Playoff intensity starting to ramp up
The Stanley Cup playoffs do not begin for another month.
But you could have fooled Paul Maurice, as the Winnipeg Jets head coach sat down on Wednesday and watched the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens beat the crap out of each other in what looked like a preview of the North Division final.
“These guys are going after it!” said Maurice.
That's one way of describing a game that featured a fight, 87 hits and four months' worth of pentup aggression. Yeah, there were the usual highlight-reel plays that you're going to see whenever Connor Mcdavid and Leon Draisaitl are on the ice together. But from Shea Weber cross-checking Draisaitl in the back of the head to Mcdavid elbowing Corey Perry, there was also a high degree of hatred that we hadn't really seen before. It was rough. It was nasty. And with less than a dozen games remaining in the regular season, it was a taste of what's to come in these final weeks.
“It ramps up hard here and it keeps going,” said Maurice. “I think you're going to see it. It might be the weekend (when it starts to) turn.”
With the season coming to an end, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. With that comes an added layer of intensity. Now that Vegas has already clinched a playoff spot — and Buffalo and New Jersey have been mathematically eliminated — you can probably predict 14 of the 16 teams that are going to be in the post-season. You might even be able to guess the order in which they finish.
In the North, it's going to be Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Montreal. In the Central, it's looking like it will be Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and either Nashville, Dallas or Chicago.
In the East, it's Washington, the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh and Boston. And in the West, it's Vegas, Colorado, Minnesota and either Arizona or St. Louis.
That doesn't mean teams aren't still jockeying for position or trying to send a message for a month from now.
While Montreal is pretty much guaranteed to finish fourth in the North, only four points separated the first-place Maple Leafs from the second-place Jets prior to their game on Thursday. Edmonton, meanwhile, is five points back of Toronto, setting up a final sprint to see who will grab the top spot.
The rest of the division has become mostly an afterthought.
Ottawa and Calgary are days away from being mathematically eliminated. And while Vancouver has the runway needed to claw back in if they manage to run the table, the chances of them actually doing so are slim to none at this point. Maybe that is why, for the first time this year, Maurice decided to flip the channel to a game being played outside the North Division when the Canucks were playing the other night.
“With Vancouver being out of it, I've had more evenings where I've been able to watch non-north Division games,” he said. “So I watched the Boston-washington game the other day and it was full on. And I'm watching that thinking, `Oh yeah, I remember what the Central Division used to look like.'”
In a season where you're only playing the same six teams over and over again, it's easy to forget that the differences between the teams in the North and the teams in the Central or East or West can be as varied as watching a CFL game and one played in the NFL. The two highest-scoring teams (Washington and Pittsburgh) are in the East. The best defensive teams (Colorado and Vegas) are in the West. The Central might have the biggest and toughest players, while the North arguably has the most skilful.
Then again, with the playoffs just around the corner and the intensity starting to ramp up more and more, don't be surprised if these characteristics start to change. By the time the playoffs begin, they could also be displaying a different attitude.
“I felt that our North Division looked more like the East,” said Maurice, “and I think you're going to find it moves more into what the Central Division looks like as we get closer to the end of the season.”