Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
As the NHL paused the 2019-20 season on March 12 in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, it came at a good time for some teams around the league that were getting away from their game or suffering from injuries, while it was bad for others who were finding their best game at the right time. NoVa Caps takes a look at the teams that this break came at the right time for and teams it came at the worst time for.
Injuries finally began to catch up to the Penguins just before the pause as they went 3-8-0 in their last 11 games, including a six-game regulation losing streak. During that stretch, the black and gold went without a point against three of the worst teams in the league on a three-game California road trip and got outscored by a combined score of 10-5 in two games against the rival Capitals. In fact, their only three wins in that stretch came against the Senators, Sabres, and New Jersey Devils, all teams in the bottom seven of the NHL standings. Due to that bad stretch, they fell three points behind the Flyers for second in the Metropolitan Division and four behind the Capitals for first. For a team that was already getting healthier and added some depth upfront at the trade deadline, the potential return of forward Jake Guentzel, who recorded 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games before undergoing shoulder surgery on New Year’s Eve that would cost him four to six months from the lineup, would be a big one if the season were to resume.
Columbus Blue Jackets
After going 19-3-5 from December 9 to February 8, the Blue Jackets went 3-6-6 which included an eight-game losing streak (0-3-5) in their last 15 games. To make matters worse, they faced a daunting schedule the remainder of the season with dates against the Capitals, Penguins, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning (twice), and Carolina Hurricanes. Their 2.27 goals-per-game average during that span was better than only the Red Wings (1.93). In addition, they were dealing with injuries to star defenseman Seth Jones, forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, and forward Josh Anderson, among others. The Blue Jackets entered the break one point up on the New York Islanders for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but the Islanders had two games in hand.
New York Islanders
The Islanders were in the midst of a daunting three-game Western Canadian road trip against three very good teams before the NHL paused in the midst of a season-long seven-game losing streak (0-3-4). But their struggles went far beyond that. In fact, since a franchise-record 17-game point-streak to begin the season (15-0-2), the Islanders were 19-20-8. During that span, their average of 2.62 goals-per-game is 24th in the NHL and they have a -16 goal differential. The Islanders’ average of 29.6 shots-per-game is tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the third-lowest in the NHL this season. With some more time to plan for head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders could turn it around. With defensemen Adam Pelech and Johnny Boychuk, the banged-up Islanders also get some much-needed rest.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After an 11-game winning streak ended, the Lightning went 3-6-1 in their last 10-games before the pause with a game against the hottest team in the NHL approaching the day action was paused. That stretch included a 5-4 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings, who have had a historically bad season. During that stretch, they allowed an average of 3.50 goals-per-game, the fifth-most in the league, and were 71.8% efficient on the penalty kill, the sixth-worst. In addition, they were missing captain Steven Stamkos, who was expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a core muscle injury that required surgery, and reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman.
The Canucks went 2-5-0 in their last seven games and 6-9-2 since February 2 leading up to the pause. Only the Red Wings (5-12-1) were worse. Their average of 3.53 goals-against per game during that span was tied with the Capitals for the most in the NHL during that stretch. They were also 77.1% efficient with a man down and allowed an average of 35.1 shots-against per game during that time. Only the Devils (35.4) allowed more. However, trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli seemed to be fitting right in as he posted six goals and 10 points in 10 games with the Canucks. The slump kicked the Canucks out of a wild-card spot at the time the league paused, though they were tied with the Nashville Predators for the second spot.
Since the Coyotes acquired star forward Taylor Hall in a blockbuster deal with the Devils on December 16, they are 14-17-4, which is the fifth-worst record in the NHL in that time. Though, they were without Vezina contender Darcy Kuemper, who ranks fifth with a .928 save percentage and is tied with Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars for fourth with a 2.22 goals-against average this season, for almost all of that time. The additions of Hall and Phil Kessel haven’t led to as much of a boost offensively as the Coyotes were looking for as their average of 2.80 goals-per-game with both on the team is 21st in the NHL. Their goals-against have also increased to an average of 2.89 from 2.34 before the trade while their 17.6% power-play efficiency with Hall is 24th. They dropped their last two before the pause.
The Stars lost their last six games (0-4-2) before the pause and drifted to 10 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second spot in the Central Division. They scored three goals in their last four games combined before the pause, including back-to-back shutouts at the hands of the Nashville Predators. The Stars’ bread and butter for the last two years has been on defense, as their 2.52 goals-against per game rank second in the NHL behind only the Bruins’ 2.39, but the offseason additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry haven’t helped as much as they had hoped as their average of 2.58 goals-per-game is the sixth-worst in the NHL and the second-worst among teams occupying a Stanley Cup Playoff spot at the pause (Blue Jackets: 2.57).
Detroit Red Wings
It has been a nightmare season for the Red Wings as they were already eliminated and already secured last place in the NHL for the campaign nearly three weeks before the NHL paused. They had won two of their final three games prior but had two games against both the Capitals and Lightning and one each against the Bruins, Flyers, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights. Now with the NHL season uncertain to return and likely to fast-forward right to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they do at all, the Red Wings were able to escape one of the worst seasons in NHL history and shift their focus to the 2020-2021 campaign.
While the team was coming off of one of their best performances of the season in a 5-2 win at the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 7, they fell flat in the first two periods in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres before storming back in the third period to get a point two days later. Since a 26-6-5 start to the season, the Capitals are 19-16-3, where they have allowed the third-most goals-per-game (3.32) in the league behind only the Detroit Red Wings (3.55) and Ottawa Senators (3.51) and are tied with the San Jose Sharks the second-worst record in the NHL since February 1 at 6-8-3, ahead of only the Red Wings (5-13-1). With an aging core that was underperforming for the month, the pause came at the perfect time for the Capitals as they are one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division after having a 10-point lead for that spot on December 27.
The Flyers were the league’s hottest team for the last two months leading up to the pause. While their nine-game winning streak was snapped with a 2-0 loss to the league-leading Bruins in their final game before the pause, their 19-6-1 record since January 8 was tied with Boston for the best in the NHL during that stretch. Though, seven of their final 13 games were on the road where they were 16-15-3 this season. They also had some tough games coming up with the Lightning, Blues, Stars, Oilers, and Penguins all remaining on their schedule. While they heated up prior to the pause, the Flyers have been a streaky team for years so it was far from certain they would be able to sustain their recent performance.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues won 10 of their last 12 games leading up to the pause and had a favorable schedule remaining with games against the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, and Detroit Red Wings remaining on their schedule. Though, they had alternated wins and losses in their last four games before the pause. Forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who has not played since October 24 after undergoing shoulder surgery, was also getting closer to returning. However, some extra rest for the defending champions may be beneficial as they lead the Western Conference with 94 points at the moment and had not yet shown signs of getting the dreaded Cup hangover.
While the Avalanche were 2-2-1 in their last five before the pause, they went 17-5-4 in their last 26 to lead the Western Conference since January 9. They entered the pause two points back of the Blues with a game in hand. Their average of 3.37 goals-per-game at the pause also led the Western Conference while their average of 2.71 goals-against per game is the sixth-lowest in the NHL. Though, forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Andre Burakovsky, Mikko Rantanen, and goaltender Philipp Grubauer all missed time due to injury and the Avalanche had been injury prone all year long. So perhaps, the rest would likely benefit them.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights were rolling along with 11 wins in their last 13 games before the pause and looked poised for a deep run during the Spring after sweeping the Alberta portion on their five-game road trip. They had some big games coming up, including heavyweight battles with the Avalanche, Canucks, Oilers, Jets, Stars, and Coyotes to close out the season. Forward Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Alec Martinez have revived their careers in Vegas after getting acquired in separate trades and they had arguably the NHL’s best goalie tandem after acquiring Robin Lehner at the deadline. The Golden Knights were able to gain some traction after being inconsistent for the first four months of the season and any momentum gained is gone for the Golden Knights.
The Wild had won three of their last four and went 8-4-0 since replacing head coach Bruce Boudreau with interim Dean Evason to climb within one point of the Predators for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Things were about to get big for the Wild as they had games against the Golden Knights, Flyers, Predators, Blackhawks, Jets, Avalanche, Blues, Capitals, and Predators left on their slate. Forward Kevin Fiala was also on a huge hot streak with 14 goals and 26 points in his last 18 games, including a two-goal performance in the team’s 5-4 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks, their final game before the pause. Minnesota got off to a tough start to the season, going a league-worst 7-11-2. So the challenge for them will be to pick it back up again once play resumes, which is easier said than done.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings were red-hot before action paused as they won seven straight and went 10-2-1 in their final 13, the third-best record in the NHL during that time. Shockingly, their offense, which has been the league’s worst the past two seasons, started clicking as they scored at a rate of 3.08 goals-per-game. The Kings also rediscovered their defensive game as their 2.15 goals-against per game during that stretch was second in the NHL behind only the Winnipeg Jets (2.00). Their penalty kill was also returning to form as their 88.6% penalty-killing efficiency ranked eighth over that time. While the Kings were not likely to make a run towards a Stanley Cup Playoff spot anyway, they had some games that they could take advantage of as they were slated to face the Ducks twice and the Montreal Canadiens, Blackhawks, and Sharks once each. While the pause may have cost the Kings a chance of a run with a core that has won before, it was unlikely anyway and it may have given them a greater chance at a better draft pick as they owned the fourth-worst record in the NHL when play stopped.
The Jets entered the pause on a four-game winning streak to climb within two points of the ice-cold Stars, though Dallas had two games in hand on the Jets, and got their defensive game in order as stated above. Their 92.6% penalty-killing efficiency since February 12 was tops in the league during that time while their 27.6% power-play efficiency was fourth. They were also averaging 3.23 goals-per-game, which was tied for eighth with the Lightning during that time. The Jets came into the pause on the heels of some big wins, including a 4-0 win over the Golden Knights, a 4-2 victory over the Coyotes, and a 4-2 win against the Oilers before the league paused. Two of those teams were potential first-round opponents while they are battling with the Coyotes for wild-card positioning. The Jets had some big games left too, including matches against the Canucks, Wild, Stars, Predators, Avalanche, and Golden Knights and two against the Flames. Like the Kings, picking up the slack is easier said than done and the Jets have been pretty inconsistent this season.
The Predators also came into the pause on a roll, with three straight wins, including back-to-back shutouts over the Stars, and a 9-4-1 record in their previous 14 games to climb into a tie with the slumping Canucks for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. More importantly, they had seemed to return to their identity of being a defensively stingy team as they allowed only two goals over that winning streak. Their average of 3.10 goals-against per game this season was tied for the 11th-highest in the NHL this season, which is not what we’re used to seeing from the Predators. Forward Filip Forsberg was also starting to get hot, recording three goals and five points in the team’s final four games before action stopped, including a three-point night against the Canadiens in their final game. Goaltender Juuse Saros also posted a save percentage of .953 and allowed only 15 goals in his last nine games before the pause. They had some big tests coming up with two games left against each the Wild, Avalanche, and Flyers and one against each the Coyotes, Blackhawks, and Jets.
After going big at the NHL Trade Deadline, it was all starting to gel for the Hurricanes as they won three straight and had some games they could take advantage of, with two left against the Devils and Buffalo Sabres and one against the Senators. They also had some huge games remaining, including three games against the Penguins, two against the Bruins, one against the Islanders, and one against the Maple Leafs. The Penguins were beginning to slip, and while the Hurricanes entered the pause five points behind them, they had a game in hand and some big opportunities to chase them down. If they don’t play again, they still get at least two more years out of center Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Brady Skjei. Though, defenseman Sami Vatanen can become an unrestricted free agent after this season and had not played a game for Carolina yet after being acquired from the Devils. The break will give the Hurricanes’ banged-up blueline some much-needed rest. Injured players include Vatanen, Dougie Hamilton (had not played since January 16 due to a broken left fibula), and Brett Pesce (had not played since February 22 after undergoing right shoulder surgery). While their blueline will have time to heal, the Hurricanes already had tremendous depth on defense with their prospects and trade deadline acquisitions to make up for it.
By Harrison Brown