Some thoughts and observations as we head into the final week of the regular season:
Hard Hits Lead to Fights
There seems to be a rash of fights breaking out after hard but clean hits throughout the league. There is no logic to it. I always thought that hard but clean hits were part of hockey and a desirable part at that. But now, if you hit a player “too hard”, one of his teammates is likely to drop his gloves and come out swinging at you. I can understand going after a player who gets his stick or elbow up or hits a player late, but just retaliating for a hard but clean hit is just not part of “The Code” that hockey players have lived by for decades. Players should not have to defend themselves for making a clean but hard hit.
Lottery Race Coincidence
It’s a good thing the NHL uses a lottery system instead of automatically awarding the team with the worst record with the top pick in the following year’s Entry Draft. The rule change was inspired by the “race” between the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins to see who would get the draft rights to Mario Lemieux. Both teams appeared to be tanking it and the rule was changed.
This week, the three teams with the league’s worst records all announced that some of their best players would be shut down, some of them for the season. Colorado’s Ryan Smyth is done for the year and so is Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier. The Islanders, meanwhile, have been playing without Mark Streit for the last two games and without top goal scorer Kyle Okposo. I am not necessarily challenging the legitimacy of these injuries (after all, Smyth and Lecavalier have broken bones), but both this does seem like quite a coincidence. Let’s just say that teams at the bottom of the standings have no incentive to have their best players play through their injuries this late in the season.
Cam Ward Shines in Carolina
The Carolina Hurricanes have gone from the fringes of the playoff race to being in the thick of the race for home ice advantage in the first round. Goalie Cam Ward has been a major reason for the revival in Carolina. Ward was named the NHL’s First Star of the month for March after going 10-1-2 with a 1.98 goals against average and .938 save percentage. He has also started 25 straight games (17-6-2) and has been most impressive when his team needed him most.
“You can tell when Cam’s at his best,” Canes forward Erik Cole told The News and Observer. “He’s got that bounce in his step in the net and he’s out challenging shooters. You can see it now for sure. He’s been real confident back there. He’s always had that calm demeanor, and when he’s playing with confidence, and being poised naturally, he’s a pretty settling influence on the rest of the guys.”
Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2006 when he led the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup. Canes fans have to hope that Ward doesn’t become exhausted after playing so many games down the stretch, but he certainly has been playing like he can take his team on another deep playoff run.
Northwest Division Race Critical
The race to win the Northwest Division between Calgary and Vancouver will be a crucial one. The division champion will clinch the number three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The runner up may not even have home ice advantage in the first round, depending on how the Blackhawks finish their season. Right now, Chicago is one point behind Vancouver and Calgary in the standings but the Hawks have one game in hand. The stretch drive and playoff races have been very exciting throughout the league.
Look for the playoffs themselves to be even better. The league should not change the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs. The races are exciting and only good teams will make the playoffs. The quality of play in the postseason should also be outstanding and adding more teams will just water it down.