The NHL divisional races are starting to heat up as the All-Star break approaches. That will give most players in the league a bit of a break, but it’s still a handful of days away. Heading into this weekend, most of the NHL will be in action.
Saturday night’s schedule includes a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. The two teams are currently ranked 2nd and 1st in the Atlantic Division, something that seemed hard to imagine a couple of months ago.
The Panthers enjoyed a massive winning streak over December and into January while the Lightning are in the midst of a large one right now. Having won seven straight, Tampa Bay are currently the hottest team in the NHL, and they are starting to re-emerge as Cup contenders – something they were considered during the preseason. Game time from Sunrise, Florida is at 7 pm ET on Saturday night with regional coverage only.
Another key team in action on Saturday includes the Los Angeles Kings. LA will be in Phoenix to take on the Arizona Coyotes in what is a Pacific Division battle. The Kings have been the divisional frontrunners since October, and the Coyotes are nowhere near striking distance at this point. But, sitting fourth in the Pacific, ‘zona have hung around this season a lot better than what most would have thought. At this point, the Coyotes are much in need of a win both to end a losing streak and to stay in touch with San Jose and Vancouver.
Many of the teams that are not currently in contention in the various divisional races are all north of the border. Dan Rosen wrote about his “Super 16” on Friday, and he made a point to note that it could be that all Canadian-based teams miss the playoffs this season. What could also be pointed out is that all teams currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the respective NHL divisions are either large metropolitan American-based teams or they are teams based in the southern USA.
Accordingly, Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC won’t feature heavyweights this weekend. In the early one, the Montreal Canadiens will be in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs (7 pm ET). Neither team is in the thick of things at the moment, and Montreal received more bad news regarding the Carey Price injury. The netminder, according to an NHL.com article, will “not be ready to return for at least another 3-4 weeks from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since Nov. 25” (Arpon Basu).
If we assume a return date for Price of about February 15th, it would give Montreal less than two months to get back in the playoff picture. Depending on how far they drift, that’s certainly not an impossible task for a team playing well with Price in goal – however the scenario presumes that Price will be playing top-level hockey on his return. The season is largely starting to look like a write-off and the Toronto/Montreal game carries little importance.
Of even lesser importance is the late game on the CBC as the last-placed team in the Pacific Division, the Edmonton Oilers, will host the penultimate-placed team in the Central Division, the Nashville Predators (10pm ET). The Oilers had some intrigue a few weeks ago after they put together a large winning streak. However, Edmonton’s injury problems continued this last week with Andrew Ference out for surgery and, more hurtful, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out for at least six weeks.
It will take something special for Edmonton not to wave a white flag on the season even with more than 30 games to go. As the All Star break looms, the 2015/16 season is looking like the same-old same-old with Chicago and Los Angeles among the core contenders.