Well, here we are: the last two games of the 2021 regular season for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they host the Buffalo Sabres. The Penguins have the third-best home record in the League, while the Sabres have the third-worst road record, not to mention the worst record overall. There hasn’t been a whole lot of hope for Buffalo lately, or for the last couple of decades for that matter, but matters continue to devolve for the Sabres as the end of the season approaches. Not only are they without skaters Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Jake McCabe, and Zemgus Girgensons, but they are also scraping the bottom of the barrel for goaltenders, with Linus Ullmark, Dustin Tokarski, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (yeah I had to go back and forth to spell that one out) all out of the lineup as well. The only bright spot then is the successful two games Michael Houser has put in, winning back-to-back(!) games against the New York Islanders, 4-2 on Monday and 4-3 in a shootout on Tuesday. With Luukkonen and Tokarski day-to-day, at the time of this writing it is unknown who will start for Buffalo. I say let Houser keep going. What’s the worst that can happen for the Sabres at this point?
Seeing how this game doesn’t matter for a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, I thought I would just free-wheel it with some news, notes, thoughts, and whatever else as we close in on the final games of the season.
Most pertinent of course is what’s going on in the East Division, but even then the East is the only of the four division which has already resolved which teams are headed to the playoffs (in descending order by current ranking): Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins, and the New York Islanders. With Washington playing the New York Rangers last night, they join the Islanders with having three games left on their schedule, while the Bruins have four and the Penguins have these two against Buffalo. The Islanders have really hit the skids of late, winning just five of their last thirteen games including those last two against the Sabres. Starting tonight they have two games against the New Jersey Devils, against whom they have only lost once this season, then finally they end the season on Monday in Boston, against whom they have lost only twice. So in terms of seeding for the playoffs, there’s still a lot to sort out in these last five days on the schedule, but for certain Pittsburgh has the least control over their destiny whereas Boston has the most.
The fallout from the Tom Wilson incident against the Rangers on Monday continues to radiate. On Tuesday, after the NHL fined the Capitals forward a measly $5,000 for beating up defenseless Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich (and a whopping no punishment for injuring Artemi Panarin in the same post-whistle sequence), the Rangers incredibly put out a statement on Twitter admonishing the League and specifically Department of Player Safety head George Parros for not handing down stiffer penalties on Wilson. Behind the scenes though the Rangers’ front office was imploding, as president John Davidson and assistant general manager Jeff Gorton made it privately known that they were not in support of the statement. Despite their efforts to quietly distance themselves from the statement, word quickly flew up the ladder straight to owner James Dolan, who canned the duo yesterday afternoon, ostensibly due to the team’s underperformance.
The big picture here, as always, is that if the League would get their heads out of their asses and made their on-and-off-ice officials more accountable for their terrible decisions, things like this wouldn’t happen. Although this is a pretty incredible circumstance, the fact that Wilson did not receive a more severe punishment for either of his two acts of belligerence is pretty incredible in and of itself. And yet, again, the referees and the Department of Player Safety once again showed their asses and I wouldn’t be surprised if something more severe happened last night in the last game of the Capitals-Rangers season series. But the fact of the matter is that there is no consistency, and there is no accountability, and this has been going on for so long that when things happen like with the Tim Peel incident earlier this season or with this whole blowup, the mainstream media acts like it is revelatory but anyone who has been paying attention knows that this is part of the price of watching and following hockey. It shouldn’t be, but it is for now and unless the rest of the League’s owners want to finally move on from Gary Bettman or Colin Campbell it will be for the foreseeable future.
In the Central Division things are also shaping up with three teams having clinched playoff berths – the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers, and the Tampa Bay Lightning – with the fourth spot being battled for by the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars. As of this writing Nashville is four points ahead of Dallas but Dallas has an additional game in hand; still, Dallas’ chances of knocking the Predators out of fourth place are very low. Once again I want to say that the Hurricanes are due for a breakout, and if they can avoid the Lightning altogether it would probably work out for them. I don’t know about you, but I feel like the Hockey Gods might have other thoughts for Tampa Bay, having held out their already-recuperated and 100% healthy Nikita Kucherov all this time to reap the benefits of the long-term injured reserve as relates to salary cap.
More amusingly though is the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in last place, even behind the Detroit Red Wings. The last time the Blue Jackets ended a season in last place was in 2015-16, the same year John Tortorella took over for Todd Richards as head coach. Torts had led Columbus to four straight postseason appearances, the longest streak in franchise history, but there has been a ton of tumult in the locker room and I would be really surprised if Tortorella’s tenure continued past next week, let alone into next season.
The battle for first place in the West Division is still being waged, with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Minnesota Wild all having clinched playoff spots and separating themselves quite a bit from the rest of the division. Lagging fifteen points behind the third-place Wild are the St. Louis Blues, who are five points ahead of and have two games in hand against the Arizona Coyotes, so the odds are in St. Louis’ favor. Minnesota actually have a decent head of steam coming into the playoffs, so maybe they’ll do better than their typical first round exit. That would potentially disrupt the Colorado-Pittsburgh Cup Finals of which we have all been dreaming, however, but I guess it would be okay for the Penguins to beat a team from Minnesota again!
Finally the North (i.e. Canada) Division is actually still thirteen days away from completing its schedule, although the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are the only teams playing May 16-19 as they play their last three COVID-adjusted games, and neither of those two teams have much of a chance at making the playoffs. So it’s going to very likely be the Toronto Maple Leafs in first, the Edmonton Oilers in second, and the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens are tied for third as of this writing. It must be nice for Canada knowing that they’ll be guaranteed a spot in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, but if it’s either the Jets or the Canadiens I don’t see much hope for Canada to win its first Cup since Montreal in 1994. Connor McDavid is playing at an unreal pace, right now 1.82 points/game which is the most for the League leader in points since Mario Lemieux in the 1995-96 season (when #66 scored 2.3 points per game including a disgustingly ho-hum 69 goals AND HE ONLY PLAYED IN 70 GAMES). No one in Canada seems to know how to stop him but is he (and to a lesser extent lineman Leon Draisatl) ever having to carry the Oilers into the postseason. So my money is on Toronto, but it’s not a lot of money.
The playoffs can’t start soon enough. Let’s get this over with already!