Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

After sunny All-Star break, NHL playoff race is heating up

LOS ANGELES — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were linemates. Connor McDavid scored on a pass from Ryan Kesler. Wayne Simmonds was the shooting star of the show.

The dreamlike quality of the NHL All-Star Game was particularly pronounced on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Hollywood. After all, just about every All-Star got to meet his hockey heroes when most of the game's greatest living players performed the ceremonial opening faceoff with them.

"I was pretty star-struck," Montreal goalie Carey Price said.

But when the league revs up again Tuesday night, including the Lightning hosting the Bruins at 7:30 at Amalie Arena, another dream comes into focus. Only 40 percent of the regular season remains, and there's a Stanley Cup to chase.

Few teams are out of the postseason race, and nearly every club is about to begin 10 weeks of high-stakes play. Most teams reported back to work on Monday morning, and the league schedule resumes Tuesday with 28 of the 30 teams in action.

Nobody is an overwhelming title favorite yet. The Canadiens' seven-point lead in the Atlantic is the biggest edge in a division race, and the competition for the Presidents' Trophy is still wide-open as well: There are 10 teams within nine points of Washington's league-leading 72 in the chase for home-ice advantage in the postseason.

"The All-Star (weekend) a great time, but we all know what happens when we have to get back to work," San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.

Here's a quick preview of the four divisional races and what's coming up in the NHL's home stretch:

ATLANTIC

The Canadiens have bounced back smartly from last season's second-half collapse without the injured Price, and Les Habitants' nearest competitors all have problems: Ottawa's goal-scoring woes, Boston's inconsistent play and powerful Tampa Bay's major injuries have all put a cushion underneath the Canadiens.

But that cushion isn't as big as it looks. The Senators have three games in hand on Montreal, and the Lightning hopes to get Steven Stamkos back for the late playoff push.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? They've got problems, as you'd expect for a team that's made the postseason once since 2004. They've also got All-Star Auston Matthews, fellow high-scoring youngsters Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and more than enough talent to be dangerous down the stretch.

PACIFIC

The race out West is particularly enticing: San Jose, Anaheim and upstart Edmonton are separated by one point atop the division.

McDavid and the Oilers have hung in with the division's three California powers all winter, capped by back-to-back road victories over the Ducks and Sharks to close out the first half.

"We've put ourselves in a good position, and we're happy about that," McDavid said. "We realize how much work we have left to do, because this is a long season. None of it means very much if you don't finish out the way you started."

The Golden State's trio of contenders isn't about to give up.

The Ducks have won four straight Pacific titles, and they're hoping coach Randy Carlyle can inspire postseason success that Bruce Boudreau couldn't. The Sharks look easily capable of defending their Western Conference title, and the Los Angeles Kings should get star goalie Jonathan Quick back from injury shortly before the postseason.

CENTRAL

The Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks are in tight competition atop the division. Boudreau got the Wild off to their best start to a season in franchise history, and All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk is having another standout season. This could be the year Minnesota reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or at least wins two playoff rounds for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the team that beat them in the second round twice in the past three years is right behind them in the Central standings — and it just happens to be the best playoff team of this era.

Chicago returns with three of the 100 greatest players in NHL history in its lineup. Captain Jonathan Toews admits he isn't having a great season, but he has plenty of time to ramp up for another playoff run with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

METROPOLITAN

The best divisional race might be among the stars who won the four-division, 3-on-3 tournament at the All-Star Game. A four-team competition has swung back and forth in the Metropolitan, with Columbus streaking in front on its 16-game winning streak, only to be passed by Washington two weeks ago.

The Capitals' fretful fans might think they've peaked too soon yet again, but nobody gets comfortable with Crosby's Penguins lurking behind them. The defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half in third place, just seven points back.

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