As the NHL steers out of St. Louis with the 2020 All-Star Weekend in the rear-view mirror, it's drive time for the 17 teams that enjoyed a bye week before the break.
There's lots of traffic ahead, so let's get this WW vehicle into gear.
Blues and Western on Playlist
It will be intriguing to see if the Blues have any ASG lag from hosting the starry weekend back home. Four players (G Jordan Binnington, F Ryan O'Reilly, F David Perron and D Alex Pietrangelo) suited up in music-sheet jerseys, plus Craig Berube worked the Central division bench. St. Louis flew to Vancouver Sunday, refreshed for the second half and facing the Pacific-leading Canucks. Then Tuesday the Blues visit Calgary Tuesday, Edmonton Friday and Winnipeg Saturday. The guess here is St. Louis will prove its mettle as the team to beat in the Western Conference for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
Pacific Traffic Jam
The Pacific division, led by five goals by San Jose's Tomas Hertl, won its third All-Star Game in the last five Januarys the league has staged a 3-on-3 tournament. Now its teams get back to work trying to knock each other out of postseason slots in the standings. Vancouver leads the Pacific with 59 standings points and games in hand (meaning it has one or two less games played, affording an opportunity to gain up to four points). Edmonton, Calgary, Arizona and Vegas are all knotted at 58 points. Edmonton holds games in hand, while Vegas has played three more games than both Vancouver and Calgary. The top three teams automatically qualify for the postseason, while the other two will have to outpoint a formidable group from the Central Division (likely Winnipeg, Nashville and possibly Chicago and Minnesota too). Expect major battles every time the Pacific top five face off.
Wednesday Rush Hour
The mid-week NHL docket features a trio of games to watch on Wednesday: Toronto visits Dallas, both benches with in-season new coaches and high hopes for a deep playoffs run. Calgary visits Edmonton (OK, we will sneak one in: "Go Tip!") in an aforementioned Pacific showdown. But Nashville at Washington might be the game to circle with the Sharpie: Forced to sit out the Caps' visit Montreal as per league one-game suspensions for passing on an All-Star nod (with no injury reason), the well-rested Alex Ovechkin will resume his pursuit of 700 NHL goals. He stands at 692, ahead of projections because he has already notched 34 G's in 49 games
this season. He will pass Mark Messier for eighth all-time among NHL goal scorers with three goals (Ovi recorded back-to-back hat tricks before the Caps' bye week). Media members are talking up the possibility of Ovechkin doing the seemingly impossible: Breaking Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky's 894-goal mark. During a Hockey Hall of Fame event in St. Louis, Gretzky told NHL.com the implausible might be feasible: "There's no question in my mind he has a real legitimate chance of doing it. The two things that you need; you've got to stay healthy, and he's proven that over his career. He plays hard and he stays healthy. Secondly, you've got to be on a good team - and he plays on a good team."
Kovalchuk Up to Speed
So far, so good with the Montreal signing of Ilya Kovalchuk, the Russian scorer looking sprite at 36 years old. He has four goals with the Canadiens, lighting the goal light during a shootout win over Vegas before Montreal's bye week. He also scored in the shootout. The Canadiens were hot before their break, winning four of five. The hope is get the hop when hosting Washington Monday night, maybe catching a break against the Eastern Conference leaders who will not have Alex Ovechkin in the lineup.
M & M Ready for Road Trip
Toronto's young star Auston Matthews was named to his fourth All-Star team but didn't participate due to an injured wrist. He will be back in the lineup Monday night in Nashville. And same for defenseman Jake Muzzin, who will be playing his first game since breaking his foot. Matthews leads the Maple Leafs in goals (34) and points (57) in 49 games. He is on pace for 57 goals this season, which would make him the fourth player in Toronto history to score at least 50, joining Rick Vaive (54 in 1981-82, 51 in 1982-83 and 52 in 1983-84), Gary Leeman (51 in 1989-90) and Dave Andreychuk (53 in 1993-94).
Canada Post Delivers
NHL.com's William Douglas reports that "Canada Post is honoring the Maritimes Colored Hockey Championship and the little-known history of the Colored Hockey League with a stamp to celebrate Black History Month.The stamp features images of players from the Colored Hockey League that operated from 1895 to the 1930s and lists the catchy names of some of the teams -- Jubilees, Stanleys, Eurekas, Sea-Sides, Rangers, Royals and Moss Backs."
Via NHL.com columnist Nick Cotsonika, Vegas forward Max Pacioretty talks about intensity of the NHL second half of the regular season: "You can go from first to [fifth], from [fifth] to first the next night, and we're all going to play each other here coming up right at the end of the year. It's going to be a fight till the end, and we're expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side, if you're able to get in and you're able to get through games, that should prepare you for the playoffs, and we're looking forward to that challenge."
Rookie Competence in Net
First-year goalies are making big saves and winning big games this season. NHL.com's Mike Morreale, a must-read NHL Draft reporter, ranks the top five rookie goaltenders this season:
1. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals
2. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets
3. Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils
4. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks
5. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers
Paying Tribute to One of the Greats
On Sunday, legendary athlete Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. The tragedy of this loss extends beyond basketball and sport and has been felt across the world. We're taking this moment to pay our respect to Kobe, his daughter and everyone affected.