The X factors of the NHL season’s final weeks

The 2019 NHL playoffs are under a month away, and the races are heating up. Who will be the biggest X factor for their team in the stretch run? Who will just make the postseason, and who is headed home? Which teams will be on upset watch in Round 1? Our team dives into all of the biggest questions for the final weeks of the NHL season.

X factors | Playoff race calls
Upset watch | What to watch

Who will be the most important player for the final month of the season?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Rick Tocchet is getting Jack Adams buzz for coaching an injury-plagued Arizona Coyotes team to the wild card bundle, and you can tell he’s a true Coach of the Year candidate because it’s a goalie who’s actually propping up the team. Darcy Kuemper has been really outstanding since taking the crease in December. In his last 18 appearances, he’s 12-5-1 with a .927 save percentage. Kuemper has a 14.69 goals-saved above average this season and is in the top 10 for goalies in point shares (the number of standings points contributed by a player, 9.2).

He’s been the Coyote’s MVP, and will have to continue to be for Arizona to make the playoff cut. It’s pretty incredible to think that the Coyotes acquired him last deadline for Tobias Rieder, who is currently with the Edmonton Oilers and doesn’t have a goal in 56 games this season.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Sidney Crosby. He’s been doing it for so long that we almost take his greatness for granted at this point, but Crosby is currently putting the finishing touches on a vintage individual season. No player has more primary five-on-five points than his 46 this season, which speaks to the nearly unparalleled direct impact he’s had on his team’s offensive output.

The Pittsburgh Penguins‘ play with him on the ice versus when he’s on the bench has been night and day this season. In the roughly 1,050 five-on-five minutes he’s played, their up 75-35 on the scoreboard. In the 2,370 minutes he hasn’t been out there, they’re down 87-100. Whether it’s been Dominik Simon, or Bryan Rust, or most recently Jared McCann, whoever has gotten to play on his wing has their production skyrocket to whole new heights.

Crosby himself has really ratcheted his game up a level of late, registering 10 goals and 19 assists over his past 16 games played. The Penguins have unsurprisingly gone 10-3-3 during that time, going from the edge of the playoff bubble to having a realistic chance at winning the Metropolitan Division. If he can keep this up and carry the team up the standings, he’ll be well deserving of some late season MVP buzz.

Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: He’s saying all the right things after ugly losses to the Lightning and Blackhawks, but now Auston Matthews must lead his club by example. The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ best player needs to perform as such, at both ends of the ice, and score with greater regularity.

Sitting four points back of the Bruins, themselves losers of three-straight, Toronto has failed to take advantage in the fight for home ice. That has to change. Bet your bottom Canadian dollar, once Matthews erupts for a multi-point night (the goal and assist after falling behind 5-0 early to Chicago Wednesday doesn’t count), the rest of the Leafs’ lineup will follow. While having a healthy Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott back on the blue line is essential for this club is to have any chance against Boston, the cream of Toronto’s forward crop must play to their peak before then. And that starts with No. 34.

Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: You could name just about any goalie here: Jordan Binnington, Petr Mrazek, Ben Bishop, Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price and so on. But moving outside the crease, I think Carolina’s Sebastian Aho ends up being the most important skater down the stretch. The winger currently leads his team with 30 goals and 77 points while skating 20 minutes per night. According to Natural Stat Trick, Aho is third on the team in relative Corsi at plus-8.7, and the team scores 2.4 more goals per 60 minutes when he is skating (highest on the Canes).

The Hurricanes sit in a playoff berth by two points, not only trying to hold off a pair of challengers for the wild-card spots but also trying to catch the Penguins in the third Metropolitan seat. It’s a very tight race, and with the Canes’ offense running through Aho, they will need him at his best for the final month.

Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: In the past month, captain Joe Pavelski has led the San Jose Sharks in goals and points while they are locked into a razor thin race with the Flames for top seed. Earlier in the week, he scored a game-winner against the Jets with 4.3 seconds left, and he’s on the doorstep of scoring 40 goals for the first time since 2014. The Sharks have the best record in the West at home, and the race for the top seed is critical to their chances of making the Cup Final. With the Sharks dealing with injuries, they’ll need Pavelski to play a critical role with games coming up against Nashville and Vegas.

Make a bold make or miss call on a playoff team.

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Montreal Canadiens make the playoffs. This really isn’t what anybody outside of Montreal wants, given that the playoffs are a much more interesting place with the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Penguins in them, but Montreal just keeps chugging along. And check the schedule: The Habs have four-point-swing games against the Hurricanes and Jackets, and their last three games (Tampa, Washington and Toronto) could see those teams resting key players down the stretch. I would be happy to be wrong here, but I think there’s a better chance that Montreal stays steady than either the Hurricanes or the Blue Jackets don’t flake down the stretch.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: The Colorado Avalanche make the playoffs. It’s not necessarily that bold considering they’re only five points out of a playoff spot at the moment, but this time of year it’s immensely difficult to make up any sort of real ground considering how loser points are being handed out like candy on a nightly basis. They’ll also need to leapfrog a pair of teams to do so.

The good news for the Avalanche is that they have a direct say in their own destiny, because they still have meetings against the Wild, Stars and Coyotes ahead of them on the schedule. They also have juicy matchups against bottom-feeders like the Ducks, Devils and Blackhawks, all of whom they should feast on. They’re certainly facing an uphill battle without Gabriel Landeskog in the lineup, but their goaltending appears to have rebounded from their midseason malaise. After completely falling off the face of the Earth in the months of December and January, their goalies have bounced back to the top 10 of both five-on-five and all situations save percentage since the start of February. The Avs need that to continue if they’re going to make a spirited run down the stretch.

Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: The Chicago Blackhawks make the playoffs. And not only because Patrick Kane is producing at a ridiculous pace. The entire lineup is clearly buying what newbie coach Jeremy Colliton is peddling. Together, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad are enjoying solid rebound campaigns, and fans of our fantasy content will be familiar with my affection for the underrated young forward duo of Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome. Finally healthy, goalie Corey Crawford — and this I did not anticipate at all — is looking like his old self. Winning games against both stronger and weaker sides, these experienced Blackhawks have a perceptible edge on the Coyotes and Landeskog-less Avalanche. I predict they vault the Wild as well.

Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: The Arizona Coyotes make the playoffs. Yes, they currently have a three-point lead over the Wild in the Western’s final wild-card seat, and have a five-point advantage over the Avalanche. Not that bold on the surface. But consider this: They currently do not roster a player with 20 or more goals (Brad Richardson leads the team with 16). Their leading point-getter (Clayton Keller, 45) is tied for 99th in the NHL. Only eight regulars have a positive plus-minus. And the No. 1 goaltender at the start of the season, Antti Raanta, hasn’t played since November. But none of it matters.

The Coyotes have won 13 of their last 17 riding Kuemper (.930 save percentage following the All-Star break), Vinnie Hinostroza and Alex Galchenyuk. It’d be their first playoff berth since 2012, when Ray Whitney and Shane Doan helped them all the way to the conference finals. Nothing is going to slow this team’s momentum.

Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: The Minnesota Wild miss the playoffs. They are currently on the outside looking in, and I can’t see them climbing back in with a difficult strength of schedule remaining compared to the Stars and Blues. Should the Wild miss, it would end the longest active playoff streak in the Western Conference, as they’ve made it six years in a row. In fact, the Wild have 10 games remaining against teams currently in the playoffs, a brutal stretch that includes two against the Stars who are three points ahead of them.

How about some bold first-round upset predictions?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Dallas Stars over the Nashville Predators. If you want to take stock of the regular-season series, the Stars were 2-1-2 against the Predators. But give me Bishop, a money postseason goalie who’s been waiting four years for another playoff shot, over either of the Predators’ netminders in a series. Give me a Stars team ready to get a jolt from a rested and healthy Mats Zuccarello. And don’t give me a Nashville team that has looked disjointed for most of the season. We thought it was the injuries. Maybe it isn’t.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I’ll go with the Carolina Hurricanes taking down the New York Islanders in the opening round. It feels like a bit of a cop out because the Islanders are such an easy target and aren’t even sitting in a position to make this matchup happen right now, but whoever finishes the year winning the Metro feels like ripe for an upset by the first wild-card. Regardless of whether it’s the Capitals, Islanders or Penguins, there are some legitimate flaws that can be exposed in a playoff series. And whether it’s the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets or even the Canadiens, they each have enough going for them to conceivably take advantage of those opportunities.

That entire side of the playoff bracket is about as wide open as you’ll see. I’m going with this particular combination just because it would represent a big win for nerds everywhere, with the first-ranked shot-share team and analytical darling beating the higher-seeded but 22nd-ranked shot-share team.

Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: The Carolina Hurricanes over the Washington Capitals. The young up-and-coming team that’s earned points in 16 of its last 20 contests knocks off Alex Ovechkin and the defending champions. No wild-card team is taking down the Lightning, and the Jets, Predators, Sharks and Flames probably all have at least one series win in them.

That leaves the Metropolitan Division, where the Caps currently lead the Islanders by a pair of points (and I agree with Dimitri that the Isles would also be a big target here). Washington ought to hold off New York, but if Mrazek gets hot heading into the playoffs, and Aho, Teuvo Teravainen & Co. continue to find ways to score, the Hurricanes will be a pest in late April.

Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: The Arizona Coyotes over the Winnipeg Jets would be a wild turn of fate, but I’m a sucker for hot goalies in the playoffs. The Jets have struggled with consistency issues and bad luck, going 4-7-1 in the past month. Connor Hellebuyck has had a lousy .894 save percentage in that span. Of course there’s time to right the course, but they could be staring at a dangerous matchup. The Coyotes have shocked the NHL with their run into the playoff picture, and as Greg points out above, Kuemper’s been the hottest thing in the desert over the past month. Oh, and there’s reports that Antti Raanta could be back in the net for the Yotes come playoff time if Kuemper does start to run cold. I could see this going six or seven.

What is one thing to watch over the next month?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Carolina on home ice. The Hurricanes have the most favorable home/road split in the Eastern Conference down the stretch, with eight of their remaining 13 games at PNC Arena. Among those games: Winnable contests against the Sabres, Flyers and Wild; critical ones against Montreal and Pittsburgh; tough ones against Washington and Tampa Bay; and a bye against the Devils.

They’ve been a better defensive team on home ice (2.66 GAA) than on the road (2.80), and slightly better offensively as well, despite a 15.5 percent conversion rate on the power play at home. It’s entirely possible that their playoff seed will be won or lost based on how they feast on these home games. One hopes the fans recognize this and fill the building to cheer on this Bunch of Jerks.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I’ve already written about this at greater length, but the battle between the Sharks and Flames for not only Pacific Division supremacy but also the No. 1 seed out West is what I’ll be watching. There’s currently only one measly point separating the two, and it’ll all likely come down to the meeting of epic proportions that they have scheduled in San Jose on March 31st. While both teams have already punched their ticket to the postseason regardless of the outcome, the difference between the two possible scenarios should be enough to inspire some added urgency.

Coming out atop the division promises not only a significantly easier matchup in Round 1, but also guarantees home-ice advantage in a potential Round 2 meeting. Considering that it could very plausibly be the difference between a disappointing first-round exit and a Western Conference final appearance, it’s a race that warrants our undivided attention.

Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: John Tortorella’s handling of the Blue Jackets. With Columbus, Montreal and Carolina in a heated battle for the pair of wild-card spots in the East, it’s going to get tense. For the average hockey fan, it sets the stage for terrific theater with Tortorella as a leading cast member. How does he get more out of ex-Senators Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel? How does he manage Bobrovsky’s workload and confidence? How does he handle questions from the press?

There isn’t a coach in the playoff mix under more pressure than the Jackets’ bench boss, after the organization opted to go all-in ahead of the trade deadline. And this charge could go right down to the wire. Can’t wait.

Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: Pacific Division starting goalies. The Sharks might be leading the Pacific at the moment with 94 points, but their goaltending duo has been awful. Both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have save percentages south of .900, and the Sharks’ five-on-five save percentage is dead last in the NHL. San Jose missed a big opportunity at the trade deadline to pad its crease with someone like Jimmy Howard, and it could end up costing the team dearly. The Sharks are currently giving up more than three goals per night.

Then you have the Flames, who have relied on David Rittich and a fading Mike Smith this season. Rittich has a .882 save percentage and 3.35 goals-against average since the All-Star break, cooling significantly from his hot start. According to Natural Stat Trick, his goals saved above average is just 0.02, 32nd in the NHL among goalies with at least 10 games played. Can he really hold down the fort through the playoffs? Both of these teams are just too good to let down because of mediocre-to-bad goaltending, and Dimitri already pointed out just how important this stretch run is for this pair of clubs, so I’ll be watching whether one of these guys can get hot in the closing weeks. You don’t want to head into the first round still trying to get right in the crease.

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