Weekend Takeaways: How many first-round playoff upsets will we see?


The league standings are increasingly dotted with X’s, the 100-point campaigns are piling up and it’s officially time to start contemplating how Prairies-level open the chase for the Stanley Cup is.

This past weekend saw four clubs — the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks — earn their 100th point of the season and seven teams now have the letter beside their name that signifies a locked-in playoff spot.

There may not be a ton of drama around who makes the playoffs — the West is basically settled, the East has one spot seriously up for grabs — but in terms of who finishes where, three of the four divisions have a gap of three or fewer points between first and second place. The fourth group — the Pacific — sees Vancouver six points ahead of Edmonton, but the Oilers hold two games in hand.

Every team that leads its division won this weekend. One of them — the Dallas Stars — has claimed seven straight contests. A second — the New York Rangers — has ripped off five straight.

And despite that, the team with the best points percentage in the month that just ended is the wild-card holding Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts beat the New York Islanders on Saturday to run their March record to 9-1-1 for an .864 points percentage. That means a division winner in the East is going to draw a cresting Tampa team in Rd. 1. And that, in turn, begs the question: How many of the 16 squads that make the big dance will have zero chance of winning a first-round series?

The third-place finisher in the Metropolitan Division is going to be severely outclassed in Rd. 1, as will the second Eastern Conference wild card club. Other than that, the West is going to send a Nashville team that’s been as good as anybody since the all-star break — though the Preds have taken it on the chin in their past two outings, including Saturday’s 7-4 loss to Colorado — and a Los Angeles Kings side that looks perfectly built for the playoffs on its good days in the wild card slots. Maybe you’re not picking those teams — or a struggling Winnipeg Jets squad that lost again, this time 3-2 to the Ottawa Senators — to win a best-of-seven, but it’s easy to see them giving their opponent all it can handle.

This is hockey; the concept of playoff upsets — especially in the first round — is as ingrained in the game as goals and saves. Just last year the final Eastern Conference qualifier went to the Cup final.

But nobody was picking the Florida Panthers against a 135-point Bruins squad. This year, at least half of the eight teams who will open the playoffs as underdogs appear to have a fighting chance in their first series.

And at the top, there’s certainly no big bad like that record-setting Boston outfit from 12 months ago. There are just eight teams that will begin the playoffs on home ice with legit aspirations of winning the Cup, except first they’ll have to get past, perhaps, the 2023 Cup champions from Vegas or a red-hot Tampa team with all that recent playoff pedigree or, yes, even a Toronto Maple Leafs team led by a peerless goal-scorer in Auston Matthews who just popped his 60th of the season on Saturday.

One of the salary cap’s functions is to make it seem like the Cup can always be a jump ball. It just feels like, this year more than usual, a bunch of hands are set to go soaring into the air with a real chance of pulling that thing down.

Other Takeaways

• The second half of the season is starting to feel like Alexis Lafreniere’s coming-out party. The top pick in the 2020 NHL draft had a monster game in the Rangers’ 8-5 clobbering of Arizona on Saturday, recording his first career hat trick while also adding a pair of apples for a five-point night. The 22-year-old now has seven goals in his past seven outings and 14 of his 25 goals this year have come since his last game before the all-star break. That’s a 44-goal pace for about a third of an NHL season.

• Speaking of second-half surges by young players, Wyatt Johnston — who was already playing fantastic hockey — is hitting a whole new level as an NHL sophomore. The 20-year-old went 1-1-2 in Dallas’ 3-0 whitewash of the Kraken in Seattle on Saturday and now has 19 goals and 36 points in his past 35 contests. Four players — winner Matty Beniers, Stuart Skinner, Owen Power and Matias Maccelli — finished ahead of Johnston in the Calder Trophy balloting last season, and I’m not sure you’d put a single guy from that list ahead of him at this moment.

Weekend Warrior

It may not have been a masterpiece, but Jonathan Quick made enough saves in his team’s 8-5 win over Arizona to collect his 392nd career win, the most by any Yankee tender in league history. The apex was obviously his Cup-winning years in L.A., but the way he’s proven he can still play this year as the backup to Igor Shesterkin, at age 38, is remarkable.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Edmonton Oilers (45-23-4) Watching Connor McDavid try to chase down the Art Ross has been crazy, but don’t sleep on Evan Bouchard potentially finishing as the top-scoring defenceman in the NHL. The 24-year-old led all D-men in points in March with 19, including two assists on Saturday as the Oil pasted Anaheim 6-1. Bouchard (76 points) is six points behind Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes (82) for the league scoring leader among blueliners.

2. Vancouver Canucks (46-20-8) In just his second game back since missing six weeks’ worth of action, Dakota Joshua notched a pair of goals in Vancouver’s 3-2 win over Anaheim on Sunday. The fifth-rounder from 10 years ago now has 15 tallies in 55 contests this year, which represents a 23-goal pace.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (42-22-9) Having notched No. 60 on Saturday, there’s still a chance Auston Matthews — with nine games to go — goes nuts and hits the 70-goal mark. Even our first 65-goal season since Alex Ovechkin more than 15 years ago in 2007-08 would be something special.

4. Winnipeg Jets (44-24-6) It’s time to be a little concerned, right? Saturday’s home-ice loss to Ottawa made it six straight L’s for the Jets, who are a .500 team (14-14-2) since late January.

5. Ottawa Senators (33-36-4) I’m sure there are some Sens fans who roll their eyes at a late-season surge as it has meant nothing in the past and only moves the team further away from any chance — however slim — of winning the draft lottery. That said, when you’ve got a goalie in Year 1 of a five-year contract who looked like an AHLer for much of the year, you’ll take the improved play from him under any circumstance. After Saturday’s win in Winnipeg — Ottawa’s fifth victory in a row — Joonas Korpisalo has a .912 save percentage and 6-1-0 record in his past seven outings.

6. Calgary Flames (34-34-5) Blake Coleman and MacKenzie Weegar both scored in Calgary’s 4-2 triumph over the Kings on Saturday, a result that ended Calgary’s five-game losing streak. One more goal for Coleman and he’ll have 30 for the first time, while Weegar — whose 18 goals trail Roman Josi and Cale Makar by one for the league lead among D-men —needs two more to register the first 20-goal showing of his career. The defenceman’s previous high was eight.

7. Montreal Canadiens (28-33-12) The young Canadiens — who fell 3-0 to Carolina on Saturday — are sure getting a series of good measuring sticks down the stretch. Montreal has had a tough schedule of late and it won’t get any easier the rest of the way. The Canadiens’ next four opponents are Florida, Tampa, Toronto and the Rangers. Eight of the Habs’ remaining nine contests are against playoff teams or clubs right on the bubble. And the lone out-of-it squad Montreal sees is the red-hot Sens.

The Week Ahead

• Monday brings a huge tilt in the Eastern Conference playoff race, as the Islanders are in Philly to battle the Flyers. Anything less than a 60-minute win for the Islanders is probably a death knell, even though they hold two games in hand on a Flyers squad now clinging to the final wild card spot in the East.

Jeff Skinner will play game No. 1,000 in a fine NHL career on Tuesday when the Sabres host the Caps. Of course, Skinner’s next NHL playoff game will be his first one, as the 31-year-old — between skating for Carolina and the Sabres — has yet to see post-season action. Of all the reasons to hope the Sabres can end a playoff drought that will hit 13 springs soon, getting this six-time 30-goal scorer a taste of meaningful hockey might be near the top of the list.

• The chase for the Art Ross and Hart trophies heats up Friday night in Edmonton when the Avalanche visit for a head-to-head between Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid.

• One night later, we get the final Battle of Alberta for the year in Calgary, while the forever rivals — Montreal and Toronto — will also clash for the last time this season in Quebec.

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