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NHL ready for unpredictable stretch run after All-Star break

Top five in Pacific Division separated by one point; McDavid, Draisaitl, MacKinnon in heated scoring race

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ST. LOUIS -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs start April 8.


"The playoffs start now," Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk said. "For everyone to say, 'You know, we want to be peaking when it comes to playoffs,' well, you better hope you're peaking now, because you want to get in."

The regular season, if you can call it that, resumes Monday in the wake of the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend.

The next 10 weeks will be intense.

The next big event is the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2).

Video: Look back on the 2020 NHL Stadium Series announcement

After that comes the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24. Many general managers are waiting to see how the standings shake out between now and then, because they are so tight, especially in the middle.

The fifth-place team in the NHL, the New York Islanders, and 18th-place team, the Vegas Golden Knights, are separated by six points.

Beyond the 16 teams in playoff spots, four more are within four points. Coming out of the All-Star break last season, the St. Louis Blues were three points out. They went on to win the Stanley Cup.

"We have extraordinary competitive balance, the best in all of sports, and it's why we think we are the most entertaining," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

No race is tighter than the one in the Pacific Division. The Vancouver Canucks are in first place with 58 points. Each of the next four teams have 57 and are ranked by tiebreakers: the Edmonton Oilers, Flames, Arizona Coyotes and Golden Knights.

It's the first time since the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967-68 that the top five teams in a division have been within one point of each other past the halfway point of the season.

Two games to watch this week: The Flames visit the Oilers on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; SN360, SNE, SNO, SNW, TVAS, NHL.TV), and the Oilers visit the Flames on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; ESPN+, CBC, SN, SN360, SN1, CITY, NHL.TV). The Battle of Alberta is already bubbling.

"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," Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty said. "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."

Video: VGK@MTL: Pacioretty makes it a one-goal game

Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks are three points behind the Golden Knights for the second wild card in the Western Conference, not to mention four points behind the third-place Dallas Stars in the Central Division.

In the East, the Islanders are third in the Metropolitan Division with 63 points. The Tampa Bay Lightning are second in the Atlantic Division with 62 points, the Florida Panthers third with 61 points.

The Columbus Blue Jackets hold the first wild card with 62 points, the Carolina Hurricanes the second with 61. The Philadelphia Flyers are right behind with 60 points, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have 57.

"There's teams that were not in it a month ago that are in it," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "You put a run together, and you give yourself a chance. So it's really about just giving yourself a chance."

Some players study the standings each day. Some don't. It would drive them crazy.

Got to keep an even keel and focus on how you're playing.

"I follow it, because I like to know where we're at and where the other teams are at, but I'm not someone that gets overly excited or overly sad when it shifts a little bit," Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl said. "Obviously games are going to get tighter. Obviously there are a lot of teams that are still in the race, and we obviously want to be one of those teams.

"We've just got to keep grinding away, banking as many points as we can, and then hopefully at the end we're one of the teams in the playoffs."

The playoff race isn't the only race, either.

Oilers center Connor McDavid, a two-time scoring champion, leads the NHL with 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists), but Draisaitl is right behind with 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists). Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon has 72 points (30 goals, 42 assists).

Video: ARI@EDM: McDavid wires home wrist shot for PPG

Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak leads the League in goals with 37, but Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews are right behind with 34 each. Ovechkin, the Great 8, is an eight-time goal-scoring champion. He needs eight goals to become the eighth player in NHL history to reach 700 goals in his career.

"We come out of the All-Star break with an incredible stretch run before us," Commissioner Bettman said. "As we learned last year, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen."

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