It's down to the final week. The Sabres, of course, are gone from the playoff race again but perhaps four of their five remaining games could hold significance in the Eastern conference race, with only Saturday's game at Florida having no impact. Entering Saturday, 12 teams already had their playoff spot locked up, with only complete collapses by Nashville and Ottawa preventing them from joining the fray.
Here's a quick look at what's at stake for the season's final eight days:
The Presidents' Trophy race: The Capitals entered Saturday with a three-point lead over Chicago and a four-point edge over Columbus but blew a chance to just about lock up home-ice advantage for the playoffs when they were upset Friday in Arizona, 6-3. It looks like they only need six points in their final five games to cement the top spot and avoid the brutal 2-3 first-round matchup in the Metropolitan Division that appears to be Penguins-Blue Jackets. But it won't be easy. Washington is at Columbus on Sunday, in Toronto on Tuesday and hosts the Rangers on Wednesday.
The Toronto push: After playing in Detroit on Saturday, the Leafs' final road game is here Monday and they play their last four at home. But what a slate: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Columbus. The Leafs could pass Ottawa to finish second in the Atlantic. They could stay locked in third or fall behind Boston and slip into the final wild-card, which would likely mean a quick first-round exit at the hands of the Caps. But the Lightning and surging Carolina, with no regulation losses in 13 games, are lurking although they may run out of time. It looks like the Leafs squeeze in, but holding on to third may be an issue.
The Stamkos situation: Since blowing out his knee in November, the Lightning have been waiting for Steven Stamkos to return. They're running out of time. But Stamkos took part in Saturday's morning skate, albeit not in line rushes. The Lightning are in Boston on Tuesday and in Toronto on Thursday. It's now or never for his season with those two games.
Said Stamkos Saturday morning: "You never know. It could be next game. It could be not even the rest of the season."
The Sharks' collapse: When the Sabres left San Jose after a 4-1 loss on March 14, the Sharks had a nine-point lead in the Pacific Division and looked poised to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup final. The way things stand now, they'll be lucky to get out of the first round. San Jose has gone 1-8 in its last nine games and has been outscored, 35-16. Not enough goals, not enough saves from goalie Martin Jones.
Said defenseman Brent Burns, with one goal in 18 games after Friday's 5-2 loss in Calgary: "Who knows? We’ve got to see a witch doctor or something, I think. We’ll see."
Added coach Peter DeBoer: "It’s that combination – we’re not finishing for our goalies, and we’re not getting a big save at the right time. That’s a recipe for disaster, I don’t care what league you’re in.”
The Sharks finish with a home-and-home against Vancouver, then home games with Edmonton and Calgary. Forget home-ice in round one. They could slip to a wild-card.
Thornton roasts Habs' Emelin
Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin has given the Sabres fits over the years and he rubs all kinds of teams the wrong way at times. Florida veteran Shawn Thornton, a longtime foe in Boston, eviscerated Emelin Thursday night after a high hit on Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie.
"I think he's what's wrong with the league these days," Thornton told Marc Antoine Godin of French language La Presse in Montreal. "I think there's no accountability anymore. You can run around and take headshots at our captain and just turtle and the refs save your life. I'm getting out at the right time because I liked the game when you had to be a man and look at yourself in the mirror."
Thornton was really just heating up. He went on to say he liked Emelin's style as a defenseman but simply didn't like the way he refused to answer for high hits.
"Say what you will about me, I've always taken my beating like a man when I had to," Thornton added. "I didn't back down from John Scott when they signed him in Buffalo and I didn't back down from Georges Laraque when they signed him here. I can look at myself in the mirror. I"m not sure that idiot can."
Thornton was concussed from a celebrated beating he took from Scott in 2013, a fight that had NESN announcer Jack Edwards railing over Scott's inability to play the game.
Panthers lost their bite
Speaking of the Panthers, their season is toast, thanks to a host of injuries and underachieving throughout their lineup. The Panthers were unimpressive in Monday's loss here against the Sabres and marginally better in their losses in Toronto and Montreal that followed. Interim coach and GM Tom Rowe was not pleased with his team, which is filled with guys who got multi-year contracts that helped build last year's Atlantic Division championship squad.
"Just because guys have contracts doesn’t mean they can’t get traded either," Rowe told reporters prior to the 3-2 loss Tuesday to the Leafs. "They've got to perform. Last night was unacceptable. We beat Chicago 7-0 playing good, then we go into Buffalo for a very, very big game and we come up with a 4-2 loss and they didn’t compete the way they were supposed to. At the end of the day, contracts are great. We did it for salary-cap reasons. But it doesn’t mean guys are going to retire here if they keep playing like they did."
The Panthers were 11-10-1 when they fired Gerard Gallant in November. They entered the weekend 22-24-10 under Rowe. It remains to be seen what will happen with 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who is expected to play next year.
"It hasn’t been a fun couple of days after the Buffalo game," Rowe said. "We’ve had some discussions with some guys. It was a pretty cranky group."
One player who has earned Rowe’s praise is forward Jonathan Marchessault, who leads the team with 29 goals after signing for just $1.5 million over two years last summer. Asked about an extension for Marchessult, Rowe initially said it would be discussed at the end of the season, but then smiled and added: “We’ve done enough extensions. Maybe a two-year extension, that’s it.”
Oilers go Orange
As the Oilers clinched their first playoff berth since 2006, they also revealed they're retiring their long-standing blue sweaters. The home darks are going to be replaced full-time by the orange version that was unveiled as an alternate the night Connor McDavid was drafted in Florida in 2015. The sweater was initially planned to be a tribute to the original one from Edmonton's WHA days and for the final season at Rexall Place.
But it's sharp-looking, has become popular and carries deeper significance. There are not third jerseys next year with the shift to Adidas from Reebok.
"I want to touch and respect the past, but we’re in a new building. We’re in a new era. We have a new leader in Connor McDavid," said Bob Nicholson, vice chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group. "We have a team that is building their identity for today. It’s great to talk about playoff memories from the past and 2006, but this is a new era."
Nicholson said the team will encourage fans to wear orange and there will be orange pom poms passed out, so it should be quite a sight in Rogers Place when the playoffs open.
Vanek looking ahead
Former Sabre Thomas Vanek, who has been with five teams since being traded in October, 2013, said here last week he loves the setup in Florida even though he only has one goal since the Panthers traded for him at the deadline. Vanek has 16 goals this season and said he really enjoyed playing in Detroit as well, so you wonder if he'll ponder the Panthers and new arena-bound Wings in the summer.
Vanek, now 33, said he's already pondering some sort of role in hockey management when his playing days are over. But that's not coming soon. And playing for multiple organizations has given him perspective on different ways to approach the game.
"Someday down the road it’s going to help me in my next opportunity after hockey knowing how different franchises work and operate,” Vanek said. “That part of it has been a good experience.”
As for coaching, Vanek shot down that suggestion.
"Too much video nowadays," he said with a laugh. Vanek clearly knew the Buffalo reporters speaking to him got the hint. He used to be one of Lindy Ruff's personal punching bags during video sessions in his days with the Sabres.
Around the boards
---Concussed Penguins winger Jake Guentzel missed four games, returning Friday in New York, after the hit he took from Rasmus Ristolainen, and that's the only possible justification for the Buffalo defenseman's absurdly excessive three-game suspension.
Said former NHL goalie and current Sportsnet analyst Kelly Hrudey on the air last week: "That's interference. There's no question. It's a two-minute penalty. Guentzel didn't even have the puck. But that's not a suspension to me. Three games because he's much taller? Rob Blake made a career of doing that and he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame. For a silly interference penalty, Ristolainen is losing $90,000 for what should have been a two-minute penalty."
---Loved the way the Sabres paid tribute to captain Brian Gionta throughout his 1,000th game. The pregame ceremony struck all the right chords and the video tributes interspersed during stoppages were well done and cut way back on the ridiculous, screeching chatter and barrage of ads you get most nights. Getting a message from former Devils and current Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello was a particular coup.
Nice giveaway item too with a towel made to look like Gionta's No. 12 jersey. The Sabres should do more giveaways. And they should be for all fans, not just for the first 10-12,000 through the gates.
---Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in March: 9-1-1, 1.09 goals-against average, .967 save percentage. Something for the Penguins to ponder.
---It was a pleasure to congratulate booming Leafs voice Joe Bowen on his 3,000th NHL game when he came to town last week. The devout Notre Dame fan nicknamed "Bonsie," who tweets at @Bonsietweets, is absolutely one of my favorite voices behind in the mic in the NHL. He'll be back, of course, for Monday's game here on the Leafs radio network.
The Leafs and Sportsnet made a major goof taking Bowen off the television side when the league's new rights agreements were announced for 2014. He's a treasure and his calls are as wild as ever now that the Leafs have Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and appear headed for the playoffs.