As mid-season bye weeks and January vanish, what's coming clear is playoff math. All contenders will be projecting how many standing points will qualify for the postseason. Teams on the bubble of contention will decide if the "sell or buy" before the Feb. 24 NHL Trade Deadline.
Let's crunch some numbers and drop the puck:
First stop is NHL Seattle's instant top rival, the Vancouver Canucks. There is no denying their mix of young stars (Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes for starters) and a goaltending tandem that appears set for success over several seasons. Sporting a five-game winning streak going into Sunday's road matchup in Carolina, Pettersson scored twice, including a mid-third period goal (his 23rd on the season) that subsequently sent the game into a shootout. Pettersson scored again in the shootout, but Justin Williams did the veteran-thing for his once and future club by beating rookie goaltender Thatcher Demko for the decisive goal. Demko is 10-5-2 in his starts backing up Jacob Markstrom. Vancouver tops a crowded Pacific division pack of teams with 65 points in the standings. The Canucks are 7-2-1 in their last 10 and 14-3-1 since mid-December, now heading to Boston (also 7-2-1 in the last 10) for a Tuesday night showdown of division leaders.
Rookie Race Heats Up
Most media members are projecting Colorado Cale Makar as the top candidate for the NHL'S Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Maybe no so fast. Vancouver's Quinn Hughes scored twice in a 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders, including the overtime winner 42 seconds into the five-minute OT period. It was Hughes' first multiple-goal game and won't be the last. He has eight goals and 31 assists on the year for 39 total points; Makar numbers are 11-26-37. Feel free to debate amongst yourselves.
Shaking out the contenders in the Metropolitan division is a playoffs math problem with lots of positive number. Metro leader Washington has most standings points (75) in the league with Pittsburgh, a much deeper club that meets the eye, suddenly third in the Eastern conference with 71 points after beating the Capitals in D.C. Sunday. After that, depending on the day, you can spot Columbus-New York Islanders-Carolina-Philadelphia in various orders and rank between now and April. CBJ is third, winning six of its last seven. Expect many Metro battles in the weeks ahead. One to watch this week: No. 7 Philly at No. 1 Wash. By the way, all seven teams have top 15 records, but only five can fill Eastern Conference postseason spots; the Atlantic division is guaranteed three.
Battling in Alberta
While Vancouver leads the Pacific with 65 points, the division race is tight and most definitely scalding hot in the Canadian province of Alberta. Edmonton is second with 63-only three points separates the Oilers and fifth-place Arizona. Vegas (61 points) and Calgary (60) are squeezed in between. But make no mistake: Coach Dave Tippett's Edmonton club is not overlooking Calgary. The rivals traded wins this past week, the Flames winning a shootout at Edmonton Wednesday and the Oilers taking the rematch Saturday in Calgary, 8-3. The squads also traded punches in the two games. Wednesday night including Edmonton's Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk squared off, a score-settling of sorts dating to a Jan. 11 contest that resulted in Kassian suspended for two games for going after Tkachuk. Tempers flared Saturday night when Oilers forward Sam Gagner dove after a loose puck and stick-poked Calgary goalie Cam Talbot in the process. Defenseman Mark Giordano took offense, Tkachuk exchanged punches with Oilers rookie d-man Ethan Bear, the former Seattle Thunderbirds star. The main event, if you will, featured Talbot going toe-to-toe at center ice with Edmonton's Mike Smith. The two goaltenders were on the other's team last season, adding to the rivalry mix. It was Smith's second career fight, the last one coming more than a decade ago in 2008.
Games to Watch This Week
Monday's Florida at Toronto game spotlights teams with 28 wins and 17 losses. Toronto is third in the Atlantic Division because it has picked up seven points via shootout losses. Florida has five shootout-loss points but two games in hand to make up ground on the Maple Leafs-plus both need every point in the Metro-stacked wild card race (top two teams get in after first three teams from each division automatically qualify). Edmonton at Arizona is an important Pacific get-together in the desert Tuesday and, take note, Leon Draisaitl leads teammate Connor McDavid by four points in NHL scoring race. One more: Chicago at Winnipeg Sunday; the Blackhawks, thought certain sellers at Trade Deadline, are making a case to be consider as possible postseason entrants (even if a carful of colleagues recently shut down notion recently).
Great 8 is No. 8
Alex Ovechkin passed all-time NHL Mark Messier for eight on the careers goals list with two lamp-lighters Friday night in Ottawa. He scored the Messier tiebreaker on a late-game empty net goal during a powerplay. Senators fans gave the Washington star a standing ovation (chanting Ovi! ! Ovi! Ovi!) and Messier issued a congratulatory statement via the NHL: "You have amazed us all with your skill, shot, and grit -- a rare combination. But more importantly, you have inspired a generation of girls and boys with your passion to score and play the game."
Goalie Goal Fever
Maybe it was Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne scoring a goal Jan. 9. Or perhaps New York Rangers rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin was thinking about his own goalie goal in 2013 when he played for Spartak Moscow in the Russian junior league. No matter the reason, Shesterkin was looking to score late in a Friday night win over Detroit in just the rookie's fourth NHL start. He barely missed on two rink-long shots at an empty net while the Red Wings sent out an extra attacker in an attempt to tie the score. "I'd be surprised if [Shesterkin] doesn't get one," coach David Quinn said after the game. "He's one of those goalies that can. He has poise, and he has the ability, physically, to get that puck down the ice."
San Jose's Hertl Out for Season
Just when you think things could not get worse, the San Jose Sharks lost All-Star forward Tomas Hertl to a season-ending knee injury last Wednesday night. After scoring the first goal of a game against Vancouver and just off notching five goals during the NHL All-Star Game tournament, Hertl undergoes surgery Monday and finishes his shortened season with 16 goals and 20 assists. Unfortunately, it is not Hertl's first knee surgery. He had surgery to repair damaged ligaments in his right knee as a rookie in 2013-14, then a second surgery for a sprain in his right knee during the 2016-17 season.
Bieber's Got A Fever
On January 1, 2020 defending Stanley Cup Champion goaltender Jordan Binnington challenged pop superstar Justin Bieber to a shootout competition. The incentive? If Bieber scored, Binnington would dye his hair platinum blonde. However, Bieber, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, upped the ante and turned the shootout into a charity event. While no date has officially been set, Bieber's been hard at work preparing for the competition. Not convinced? See for yourself: