Right before the Olympic break, I rolled out division-by-division outlooks to supplement Mike Finewax’s great week ahead columns with views that looked at month(s) ahead. You absolutely should read Finewax’s latest edition of The Week Ahead and all of them going forward* - I cannot italicize it enough - but I thought I might roll out this gimmick one more time this season to take a slightly different view of the stretch run.
Please note that I might not necessarily cover the four divisions all in this week; big news can push these bits around, which is what happened last time. I thought I’d honor the Boston Bruins’ impressive nine-game winning streak by beginning with the Atlantic Division, which also jives with the alphabet.
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If you notice any panicked “Oh no, the Boston Bruins are fading at the end of the season!” columns in the next month, don’t be surprised. Their schedule isn’t very friendly going forward, with 10 of their final 14 games on the road.
Remarkably, all 10 of those remaining road games take place against teams who are fighting for a playoff spot or at least playoff seeding as of this writing; they face the desperate Devils in New Jersey twice, the climbing Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center and also face nervous teams like Phoenix, Detroit, Toronto and Winnipeg. Not many layups beyond an April 12 home game against Buffalo.
It's honestly kind of tough to pick a toughest stretch because it all seems like a tough stretch. At least they've been a pretty strong road team with an 18-10-3 away record and an impressive +20 goal differential in road contests.
With four back-to-back sets, Chad Johnson has a great chance to boost his already impressive 14 wins.
The Sabres have remarkably walked the "tanking with dignity" line pretty well, largely because of fantastic goaltending whether that guy was Ryan Miller, Jhonas Enroth or Michal Neuvirth. Like the Boston Bruins, 10 of their last 14 games come on the road, however, so things could get rather ugly there.
Special teams could be pretty ugly if their full season numbers forecast the future. They almost broke even when you could consider power-play goals for/allowed and shorthanded goals for/allowed at home, but it's not pretty away. They have 11 power-play goals for and 21 against along with allowing three shorties to one scored on the road. That means it might be wise to wave bye-bye to many Sabres from a PPP perspective, if you hadn't already.
Breaking down the toughest stretch is tough for Buffalo like it was for Boston, but it's a little different as they start off with a five-game road trip through Canada and mostly the West, but it's not high-level competition (Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal to throw an East team in there and then Nashville). The tougher run might be afterward, then, with road-heavy contests against playoff teams and bubble contenders until a serious shoulder shrug of a season-closer against the Islanders on April 13.
Just stay away from the vast majority of these players, but the Dose will at least keep an open mind to guys who are carrying the mail.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Just talking about Detroit’s stretch run makes me a little nervous, and I was never a Red Wings fan (although those red home sweaters are choice).
Unlike the previous two teams, the Red Wings actually have one more at home (eight) than on the road (seven). Of course, with a bewildering 13-11-9 record in Detroit this season, one could at least argue that isn't such a good thing.
For the sake of sanity, let's say home games are a relatively good thing. They play a huge home contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight and three of their next four (including a home-and-home back-to-back set with Minnesota [pro wrestler voice] in what will surely be a ruthless grudge match between Hockeytown and The State of Hockey [/ends pro wrestler voice]). Overall, mid-March to early April is Detroit's big chance, with seven of 10 at Joe Louis Arena. They then end the season with three of five games on the road.
Quality of opponent could be an interesting factor; they face the Buffalo Sabres twice and might luck out against Carolina on April 11 (they might be so far buried as to not care?) and then St. Louis on April 13 (they might be in rest everyone mode). Although it's tough to imagine the Blues take it easy on the Red Wings …
Gustav Nyquist is quite talented and is getting nice ice time and generating solid numbers, so he’s a solid Red Wings choice. I think guys like Alex Burrows from Monday’s list are more appealing, though, to be honest.
The Florida Panthers - at least out of tanking context - are an awfully odd duck because things really open up for this young team after this week. And boy, this week is brutal.
Beginning tonight against the San Jose Sharks, the Panthers go on a four-game road trip against brutal Pacific Division teams San Jose (Tuesday), Phoenix (Thursday), Los Angeles (Saturday) and Anaheim (Sunday). While the Coyotes fight for their playoff lives, those other teams have plenty to gain from a seeding perspective (especially San Jose and Anaheim).
Florida could be kind-of-sort-of interesting after Sunday, however. Eight of their last 10 games are at home, including their final five contests. They don't have a lot of firepower, yet Roberto Luongo and some interesting young players like Jimmy Hayes seem insistent on making them pesky.
If you’re intrigued by a Panthers player, wait until owners drop them next Monday. Especially if it’s Luongo … he’s likely to have good and bad nights thanks to the team in front of him, but who knows?
The Habs play six more games at home and seven on the road.
Only three remaining opponents are out of the picture by my count: Buffalo, Florida and the Islanders. The March 22 - April 4 stretch is difficult and crucial, with six out of seven on the road, including four away games in a row. Aside from games against Florida in Buffalo that span, they're all big-to-huge games against teams like Toronto, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Ottawa.
That high level of competition could be a great chance for the Canadiens and Carey Price to tune things up. The not-so-bright side is that it could also force the team to slip to the wild card level or worse.
To put things mildly, things haven’t been going well for the Ottawa Senators lately. The odds are certainly against them, but at least their schedule is fairly hospitable, with nine of their final 15 at home. (The Sens are only 13-13-6 in Ottawa, but still.)
They have plenty of big games against teams jockeying for position (Ranger twice, Lightning twice, etc.), which means they can earn some important regulation wins.
The Senators play five in a row at home and seven of nine in Ottawa from March 8 - April 12 and then close their schedule with what they might hope is a meaningless game for the Penguins. If they can stay in the picture, they might have a shot ... albeit an outside one.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
With the Tampa Bay Lightning's six-game homestand over, you can basically separate the tough times for Tampa Bay and the good ones into monthly sections.
First, the rough ending to March: Five of seven remaining March games are on the road, with key games against Toronto, Ottawa (twice) and Detroit.
After that, a huge opportunity in April: six straight home contests (including against Montreal and Toronto) before a season-closer against the Capitals in DC that could carry huge implications.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
All things considered, the Maple Leafs have handled themselves well in the first four games of a five-game road trip, and they'll close it out in the biggest way with tonight's game against the Red Wings in Detroit.
After that, the Maple Leafs get a chance to cement that playoff spot, with seven of nine at home from March 19 - April 5. We'll see how important a season closing-trio of road games (including Tampa Bay and Ottawa) end up being.
The Maple Leafs are 22-11-1 at home and 14-14-7 on the road, so you might argue that they need to take care of business during that heavy stretch of home games.
* - Actually, you should read every Rotoworld NHL column, but I don’t want to go into full-scold mode here.