Entering the penultimate week of the NHL regular season, the playoff races — particularly for the wild cards — continue to captivate us. If it seems like every game seems to have major playoff implications, that’s not a gigantic stretch of the truth.
So which games on this week’s calendar are of most interest to our writers? Looking ahead a bit, which playoff opponent will give the Boston Bruins the most trouble en route to the Stanley Cup? And though the San Jose Sharks were eliminated weeks ago, defenseman Erik Karlsson’s quest for 100 points continues; will he reach that plateau, and does he have the Norris Trophy wrapped up?
Our reporters and analysts are here to answer those very questions:
What’s the biggest game of the week?
Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+). Do the Flames have enough to snatch that final wild-card spot? Do the Jets have enough to get a firmer grip? Nobody can really answer those questions with great certainty. What is clear, however, is that this should be enlightening and entertaining all at once.
Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: The wild-card race in the East, featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers neck and neck — never mind the currently unsettled New York Islanders — fascinates me to no end. So I’ve got Thursday’s game between Florida and the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+) marked on my viewing calendar, riding shotgun with Pittsburgh hosting the Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+). Both playoff wannabes first compete Tuesday, so by then we might have a clearer picture of who’s in the WC2 driver’s seat ahead of the season’s last weekend. Assuming, of course, the Isles don’t blow it either.
Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Edmonton Oilers at Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Oilers and Kings are neck and neck to challenge Vegas for the top spot in the Pacific Division. Odds improve for one of them with a victory on Tuesday. Alternatively, that game could be billed as a first-round playoff series preview between two evenly matched teams that have recent history — L.A. took Edmonton to seven games in last season’s first-round matchup. This year’s iteration would be even spicier.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: Minnesota Wild at Vegas Golden Knights on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NHL Network). The Wild have absolutely slammed the pedal down in recent weeks — despite missing Kirill Kaprizov — to stake a claim for the Central Division title. The Golden Knights are trying to fend off the Oilers and Kings to win the Pacific — and avoid having to play either of them in the opening round of the playoffs. This one is a rematch of Saturday’s battle and a potential preview of the Western Conference finals.
Which team will give the Bruins the most trouble in the playoffs?
Clark: The Tampa Bay Lightning. Maybe this is the year in which the Bruins — or another team — break the Lightning’s death grip on the Eastern Conference. Until then, the Lightning must remain in the discussion given what they have done over the past few seasons.
Matiash: The Toronto Maple Leafs. In addition to the firepower up front, the Maple Leafs’ freshened caboodle of defenders offers coach Sheldon Keefe numerous permutations and combinations in figuring out how to best stop Boston’s own offense. Plus, the club’s No. 1 netminder doesn’t care about the storied recent playoff history between the two sides. Ilya Samsonov doesn’t seem bothered by much on ice these days. Even more so since becoming a father. He’s chill — an ideal state if/when facing the best team in the league.
Shilton: The Maple Leafs. Yes, we’re all aware of the postseason history between these clubs. But this season is its own beast. Toronto and Boston have played three times already, with two of those tilts decided by one goal. The Leafs have ample forward talent capable of skating toe-to-toe with the Bruins’ top threats, and Toronto can stack up fairly well with Boston defensively, too. It certainly wouldn’t be an easy road ahead for the Bruins.
Wyshynski: The Carolina Hurricanes. One of the few teams to hand the Bruins a loss this season, the Canes actually have a plus-1 goal differential against Boston. Their two losses to the Bruins were both in extra time. Without Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty (one assumes), generating goals in a tight series is going to be a chore for the Hurricanes. But they beat the Bruins in seven games last postseason, and they have the systems and the players to grind out a good playoff effort. Underestimate Rod Brind’Amour’s group at your own peril.
We’ve heard a lot about Connor McDavid this season, but Erik Karlsson is also having a standout campaign. How many points will he finish with, and does he win the Norris Trophy?
Clark: Let’s go with 100 points, and, yes, he should have a chance at winning the Norris Trophy. Whether he will depends upon how voters feel about giving the award to a defenseman on a draft lottery team.
Matiash: If he breaks the 100-point barrier? Of course he wins the Norris Trophy. That’s the law. Or at least it should be, considering Brian Leetch was the last player to do just that … 31 years ago. I don’t care how few wins the Sharks have, Karlsson deserves something for such an incredible accomplishment. This award is the one available. And, yes, I believe he pulls it off, wrapping up with 101 altogether.
Shilton: Predicting a 98-point finish for Erik Karlsson this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hit triple digits, but sometimes just the pressure of a big number can throw a player off. And I do believe it’ll be Karlsson earning a third Norris Trophy this year, not just for his offensive output, but the way he’s kept San Jose as reasonably competitive as a single skater can. It would be hard to argue any defenseman in the league has a) been consistently better or b) had a bigger nightly impact on his squad than Karlsson. After the road Karlsson’s been through to get back on form, this Norris title would be extra special.
Wyshynski: The final NHL Awards Watch column of the season publishes this week, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler that Karlsson still leads the pack with the voters we surveyed. After four assists on Saturday, I think he breaks 100 points, a mark only five other defensemen have hit in NHL history. Let’s call it 101 points in the end. The last great offensive season by a defenseman was Roman Josi tallying 96 points for the Nashville Predators last season.
I don’t recall the same kind of hyperbole around Josi’s offensive effort that Karlsson has received for his. Josi was second for the Norris to Cale Makar, because it was Makar’s “time” to win. The next most popular candidate for the Norris this season is the Rangers’ Adam Fox, who already has a Norris win to his credit. So I’d expect the voters to give Karlsson his flowers for the third time overall and first time since 2015.