As the hockey calendar turns to Go Time for making the NHL postseason, some teams are hot and others decidedly not.
Let's drop the puck for the first Weekly Warmup of March:
That whole "Stanley Cup hangover" concept in which the defending champ gets a slow start and/or maybe the team is mildly complacent with hardware in the house? Not case in St. Louis. The Blues famously did the slow-start-last-place-to-Cup-Champ thing last season; they were not looking to repeat the feat. Going into this week's games, St. Louis is on a seven-game winning streak with the best record in the Western Conference. All terrific, with one caveat. Colorado is on a six-game winning streak and sit just three standings points behind St. Louis with two less games played that could close the gap or even catapult the Avalanche to first place in the Central division and top seed in the West. Both teams are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Colorado's next two games are at Detroit Monday and home Wednesday vs. Anaheim. Both opponents will not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. St. Louis is at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night to face the New York Rangers.
State of Pennsylvania (Teams)
Philadelphia is the hottest team in the Eastern Confernce with a six-game winning streak and 8-2-0 record in its last 10 games while their ntra-state and division rival Pittsburgh is on the opposite end with a six-game losing streak. The hockey math Philly is: now in second place in the Atlantic division behind Washington, while the Penguins have dipped to third. If the playoffs started today (a scenario NHL Seattle fans will play regularly in future seasons), the Flyers would host Pittsburgh in the first-round best-of-seven series. Pittsburgh hosts Ottawa Tuesday; Philly travels to D.C. Wednesday.
The 2019-20 NHL season started with seven new head coaches. Eight coaches have been since the first puck in October, six in the Western Conference alone. Of the seven newcomers at the start of season, three are thick in the playoffs hunt: Alain Vigneault of the aforementioned Philadelphia Flyers, ex-NHL senior adviser Dave Tippett leading the Edmonton Oilers and Joel Quenneville elevating the Florida Panthers. None of this trio is a lock for the postseason in highly competitive division and wild-card races. The other four took on squads in a rebuild mode, thought Buffalo Sabres fans might argue Ralph Krueger might have a playoff-possible team. D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles) and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) are all strategizing for 2020-21 and beyond.
Among the eight coaching changes made during the season, the highest marks go to Vegas (hiring Petar DeBoer) and Dallas (promoting Rick Bowness). Vegas is 8-2-0 in its last 10 games and Dallas continues to hang with division rivals St. Louis and Colorado. The grades are incomplete on Calgary (Geoff Ward and the Flames are third in the Pacific division but close missing the playoffs than first place), Nashville (John Hynes has his group sitting in a wild-card position) and Toronto (Sheldon Keefe's squad is third in the rugged Metropolitan division but realistically could be in sixth place and out of postseason qualification by the next Weekly Warmup). Other bench moves in Minnesota (where is there is hope with Dean Evsson but a bottleneck of contenders currently ahead of the Wild), New Jersey and San Jose don't appear to be enough to make the playoffs. Couple more notes: Toronto has the NHL's fifth-best record in the time since he took over for Mike Babcock. DeBoer was fired from San Jose earlier in the season but Vegas didn't leave him a free agent for long.
Games to Watch This Week
Out West, Arizona and Vancouver tussle Wednesday in B.C. looking to gain an edge in the wild-card race with both teams still thinking they can finish in the top three of the Pacific division (equating to an automatic postseason bid). Saturday's marquee matinee, Carolina at the New York Islanders, features two of the six legitimate playoff contenders in the Metropolitan division chasing first-place Washington (only four will qualify presuming the bottom doesn't fall out on the Capitals). To wit: The New York Rangers have won nine games more than they have lost, yet still sit in seventh place in the Metro.
Good to Goal
Boston's David Pastrnak dipped into top three among leading NHL goal scorers this season, but is back at No. 1 with four goals in his last four games. He finished February with 10 goals and nine assists, including four game-winning goals (GWG) in the month as the Bruins were 11-3-0 to become the standings points leader in the league. He recorded GWGs both Thursday at home against Dallas and Saturday on the road vs. the New York Islanders. His three-goal game Feb. 12 was his fourth hat trick of the season, a mark not reached in nine seasons. Alex Ovechkin scored twice Sunday in a win over Minnesota, tying him with Toronto's Auston Matthews at 45 goals.
Cheering in Iowa
Los Angeles Kings goalie Calvin Petersen ended the Vegas Knights seven-game winning streak Sunday, making 42 saves in a 4-1 win. Petersen made 19 saves along in the third while VGK goalie Marc-Andre Fleury totaled 13 saves for the game. Petersen was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He is one of only two NHL goalies from the state, joining Scott Clemmensen on that elite list. Petersen has appeared in six LAK games this season (with a 3-3 record) after appearing in 11 games last season. His NHL save percentage is a respectable .925 or 92.5 percent. Clemmensen appeared in 191 NHL games for New Jersey, Toronto and Florida from 2000 to 2015.
While Illinois and its strong Chicago hockey influence is a state that places a lot of NHL players (not to forget cold-weather Minnesota and Wisconsin), neighboring Iowa has only three native sons to make the bigs all-time. C.J. Smith played 13 games for the Buffalo Sabres, including 11 last season. He was born in Des Moines, same as aforementioned long-time NHL goalie Scott Clemmenson. Cal Petersen carries the Iowa flag now but credits Clemmonsen as the trailblazer:
"I always knew he was from Des Moines … I always wanted to join that club, being another guy from Iowa to play in the NHL."
The feel-good story of the week is Bobby Ryan's return from the NHL Player Assistance program. He scored a goal in his first home game back Feb. 27 in a 5-2 win over Vancouver.