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NHL Conference Contemplations – April 4, 2021

Approaching the final month of play for about half the NHL leads to some interesting choices, especially with the trade deadline around the corner. Do teams need to rest players with minor injuries that they have been playing through? What are the must win games on the schedule? Looking around the NHL in this week’s Conference Contemplations, find out which team ended a long winless streak? Also see who, in a competitive division, won an important game to jump in the standings? Keep on reading to find out these answers and more. (Disclaimer: All statistics and stat lines are from April 4, before games were played.)

North: Matthews Mediocre Stretch Ends

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been a dominant force in the NHL in recent memory. Their issues mainly come in the playoffs. No matter how strong they have appeared during the regular season, best of sevens see them struggle. From 2016 to 2019, the Maple Leafs have been bounced in the first round.

On the back of a 5-0-1 record in their last six games, Toronto seems to have their strongest team in years.

Center #34 Auston Matthew’s wrist injury from the beginning of March, appears to have healed. Clearly off his game, Matthews went without a goal in a five game stretch twice since February 22. Between then and March 6, he registered just two points on a pair of assists. After a pair of games, his slump continued. Again, on another five game span, he only picked up two assists.

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe helped Matthews out by moving his position around on the power play. Limiting his opportunities to shoot allowed Matthews to play a different style, one that revolved more around passing and puck handling. Additionally, Matthews would step away from the faceoff circle which also appeared to give him some pain.

In the final four games of March, Matthews registered six points via three goals and three assists. The first overall pick from 2016 looked like he was back on his game. Even with his injury, he is on pace to perform as well as last season, his highest NHL point total, 80.

In goal, #36 Jack Campbell has also stepped up to fill the crease. #31 Frederik Anderson has been struggling with a lower body injury. His replacement has been flawless, playing and winning his eight games in goal. Since March 20, he has been in goal for all five wins, two coming in overtime and one from a shootout.

Allowing Anderson to recover could provide the Maple Leafs with a deep roster headed into the playoffs. They are no strangers to battling against other strong NHL North Conference teams. Toronto hopes to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967.

Central: Nashville Jumps Ahead in Conference

The Nashville Predators have picked up the pace across the last fortnight. Three crucial wins over Chicago allowed the Preds to supplant the Blackhawks in the fourth position. 

Since March 21, Nashville has seven wins with just one loss, giving them 14 points. Off the back of a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning and a split series with the Florida Panthers, Nashville has carried their momentum forward. During their dominance, the Preds took down the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 and 7-1.

“We’ve built some confidence over the last few weeks here,” said #10 Colton Sissons, off the back of a win on April 3 over Chicago. The 27 year old scored a goal in that matchup. With another pair of contests against the Red Wings, the Predators are looking to solidly their presence in the playoff picture.

In goal, #74 Juuse Saros has helped secure six of his last eight contests, only having less than 30 saves once (21) in the 7-1 win over Detroit. In their most recent win, Saros stopped all 41 shots recording his 13th shutout across his NHL career. Nashville secured their twentieth win of the season with just 17 games remaining.

Also, between the pipes is #35 Pekka Rinne. Despite a shaky start, Rinne has changed gears and picked up three consecutive wins. He has boasted a .935 save percentage across his last three showings.

With such strong goal scorers in the NHL and central conference, it is crucial to have a strong back end, especially when trying to secure a playoffs spot. Similarly, and equally important is not to dwell on losses. Saros mentioned, “We really wanted to get our game going again and not think about one loss.”

The Predators will split time between the road and at home in the remaining games. Eight matchups take place away from home while nine will see faceoffs in Bridgestone Arena. Predators fans will be cheering their team on as they look to lock in their playoffs position.

East: Buffalo is Back After Tying NHL Record

The NHL Eastern Conference is arguably one of the most difficult conferences to win in due to the high number of strong teams. The Buffalo Sabres have been experiencing this first hand over the season and especially in the last few weeks. Beginning February 23, the Sabres had an 18 game streak without a win. But that all changed March 31.

On the 29, Buffalo played the Philadelphia Flyers and jumped out to a 3-0 lead headed into the third. But in typical heartbreaking Buffalo fashion, the Sabres gave up three in the third to send the game to overtime. In the extra frame, Philly’s #9 Ivan Provorov broke Buffalo hearts with an overtime winner. After coming so close, when would the Sabres next have a chance?

Two nights later, the two teams met again. This time, things would be different. Buffalo rushed to a two goal lead, scoring twice in less than three minutes. From there, they never looked back. Adding four more on the scoreboard, they ended their streak with an emphatic 6-1 win over the Flyers.

The Sabres 18 game defeated run was tied, ironically, with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ skid from 2003-4. With both teams from Pennsylvania and big rivals, it seemed funny that it was the Flyers who were the ones to finally lose to Buffalo. Their loss being the win Buffalo needed to keep the Penguin’s still tied for the worst streak since the NHL added the shootout.

If that one win was not enough, the Sabres picked up another win on Saturday against the New York Rangers. Another OT loss meant that Buffalo had earned at least one point across all their contests last week. Their six points is their second highest weekly total of the season, behind January 24-30 with 7 points.

With 19 games left to play, it could be possible that Buffalo can claim the record for themselves, but things seem to be looking the other way. We will see how they cope against the seventh placed New Jersey Devils in a pair of contests this week.

West: Avalanche Approach the Top of their Conference and NHL

The Colorado Avalanche have been on a tear in the Honda West division and deservedly sit in the top spot. They have bagged an outstanding record of 12-0-2 in their last 14 games. One loss was in a shootout to the Arizona Coyotes and the other was an overtime loss against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Goaltender #31 Philipp Grubauer picked up 12 wins in March. This accumulation of victories made him just the fifth goaltender in NHL history to win 12 games in a month. He posted three shutouts during his run of 15 games and had a save percentage of .933. There is no doubt that Grubauer is currently one of the best goaltenders spanning each NHL conference.

The last time Colorado lost a game in regulation was back on March 8. With about a month left of conference play ahead of the playoffs, could the Avs have hit their stride a moment too soon? Defenseman #8 Cale Makar does not seem to think so. “…It makes it fun for us knowing that we can go into every game knowing that we have a chance to win…” Makar noted. He notched the game winner in their 2-1 win Saturday over the St. Louis Blues with 41 seconds left.

To further reinforce Makar’s thoughts, it certainly helps to have #29 Nathan MacKinnon and his return from injury. After his comeback, the NHL center has 21 points through 14 games. 13 of those points come from assists, a category in which he leads his team at 30. On the goal scoring side of things, #96 Mikko Rantanen has 21 tucks this season. Both men currently sit at 43 points.

However, now at the top, they assuredly have a target on their back. The Golden Knights will be looking to get back on top with the Minnesota Wild just a few points behind. How long will the Avalanche stay on top of the mountain? And could Grubauer’s strong performance have him in line for the Vezina Trophy at the end of the year?

For last week’s lap around the NHL click here!

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