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NHL teams in close races for final playoff berths
The NHL's 2018-19 regular-season schedule concludes on Saturday, April 6. With less than three weeks to go, several teams are jockeying for the final playoff spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Entering this week, the Carolina Hurricanes held the first Eastern wild-card spot. An improving offence sent them surging up the standings since late-January, buoyed by young forwards Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and the mid-January addition of winger Nino Niederreiter. However, they cannot afford to let up or risk being overtaken by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens.
Speaking of the Jackets and Canadiens, they're in a dogfight for the final Eastern playoff spot. The Jackets were expected to be bolstered by trade-deadline acquisitions Mike Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Cornwall's Adam McQuaid, but they're barely clinging to that wild-card position.
The Canadiens held a playoff spot for most of this season, but a month-long slump sent them tumbling in the standings. Despite the best efforts of superstar goaltender Carey Price, they're plagued by a popgun power play. Scoring leaders Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin are struggling to find the back of the net.
Bringing up the rear are the Philadelphia Flyers, who begin the week six points out of contention. Like the Hurricanes, the Flyers have significantly improved in the New Year. However, the hole they dug for themselves earlier in the season seems too deep to climb out of.
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes hold the final three spots.
The Stars have at times threatened to fall out of contention but manage to find a way to right the ship. Their playoff hopes, however, may have suffered a blow with starting goalie Ben Bishop sidelined by a lower-body injury. Backup Anton Khudobin must hold the fort until his return. Their offence could get a boost when trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello comes back later this month from a broken arm.
Like the Hurricanes, the Blues and Coyotes climbed from the bottom of the standings to become playoff contenders. Superb goaltending played a key role for both clubs. Blues netminder Jordan Binnington is making a late-season case for rookie-of-the-year honours, while Coyotes backup Darcy Kuemper is a big factor in his injury-ravaged club's recent improvement.
Right behind them, however, are the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild were recently overtaken by the Coyotes and have just two wins in their last eight games. The Avalanche are powered by superstars Mikko Rantanen and Cole Harbour, N.S., native Nathan MacKinnon, but a lack of secondary scoring depth threatens to scuttle their post-season chances.
The once-mighty Blackhawks began this week five points out of contention. Nevertheless, veteran stars Patrick Kane, Jonanthan Toews and Corey Crawford, plus young forwards Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are keeping their playoff hopes alive.
With this many teams scrambling for the handful of playoff berths, we should expect an exciting finish to the regular season.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with the Sporting News and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian throughout the NHL hockey season.