL, and the league commissioner not wanting to go into a lockdown for too long, there was seemingly one solution. If one player tested positive for COVID, the next man up would play. Teams were calling up AHL players to come to play and multiple young professionals made their debut and were given an opportunity to prove themselves. There were more AHL transactions amongst teams this year than in any year in recent history.
Once fans and players were able to become and stay healthy, the season came back in a dramatic fashion. One of the headlines was the Colorado Avalanche began what would turn out to be an 18-game home winning streak. They seemed unbeatable on their worst day and when they played on their home ice, teams shouldn’t have even bothered to show up. They took the NHL by storm and emerged to first place in the entire league. But right before the league went into their all-star break, a team known for being one of the worst, put an end to the fifth-longest home winning streak in NHL history. The Arizona Coyotes traveled to Colorado and won a battle between the teams in a shootout. Since this specific moment, the Avalanche has begun to regress slowly. While they continue to dominate, they aren’t the powerhouse they were before the beginning of February. They look beatable now and lose games in which they are heavily favored. They are considered the most individually talented team in the NHL by many, but they have minimal time to put it all together before the losses turn into a road trip home until next season.
After looking at the top of the league, it only makes sense to look at the bottom as well. However, the bottom team has been hot. The Montreal Canadiens are 7-4 since the hiring of their new head coach Martin St. Louis which doesn’t seem all that good, but it is a drastically significant improvement from what they had going on before he stepped in. Since he has acquired the job as the interim head coach, they have beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues who are ranked fifth and 10th in the league. This comes as a surprise to many, but others expected this out of a streaky team that has potential. They pull out miracle wins when they’re least expected and keep themselves in games. It just seems like they needed a new leader in the locker room for them to put it all together.
While every dog can have their day in hockey, certain teams have seemingly just had their days more than others. Another team at the bottom of the standings is the Arizona Coyotes. Since the all-star break, they have scored a whopping 41 goals in 11 games including eight goals and nine goals in their two most recent games. They have begun to get their offense going and have proven that they can contend with top teams, as they have beat the Avalanche twice this year and edged off multiple top teams in the NHL.
The top has been on the decline, the bottom has been on the come up, so what about the middle of the pack? They have just stayed the same the entire season. The top teams started extremely hot and have slowly regressed while the middle of the pack teams have just played good hockey up to this point, but not enough to be considered a top team. Teams like the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Tampa Bay Lightning have all been quietly good in their own ways this season. With this being said, they haven’t been able to maintain a level of consistency to be considered one of the higher tier teams. Regardless, they have all earned their respect and pushed to earn their shot at holding the Stanley Cup high above their heads.
With the playoffs being right around the corner, nothing is guaranteed. Most teams are still fighting for a chance, while others are already looking ahead to how they can be better next season. For the teams that make the playoffs, it will all come down to how consistent they are throughout their playoff run. No team has been consistent since the beginning of the season and whichever team can come in on a nightly basis and play their best hockey, will be bringing a nice parade to their city come May.