I’ve been pretty sick for most of the last week, so I feel a little out of the loop on recent events, but the thing that really sticks out to me right now is the fact that New Jersey might end up missing the playoffs after all. There was a time when the Devils were looking like a lock with them reaching a record of 22-9-5 at their height on Dec. 27. They’ve gone 15-18-3 since that date though. They currently sit in the second Wild Card seed with 82 points in 73 games, which puts the Florida Panthers in striking distance with their 81 points in 71 contests.
A big part of the Devils’ issue has been Cory Schneider. He did miss the end of January and all of February due to a groin injury, but even when he’s been healthy lately, he’s struggled. That Dec. 27 win was the last that Schneider was credited with. Since then he’s surrendered at least three goals in 11 straight games and owns a .868 save percentage over that span. The Devils have tried to compensate by giving Keith Kinkaid a bigger role and he has, for the most part, been a solid alternative. The Devils only have one more back-to-back set left on Friday and Saturday, so after that, if Schneider doesn’t bounce back, then the Devils could theoretically ride Kinkaid the rest of the way.
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If that’s what gives New Jersey the best chance of making the playoffs then I have to assume that they’ll lean heavily on Kinkaid. It’s weird to think though that the 32-year-old Schneider might be riding the bench down the stretch while his former teammate, the 38-year-old Roberto Luongo, is helping the Panthers to potentially replace New Jersey in that final Wild Card spot. Luongo missed a good chunk of the season due to injury and he hasn’t been perfect since returning, but he’s had some pretty solid showings and overall he’s 15-9-2 with a 2.53 GAA and .928 save percentage. Even in his late 30s, it looks like he might prove to be the difference in the fight for a playoff spot.
If the Devils lose this battle, it would also mean that Taylor Hall would have gone through eight NHL seasons without once getting a playoff berth. He’s done everything he can for New Jersey this season as he’s scored 32 goals and 78 points in 68 games. Unfortunately, the Devils’ offense outside of him has been fairly thin.
The silver lining for both teams is that they got a lot of promise, so even if one of them doesn’t make the playoffs this season, there’s a fair chance they’ll be there in 2019. The Devils have shown a solid rookie group this season between forwards Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman as well as defenseman Will Butcher. Hischier in particular has 16 goals and 46 points in 73 games and while that won’t put him in the running for the Calder Trophy, it’s a solid start to his career and in another year or two, he might be a second major offensive weapon for the Devils along with Hall.
Florida’s offensive core is further along in its development and has really shined this season as the 22-year-old Aleksander Barkov has 73 points in 70 games while Vincent Trocheck, 24, has 66 points and Jonathan Huberdeau, 24, has 64 points. That’s an amazing trio to build around for years to come and they have other great youngsters too such as the 21-year-old Aaron Ekblad.
There is also an outside chance that both teams make the playoffs. For that to happen, Columbus (87 points in 74 games) or Philadelphia (86 points in 74 games) would need to suffer something of a collapse. The Blue Jackets are riding a nine-game winning streak, so they look pretty healthy right now, but the Flyers have been anything but. Like the Devils, the easy finger to point when it comes to Philadelphia is at the goaltending.
The Flyers had the misfortunate of losing both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth to injury. They attempted to fill that void by acquiring Petr Mrazek, but he’s struggled lately by allowing at least three goals in eight of his last nine starts. At this point, the Flyers might start leaning on Alex Lyon despite his lack of NHL experience. At least the Mrazek deal was one of conditional picks, which minimized the risk of it to the Flyers to some extent. Given that it’s likely that the Flyers won’t be re-signing him, the Red Wings are likely to receive just a 2018 third-round pick in the trade. That would be a fourth-round pick if the Flyers miss the playoffs.
There’s still a fair amount of fighting going on in the Western Conference playoffs too. The St. Louis Blues have bounced back recently and have put themselves within striking distance of a playoff berth as they have 85 points in 73 games to the second Wild Card seed Kings’ 87 points in 74 games. The Dallas Stars are still in the running too with 84 points in 74 contests.
The Calgary Flames have faded out of the running though and now stand at 80 points in 75 contests. This has been such a great season for Johnny Gaudreau and a strong one out of Sean Monahan as well, but despite that they’ve been subpar offensively this season due to a lack of depth behind them and defensively they’ve been, at best, okay. Mike Smith has posted a 24-21-6 record, 2.66 GAA, and .916 save percentage in 53 games, which isn’t disastrous exactly, but it’s not good enough to make a difference on a team that’s struggling in other areas already.
As a quick aside, Auston Matthews is set to return from a shoulder injury tonight after being sidelined for a month. His absence probably didn’t really change the course of the Maple Leafs season because they’ve been pretty much stuck in the third seed in the Atlantic Division for a while now, but it has impacted their cap situation going forward. The Athletic did an interesting article on it and I don’t want to give too much of it away, but this likely has resulted in Matthews missing out on some bonus money. Again, I encourage you to read the article if you can and have interest because James Mirtle does go into quite a bit of detail.
At any rate, this is a good time for Matthews to return from the Maple Leafs’ perspective. It gives him a chance to get back into the swing of things before the playoffs start, which is when they really need him.