Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
‘A lot of work to be done’
Plenty of teams will jockey for playoff berths, positioning
SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.
They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.
“We’re still in a good position,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”
Cassidy’s old team, the Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.
With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, the Bruins are on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Hurricanes, who beat the Bruins in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.
“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.
The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, the Hurricanes stand a good chance of reaching the East final.
“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach.
The second-place Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star.
They’re followed by the Rangers, Capitals, Penguins and Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.
The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when the two-time champions reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Avalanche.
The Lightning are almost certain to face the Maple Leafs — who haven’t won a playoff series since 2005 — in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.
But the Bruins have separated themselves despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.
The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from the Canucks, but still need to make up ground to get in.
The defending champion Avalance climbed in the standings — winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still hasn’t made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.
“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break.”
They still trail the Stars, Jets and Wild in the Central, and the Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.
Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Oilers, who were swept by the Avs in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific.
The top spot is held by the Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Kings and the Golden Knights.
The Oilers — and the Battle of Alberta rival Flames — have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.
Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.
“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”*