With the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away, the Chicago Blackhawks are hitting their stride at the right time and have claimed the No. 1 spot in the Wheel’s rankings. Joining the Blackhawks are the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens. Three of those teams — the Blue Jackets, Blackhawks and Capitals — clinched a spot in the post-season. The remainder of the season will determine which team will claim the top seed in their respective divisions and sets up the match-ups in the playoffs’ first round. In the East, the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning are both within four points of the Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot. The playoff picture in the West, however, is clearer, with the St. Louis Blues holding a six-point lead over the Los Angeles Kings for the final wild card spot.
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (47-20-5)
Once in a tight race with the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division lead, the Blackhawks won five straight games to climb to a seven-point lead in the standings. Chicago began their week with a 4-2 victory against the No. 5 Montreal Canadiens March 14. Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford blocked a barrage of shots, stopping 40 of 42. Forward Patrick Kane had a strong game as well, recording a goal and an assist. Chicago’s next bout was March 16 against the Ottawa Senators, in which Chicago forward Richard Panik scored the game-winning goal, handling a quick pass from Kane for a powerplay goal. An effective player for Chicago, Panik exceeded his career best goal total by eight, with 19 goals thus far this season. The team pulled off the sweep of eastern Canadian hockey clubs, defeating the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime March 18. Forward Ryan Hartman scored the winning goal in overtime, converting on a 2-1 rush to beat the Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen. Returning home March 19, Chicago lit up the scoreboard in the third period with five unanswered goals to beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-3. Forwards Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin all had strong games, each marking two points.
No. 2 Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6)
Failing to compete for a playoff spot just a year ago, Columbus looks impressive this season. In John Tortorella’s first full season as the Columbus coach, the Blue Jackets are a more aggressive team than last year. The team displayed their tenacity Thursday when they took on the Florida Panthers, pulling off a 2-1 victory thanks to goals by defenseman Zach Werenski and forward Josh Anderson. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was stingy in the net, stopping 33 of Florida’s 34 shots. In another tight battle March 18, the Blue Jackets edged the New York Islanders in a 3-2 game that went into overtime. Forward Cam Atkinson scored the game-winning goal on assists from Werenski and forward Brandon Dubinsky. Atkinson’s overtime goal is another highlight in a breakout season, highlighted by 33 goals. Columbus finished their week with a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils March 19. The Blue Jackets’ strongest performers were forward Boone Jenner, who had two goals, and Bobrovsky, who saved 35 of 36 shots. With that victory, Columbus qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in two years.
No. 3 Washington Capitals (46-17-8)
The Capitals, who seemed a sure bet to win the Presidents’ Trophy at the start of March, lost some traction in the past month. Currently tied with the Blue Jackets in the standings, they are only one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nonetheless, the Capitals put together a solid week with two wins and an overtime loss. Their first win came against the Minnesota Wild. Capitals star forward Alexander Ovechkin scored his first goal in 10 games, breaking a career-high streak of games without a goal. Forward Nicklas Backstrom’s distribution skills shone through this season and on March 14 in particular, recording three assists in the game. Washington dropped a March 16 game in an overtime defeat to the Nashville Predators. Despite a strong defensive game, Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson’s overtime goal sent the Capitals home with only one point in the standings. Washington’s offense improved March 18 as the team triumphed over the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3. Forward T.J. Oshie scored a hat-trick and recorded one assist, and Backstrom recorded four more assists in the game. As it stands, Backstrom is now second in the league in assists, just one behind Edmonton Oilers’ forward Connor McDavid, who boasts 55.
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins (45-17-9)
Pittsburgh is two points away from making the postseason for an eleventh consecutive season. Unfortunately for the Penguins, their week began with a lackluster performance against their in-state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia kept Pittsburgh off the scoreboard, making the Penguins look foolish in a 4-0 loss. Hoping for a better result March 17, Pittsburgh faced off against the New Jersey Devils. Penguins’ forward Sidney Crosby spearheaded the team’s victory, scoring two goals and adding one assist in the 6-4 win. Joining Crosby in his success, rookie forward Carter Rowney scored his first career goal and rounded it out with an assist. Continuing their strong play, the Penguins shut out the Panthers in a 4-0 win. Crosby recorded a hat-trick, with all three goals coming on assists from forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made 21 saves in his first shutout of the season.
No. 5 Montreal Canadiens (41-23-8)
The Canadiens were successful thanks to better offensive play compared to last season. While goaltender Carey Price is almost always reliable, his effectiveness depends on the scoring ability of the Canadiens’ forwards. In a pair of games against the Ottawa Senators this weekend, the Canadiens pulled off two impressive victories. Those two triumphs allowed Montreal to build a four-point lead over Ottawa. During the first game of the weekend, the Canadiens won 4-3 in a shootout. Forwards Paul Byron and Alexander Radulov scored goals in the shootout to help the Canadiens beat the Senators. In the second game, the Canadiens dominated the Senators, securing a 4-1 victory. Price saved 30 of 31 shots, and Byron and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu both recorded a goal and an assist. Byron, in what has become his breakout season, has scored a career best of 20 goals to accompany 17 assists this season.