Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild or Pittsburgh Penguins among playoff bubble teams that could contend for Stanley Cup
Morning Skate: Which playoff bubble team could actually win the Stanley Cup?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: The Anaheim Ducks were my pick to win the Pacific Division and to emerge from the Western Conference. I also predicted that the Nashville Predators would miss the playoffs and the Edmonton Oilers would finish second, so it’s entirely possible I was under the influence of some sort of high-strength cold medication.
Those missteps aside, I still have to believe there’s something there with the Ducks, even if it’s as a team that slips into the final wild-card spot and somehow finagles a playoff run out of it.
Are they a mess? Yeah, at the moment. The Ducks have a 2.67 team goals-against average in 43 games, which is basically all to the credit of their goaltending: John Gibson posting a .923 save percentage in 33 games, and Ryan Miller posting a very respectable .935 save percentage in 11 appearances.
The problem is that Anaheim is giving up 34 shots per game, second most in the NHL, and generating 29.5 shots, third fewest in the NHL. And 2.67 goals per game is unfortunately also what the Ducks are generating offensively this season, which ranks 25th. It’s basically what they averaged last season, but scoring is up all over the league in 2017-18. Except in Anaheim.
Only two players on the roster have double-digit goals totals: Rickard Rakell (15 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (11). Part of this is because of injury — Ryan Getzlaf has been limited to 19 games — and part of this is ineffectiveness. Corey Perry has only eight goals, for the lowest average of his career. Even newcomer Adam Henrique isn’t immune to the Ducks’ drought; he averaged more points (0.58 per game) with the New Jersey Devils than he has in 18 games since joining the Ducks (0.50).
But you know what? Maybe it all comes together at the right time — the health, the scoring and the goaltending that we already know is solid. Maybe GM Bob Murray makes another wacky, aggressive trade to boost a team whose collective fingers are basically slammed in the championship window that is shutting on them, even as they were a conference finalist last season.
Or maybe they miss the playoffs. Who knows?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Early in the season, we talked about how competitive the Metropolitan Division was. The overachieving New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders spoiled the party for regulars (the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers), meaning that the race became even tighter than usual. But halfway through the season, there’s a new uber-competitive division, and I think this one features even more contenders: the Central.
As the Winnipeg Jets, Predators and St. Louis Blues settle as the likely top three, whatever team in this division breaks through the wild card — and I think two Central teams will take the two Western Conference wild-card slots — can make a hell of a Stanley Cup run. Every team in this division is still in the hunt. (Yes, even the Colorado Avalanche). The team I’d be most worried about? The Minnesota Wild.
Through the season’s first half, the Wild did not look like the team that racked up 106 points in 2016-17 or posted a gaudy plus-58 goal differential. Their possession numbers were weak, and their offensive production was pedestrian. They would string a couple of wins together but never seem to seize momentum. But through 44 games, they’ve maintained wild-card position — for large swaths without Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Marcus Foligno, Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise. And if you’ve watched a Minnesota game in the past month, you’ve seen a team that seems to be finding its rhythm. What’s more, it’s almost healthy. (Come back soon, Niederreiter!)
Combine the Wild’s injured players with the wounded Ducks in the first half, and you could field a pretty decent roster. Minnesota only has 10 games remaining against Central Division opponents, for better or worse. If this team gets to the playoffs, it means that the Wild fended off some stiff competition to get there. And once they’re there, they’ll probably resemble their 2016-17 selves again — and that’s scary.
Chris Peters: I guess I’m going to have to be the one that goes with the Penguins. But that’s fine by me, as I think they’d still have a shot at the three-peat — if they can get into the playoffs. There are several issues with this team, like a lack of scoring depth compared with previous seasons and Matt Murray not playing at the level we had become accustomed to during his very short career. There’s also the fatigue factor, which I think is completely valid. If we’re talking bubble teams with an honest shot at the Cup, however, there are few I see with as much potential for a deep run as the Pens. If they can just get in, anything can happen — even if there’s a lower likelihood of success this season compared with the two previous.
First off, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are still all on the team. Each is scoring close to or above a point per game. Tired as they may be, each of them has been a strong postseason performer throughout his career. I don’t think it’s as easy as flipping a switch, but I’d want all three on my side in a title hunt. Meanwhile, Murray gets a clean slate in the playoffs, where he has played his best hockey as an NHL goalie. If he can stay healthy and the Pens let Tristan Jarry take some starts down the stretch to keep their young No. 1 fresh, I wouldn’t count Murray as a weakness in the postseason. Next, I’d have to imagine that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford will swing some kind of deal to help plug a few holes and bring in some fresh blood. There’s no guarantee it will work, but it does give this team at least a little extra hope as it continues to hover just outside of the playoff picture.
The Pens have had a roller-coaster season, but they’re still among the league’s best teams in a few key categories. They’re still a top-10 possession team, and they’re also top-10 in penalty killing, two fairly strong indicators of a contending team. They’re among the top teams when it comes to fewest shots against per game, and they have the league’s top power play. They’re still not scoring enough, and they allow too many goals, which is obviously why they’re in the position they’re in, but will their below-average shooting percentage and goaltending continue into the postseason? It could, but opposing teams shouldn’t bank on that.
I don’t think it’s terribly likely any bubble team ends up winning the Cup this particular season, but I also don’t think you’d want to be the team that has to face the Penguins in the first round if they get in. Should Pittsburgh get past that hurdle, it’s just one step at a time for a team that knows what it takes to be a champion.