Every season the NHL features thrilling races down the stretch, but this spring the best race is looking like the Metropolitan Division. The New York Islanders have owned first place in the division for most of the season, but they've started to fade recently while the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins have surged.
The Islanders still are in first place, but I think the Rangers will end the season there. The rivals will play Tuesday (7 pm ET, NHLN-US, SN1, TVA Sports) in a game that will have massive implications. By the time it's done the Rangers could be sitting in first place.
The one thing the Rangers have to be wary of as they navigate the race is just how tight their schedule is. The Rangers have three games in hand on the Islanders -- a number that will grow to four after the Islanders play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday -- but will play their final 18 games in a 33-day span.
That is a grueling pace to keep up, and it will change the tenor of the race significantly. Not because the Rangers might get worn out, but because coach Alain Vigneault might decide it's more important to be playing well and be rested for the Stanley Cup Playoffs than it is to win the division. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see important older players getting the occasional night off. Dan Boyle or Martin St. Louis might be given a rest here or there, and even some of the younger players could get a night off to have a mental break. You want to be in the best position you can be once the playoffs begin, but sometimes that means playing the right way rather than playing for the high seed.
Over the next month the Metropolitan race will show us which the Rangers value most.
YA GOTTA HAVE HART
We talk about awards and honors all season long, and the Jack Adams Award always is a subject of debate. I've been talking most of this season about how the Nashville Predators' Peter Laviolette, Barry Trotz of the Washington Capitals or Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks look like the frontrunners this season, but over the last month I have really changed my mind. If you watch the Calgary Flames and see where they are in the standings, to me it seems obvious that Bob Hartley is the coach of the year.
We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop with this team all season long and it just hasn't happened. Then it looked like the last nail would come in the coffin at the end of last month. Calgary lost its captain and arguably its best defenseman in Mark Giordano for the rest of the season two games into a crucial seven-game road trip. How did the Flames respond? The went 3-1-1 during the rest of the trip and picked up wins on back-to-back nights against the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
Hartley has kept this team competitive and done it without any offensive superstars. Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau have played great. Sean Monahan has proven he's no fluke. But none of them are household names yet. This team still continues to compete, though. Everyone contributes offensively and defensively, and that's just a tribute to Bob. He has this team prepared and playing well. That's the sign of tremendous coaching.
COOL HAND LUC
Luc Robitaille became the most recent former NHL player to be immortalized in a statue when the Los Angeles Kings honored him this past weekend outside Staples Center. No one reading this needs to be told how great of a player Luc was, but as someone who coached him, I can say firsthand that while the honor is unbelievable, Robitaille is among the few deserving of it.
Luc was drafted by the Kings, spent most of his career there and finished his career there. Then moved to the front office and helped build the Kings into one of the finest organizations in the League. It's pretty amazing to have the kind of Hockey Hall of Fame playing career Robitaille had and then follow it up with two Stanley Cup championships in the front office. It's even more remarkable to do all of that with one team. That statue is a testament to what Luc means not just as a great player but to the L.A. Kings organization.
I also can say that Robitaille was a great player to coach. He loved to compete and to practice. He loved being with the guys in the dressing room and had a great sense of humor. And perhaps most importantly he wanted to be on the ice all the time. If you looked down your bench when you were coaching, you always had Luc looking back at you. Coaches love that. You love a guy who wants to be out there every shift. Obviously Luc couldn't play every shift; no left wing can. But he made the ones he played count better than almost anyone else who's played the position.