Welcome to the final week of the schedule. Can still remember being in Columbus in September for the preseason and, of course, listening to the Blue Jackets’ infernal goal cannon.
A lot has happened since then, both on and off the ice. When it comes to the Sabers, it seems like enough for two or three seasons.
As we entered Saturday, only one of the NHL’s first-round playoff matchups had been decided and even that one (St. Louis-Minnesota) had home-ice advantage up for grabs. Here’s a rundown of what to keep your eye on until the schedule runs out Friday night.
West wild cards/Sabres’ draft pick: Dallas has come back to the pack and Vegas is still alive for the final Western conference slot. It seems like Vegas’ game Tuesday at Dallas, which has its last four at home, must be win-in-regulation for the Golden Knights.
The Sabres, of course, never imagined when they traded Jack Eichel in November that the Golden Knights might miss the playoffs. They have Vegas’ first-round pick and it’s Top 10 protected.
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So if Vegas misses the playoffs and goes nowhere in the lottery, Buffalo could be looking at a pick in the No. 15-16 range instead of a high-20s or low-30s that many forecasted at the time. A notable reminder that Vegas strikes gold in the lottery, the pick is deferred to 2023.
East matches: It looks like Toronto will finish second in the Atlantic with the most points in its history – and the Leafs’ reward will be a first-rounder with two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay. The Lightning’s 8-1 win Thursday night was a bit of a message-sender, although Auston Matthews sat out a second straight game with a lingering injury.
At the start of play Saturday, Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington all had 99 points, with the Pens and Caps owning idential 44-23-11 records. Not landing in the second wild-card and a first-round matchup with Florida seems preferable.
Metropolitan Division: With Florida, Colorado and Calgary already crowned, this is the only one up for grabs. Carolina and New York entered the weekend tied at 108 points but the Hurricanes have bigger issues with an injury to goalie Frederik Andersen. Can they rely on Antti Raanta in the playoffs if they have to?
Saturday at New Jersey, the Canes gave Pyotr Kochetkov his first NHL start after he went 13-1-1, 2.09/.921 at Chicago of the AHL following his departure from the KHL. Kochetkov was taken in the second round in 2019 with a pick acquired from the Sabers for Jeff Skinner.
Presidents Trophy: We could have two teams at or above 120 points in the same season for the first time in history but Florida has a leg up on Colorado as it entered Saturday night on a 12-game winning streak, while the Avs’ were on a three- game skid that included a loss at Seattle. The Panthers, remember, have the longest playoff series victory drought in the league. It dates to their 1996 win over Pittsburgh in the East final. Who were they swept by in the Stanley Cup final? The Avs.
McCabe, Risto still on outside
Eichel still has a shot at the playoffs while Florida’s Sam Reinhart and Boston’s Linus Ullmark will be going for the first time in their careers. But the veteran defensemen who left the Sabers after last season continue to not get a sniff of the postseason.
Chicago’s Jake McCabe is up to 423 career games and no playoffs in seven seasons and the first year of his four-year deal with the Blackhawks has been an abject disappointment.
“I’m pretty unhappy with it,” McCabe told Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times last week. “We weren’t winning this year. Had pretty high expectations and didn’t get it done.”
And with three more years on his contract, McCabe is now again in the midst of the full-fledged rebuild that he thought he was leaving when he didn’t return to the Sabers.
“Yeah, it sucks,” he said. “But I’m committed to helping turn this thing around here, continuing to work my butt off every night and trying to help us find a culture and identity here.”
Imagine that. McCabe left one place that had no culture and identity and surely thought he’d find one in Chicago. Instead, the Sabers have finally forged one and the Blackhawks are completely adrift from the glory days of their Stanley Cup runs, even doing a Sabers-style firing of the coach and general manager.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Rasmus Ristolainen is up to 608 games through nine seasons with no playoffs and his two goals this year are his fewest since the two he scored in his 2013-14 rookie campaign. But he’s set for the next five years in Philly with a $25.1 million extension he signed last month.
The Flyers have somehow identified Ristolainen as a core piece to their future. It’s hard to see. With Claude Giroux traded, you’d think it’s a full rebuild there as well. The Wells Fargo Center looks downright vacant during Flyers games. GM Chuck Fletcher somehow survives and they still need a coach.
Devils coach Lindy Ruff was asked a routine question after Thursday’s morning skate about how technology mushroomed around the game in recent years and had an interesting take on the proliferation of it on benches during games.
“I think the iPads sometimes are a distraction. Players are grabbing for iPads constantly,” Ruff said. “There’s times I’d just like to take the iPads and throw them away. I sense that almost everybody’s looking at them.
“Sometimes when there’s a mistake, they’re looking at justification, that it might not be me. If you’re barking out something we weren’t good enough at, automatically somebody’s reaching back and grabbing it and they want to go, ‘ Come on, that wasn’t me.'”
Hey there, Lindy Ruff. I asked him about Owen Power and he said, “I think you look at a Dahlin and a Power and you look at two players that could be cornerstones for a long period of time. And those guys are hard to find.” #Sabers #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/N659IwLxO1
—Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) April 21, 2022
• Nice job by the Sabers to have a moment of silence prior to Saturday’s game for the late Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur. Two terrible losses for the NHL in recent days. I can unquestionably say Lafleur was my favorite visiting player to watch in the Aud during the 1970s.
I was there in Montreal in 2018 when Lafleur was with Montreal announcer Sergio Momesso and surprised Dan Dunleavy, Rob Ray and I as we were standing behind the glass prior to a morning skate in the Bell Centre. The Sabers’ announcers got some pictures with him and, as I learned this week, retired to an office to for more hockey talk.
One of THE BEST days of my career was this one. Thank goodness before covid & travel changes Rayzor & I had a chance to sit with Guy Lafleur & Sergio while in Montreal w/@BuffaloSabres. To sit in Bell Center & talk about the game with this man was a “pinch me” moment. #RIPGuy https://t.co/G1bjMS8PUK pic.twitter.com/vSbFsr80Gp
— Dan Dunleavy (@Dan_Dunleavy) April 22, 2022
• Rasmus Dahlin on the quick growth of Owen Power: “It’s great to see how simple he’s adjusted. I’ve learned a few things from him. He likes to hold the puck and I like watching him and do the same thing. He’s great for us and he will just grow and grow and become a great defenseman in this league. We’re super happy that we have him.”
• Taylor Hall entered Saturday with 17 goals and 39 assists in 77 games for the Bruins. Kyle Okposo entering Saturday: 21 goals, 23 assists and 44 points in 73 games. If the league gave an actual Comeback Player of the Year award, two of the top candidates would be Okposo and Jeff Skinner.
• MSG cameras caught Ruff scowling in the direction of goalie Andrew Hammond after the Sabres’ back-to-back shorthanded goals Thursday in Newark. Cracked analyst Rob Ray: “Lindy is not happy. I’ve been on the other end of that look before.”
• Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau entered the weekend third in the scoring race at 109 points. He had 38 goals, 71 assists and a league-leading plus-60 rating. He could be the first player at plus-60 or better since Detroit’s Vladimir Konstantinov was plus-60 in 1995-96. And he’s an unrestricted free agent. Story to watch: Does the South Jersey native go home to Philadelphia this summer or stay in Calgary?
“We want him back here. We’re going to move heaven and Earth and do everything we possibly can to get Johnny back here,” Calgary GM Brad Treliving said last week on Hockey Night in Canada.
• No retirement for Marc-Andre Fleury, who told French language La Presse in Montreal he’s on board to play in 2022-23. Will that be in Minnesota? Perhaps a swan song in Pittsburgh?
“I still love to play. I still have fun,” said Fleury, who is 7-1, 2.64/.918 since being traded from Chicago to the Wild at the deadline. “My body is still holding up most of the time. So yes, another season and then we will see after.”
• Speaking of the Wild, second-year pro Karill Kaprizov cracked the 100-point mark on Friday – becoming the first player drafted in the fifth round or later to do that since former sixth-rounder Daniel Alfredsson had 103 points for Ottawa in 2005- 06. Kaprizov had a goal and three assists in a 6-3 win over Seattle to push his season totals to 45 goals and 56 assists with four games left.
• We know the Coyotes are locked into playing at least the next two years at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat hockey arena but the team may be prepared to give back to the school for being its hosts. According to GoPhnx.com, the sides are discussing having Arizona State move its basketball games to the Coyotes’ 16,000-seat home in Tempe when it’s completed.
Arizona State, coached by former Duke star and UB boss Bobby Hurley, plays in a 14,000-seat campus arena that dates to 1974 and is considered subpar by most Pac-12 observers.