By Steve Silverman
As the NHL hits the deepest part of the regular-season stretch run, it’s all about making the playoffs and getting in position to get the best match-up possible.
The team that may find themselves in quite a bit of trouble is the team that has to face the New Jersey Devils in the opening round.
After Wednesday night’s action, the Devils were in the Eastern Conference’s number one wild-card position. If the season ended right now, they would face the Washington Capitals in the first round. However, the Devils could finish the season as high as second place in the Metropolitan Division – they are just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins – or they could finish in the number two wild-card spot.
If disaster struck, the Devils could miss the playoffs, but this Taylor Hall-led team is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and has the look of a dangerous team that is capable of winning one or two rounds.
The Devils have some supporting talent, but Hall has become a dominant player who is surging to the Hart Trophy as a result of his remarkable season. Hall has been leading the Devils with his numbers – 39 goals, 54 assists, 93 points – and his relentless skating and puck carrying.
Hall looks like a man possessed when he gets the puck on his stick and he is able to take two hard strides. At that point, the Devils and their opponents know that a good scoring chance will result. Either Hall is going to take the puck to the net, get off a hard shot or set up a teammate.
There’s a relentlessness to his game that was expected when he was the No. 1 pick during the Taylor-Tyler debate prior to the 2010 draft, but has not been seen consistently to this point. (While Hall has an edge over Tyler Seguin this year, give Seguin the edge in their careers to this point.)
Hall is getting support from rookie Nico Hischier with 51 points, along with Kyle Palmieri and Will Butcher, who have 44 points, but his 42-point edge in the Devils’ scoring race tells you how much Hall means to the team.
This is truly his coming out party into the main part of his career. He had all the tools when he was drafted, but he did not play with the kind of drive that let the hockey world know that he could lead his team to a win in any game.
That’s why the Devils look they could be dangerous in the playoffs. If Hall continues to play like a man possessed, who is going to stop him? Whether the Devils face the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, Penguins or Blue Jackets, there’s a very good chance that Hall will be the best player on the ice. If he gets just a bit of support from Hischier and Palmieri along with the defense and goaltending, the Devils have a chance to destroy a lot of hopes in the postseason.
And, oh yes, give Hall the Hart Trophy for his regular-season superiority.
Preds opening the door for Jets
A little more than a week ago, it seemed clear that the Nashville Predators would win the Central Division, have the best record in the Western Conference and were the likely Presidents’ Trophy winners.
But suddenly, the Predators are letting opportunities slip through their grasp. Their once-secure lead over the Winnipeg Jets is down to three points, and both teams have two games left. Nashville’s 2-1 loss to the Panthers in regulation hurt badly.
If the Jets win two games and the Preds are held to one point, the two teams will be tied with 114 points, and the Jets will have the edge because they have more regulation and overtime (ROW) wins than the Preds.
The Jets have two winnable home games remaining against the Flames and Blackhawks, while the Preds will be on the road Thursday against the Capitals before closing the season at home against the Blue Jackets, who may need that game to make the playoffs or for playoff positioning.
The Jets are big, tough, mean, fast and skilled, and they will be a very tough out in the playoffs. Blake Wheeler has become one of the best all-around players in the league. He has 89 points and excellent leadership skills.
Patrik Laine is the Western Conference’s version of Alex Ovechkin, and he has reached 44 goals, Kyle Connor hit the 30-goal mark as he scored the overtime winner vs. Montreal Tuesday night, and the Jets have two other solid scorers in Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers.
“Any goal you score in this league is great, but overtime, and the way we stuck with it the whole game, it’s awesome,” said 21-year-old Connor. ”This group is so good and we push each other every day.”
The Jets may catch the Preds, and whether they do or not, they appear to be the kind of team that could do a ton of damage in the postseason.
Sedins’ retirement announcement is somewhat surprising
Henrik and Daniel Sedin have given the Vancouver Canucks an identity when they came into the NHL as rookies in 2000-01.
The Swedish twins were viewed as soft and a bit slow when they came into the league, but all they did was produce and lead the Canucks to a strong period of growth that culminated when the Canucks reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
They got as close as they could to the top spot, but they fell in the seventh game of their classic final series against the Boston Bruins.
The Sedins have not been too slow or soft. Their uncanny ability to know where each other is on the ice has made them look unstoppable at times.
While the 37-year-olds are no longer peaking, it was a surprise when they made the announcement Tuesday that they were retiring from the Canucks.
The Vegas Golden Knights paid tribute to the twins after beating the Canucks by shaking hands with the brothers in a gesture of sportsmanship.
If the Sedins had made their announcement earlier or had decided to stay for one more season, they could have received a year’s worth of tributes around the league.
But they are going out as they came in – quietly.
It would have been nice to give them more of a tribute, but that is not going to happen.