Written by Todd Lewys
25 March 2019
First, a number of teams are fighting for wildcard playoff spots. That being the case, there should be some titanic battles for the last few berths in all divisions over the final five to seven games. That should make for some riveting hockey in the run up to the post-season.
Second, teams who've clinched a playoff spot are either looking to maintain their present standing to retain a favorable playoff match-up, or move-up to draw a weaker opponent.
Third - and this isn't a small thing - playoff-bound teams are looking to avoid injuries.
At the same time, a good number of teams are hoping key players will return from injury to bolster their line-up - ideally with a few games left in the regular season - to get back in the saddle for the playoffs.
Look at a struggling team right now, and you're bound to see a team that's dealing with injuries to key players.
Exhibit one would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, who allowed 23 goals against in a recent four-game stretch. Little wonder; with top-four defensemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott on the shelf, the Maple Leafs' lack of depth on defense was recently exposed.
With the likes of Martin Marincin, Justin Holl and Igor Ozighanov filling in, the Leafs couldn't keep the puck out of their net. At the same time, the drop-off in skill on the back end resulted in reduced offensive production.
The good news - that is, if you happen to be a Leafs fan - is that both Gardiner and Dermott are expected to return to the line-up just before the playoffs or at the beginning of the first round.
That said, the Leafs had better hope their number one goalie, Frederik Andersen, stays heathy.
Should he suffer an injury prior to the playoffs, Toronto would have to go with either Garret Sparks or Michael Hutchinson in net. That scenario would deal a crippling blow to the Leafs' post-season aspirations.
Meanwhile, some teams - due to strong positional depth - have the ability to weather injuries to key players.
One of those teams is the Winnipeg Jets, who've spent the past month-plus with two of their top defensemen, hulking, dynamic Dustin Byfuglien and ultra-dependable Josh Morrisey, on the shelf.
In their absence, replacements Sami Niku (last year's AHL defenseman of the year) and Dimitri Kulikov, along with Joe Morrow, who recently returned from injury, have filled-in admirably.
Though the Jets' play has been a bit up and down, they've managed to stay atop the Central Division despite a tough schedule.
With goaltender Connor Hellebuyck rounding in to form and Byfuglien and Morrissey slated to return either late in the regular season or in time for the first round, the Jets figure to be a formidable foe once the post-season begins.
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Two other teams, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Black Hawks, have seen key players return to their line-up of late.
In the case of Boston, leading goal scorer David Pastrnak recently returned from injury, only to pick up right where he left off with line mates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
As of this writing, the Bruins are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. And with dynamic defenseman Torey Krug due to return to the line-up in time for the playoffs, Boston is looking good to go deep and possibly challenge Tampa Bay somewhere down the line.
Another red-hot team, the Chicago Black Hawks, has also benefitted from the return of an injured star. Since his return to action, veteran netminder Corey Crawford has been spectacular in goal, spearheading the Hawks' late run playoff run.
If Chicago makes the post-season, they could be dangerous with Patrick Kane and company up front and a refreshed Crawford in goal.
And what of serious Cup contenders, such as Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Cup favorite Tampa Bay?
The Pens are looking for top-four D-men Kris Letang and Olli Maatta to return to their line-up in time for their first-round match-up. With them back on the blueline and goalie Matt Murray healthy and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way up front, Pittsburgh could be dangerous.
Last year's Cinderella story, Vegas, has some injury concerns at present, with F Max Pacioretty and all-world goalie Marc-Andre Fleury nursing ailments.
Both are expected to be back in time for the playoffs, which is a good thing. Pacioretty will add scoring depth up front, while Fleury, as was the case when he played in Pittsburgh, will be at his acrobatic best in the playoffs.
However, if Fleury gets re-injured, all bets for the Knights to go deep are off if Malcolm Subban is called upon to shoulder the load in net.
As for the Bolts, who have little to play for with the President's Trophy (for top regular season team) in their pocket, they just want to stay healthy as they head full-steam-ahead in to the playoffs.
That means no injuries to star forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Braden Point; a healthy Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh on defense; and a rested, injury-free Andrei Vasilveskiy in net.
The Lightning are clear favorites to hoist the Cup with Vasilevskiy between the pipes.
Put back-up Louis Domingue in net as an injury replacement for the uber-talented Russian, and plans for a Stanley Cup parade in Tampa might have to be put on hold.
In short, the teams that make it to the Stanley Cup final will be the ones that stay the most injury-free and play the best hockey.