Atlantic heavyweights Maple Leafs, Panthers headline huge weekend

The 2022 NHL trade deadline has come and gone, which means it’s now officially time to switch gears and embrace another kind of chaos: the race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference, the stage is pretty much set — there’s a pretty steep drop-off between the Washington Capitals, currently sitting in the second wild-card spot, and the ninth-place Columbus Blue Jackets. Where the top eight teams finish in the standings, however, is still very much up in the air. Meanwhile, in the West, plenty of spots are still to be won and lost — just not the top spot, of course … Colorado’s all but locked that up.

This weekend features a pretty stacked lineup of playoff-caliber matchups with post-season implications on the line. Let’s take a look at where things stand ahead of a busy weekend, and zero in on some must-watch matchups to come.

Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference standings ahead of this weekend’s action:

If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Eastern Conference first-round matchups:

(A1) Panthers vs. (WC2) Capitals

(A2) Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Bruins

(M1) Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Lightning

(M2) Penguins vs. (M3) Rangers

Here’s a look at the Western Conference standings ahead of this weekend’s action:

If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:

(C1) Avalanche vs. (WC2) stars

(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Blues

(P1) Flames vs. (WC1) Predators

(P2) Kings vs. (P3) Oilers

THIS WEEKEND’S MUST-WATCH MATCHUPS

Penguins, Rangers serve up playoff preview

Penguins @ Rangers, Friday 7 p.m. ET

Perhaps the NHL’s schedule-makers knew something the rest of us didn’t while putting together the 82-game grids for the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. As we roll into the final month of the regular season and teams jockey for position in the playoff picture, these two Metropolitan teams look poised to meet in Round 1, which means we’re in for a treat starting Friday as we watch these clubs go head-to-head three times in the next two weeks. After Friday night’s meetup in Manhattan, they’ll face each other again Tuesday in Pittsburgh, followed by the fourth stop of their season series back in New York April 7. Considering their first meeting of 2021-22 was just a month ago on Feb. 26 (a 1-0 Pittsburgh win in a defensive affair), we could be in a playoff feel as these clubs really get acquainted.

Not only will we get a taste of what’s (possibly) to come in Round 1 with this mini-series in the Metropolitan race, we’re also getting our first glimpses of what we can expect from both squads post-deadline in what is a pretty tight divisional race. New York was one of the busiest teams on Monday, bringing in quite the haul in versatile forwards Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte, and tough defenseman Justin Braun. Driven by the red-hot play of starting goalie Igor Shesterkin, and fresh off wins over Eastern Conference heavyweights Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Rangers are grateful an opportunity to declare to the league that they are ready to seriously contend. That message was lost, however, in their first game since the deadline: a 7-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. The silver lining in what was, overall, a pretty dismal, disjointed performance, however, was the play of new acquisitions Copp and Motte. Copp had two assists in his Rangers debut, collaborating with Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad in the first period, and then Chris Kreider and Fox during a power-play in the third. Motte, meanwhile, led the team in shots on goal (four), tied with Zibanejad and Filip Chytil. Will we see a more cohesive unit Friday night against Pittsburgh?

The Penguins have played two games since the deadline, with mixed results: A 5-1 win Tuesday over Columbus and a 4-3 loss settled in a shootout in Buffalo. Their newest star forward, Rickard Rakell, suited up in both games, registering two shots against the Blue Jackets while running on very little sleep following a red-eye flight east. He was held off the scoresheet again the next night, again tallying two shots. Now, with hopefully a little more rest, we’ll start to see the real Rakell and what he can do in this talented offensive group.

Battle of Alberta, Chapter IV

Oilers @ Flames, Saturday 10 p.m. ET

This weekend features some pretty enticing rivalry matchups, including another edition of Maple Leafs-Canadiens, but the biggest by far is Saturday night’s Battle of Alberta. In addition to this being the final regular-season game between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, there are also plenty of playoff implications here as the first- and third-place teams in the Pacific, respectively, continue to jockey for position.

The Oilers won the first two games of this series, starting with a 5-2 win in the season-opener on Oct. 16 (featuring a Connor McDavid hat trick), followed by a 5-3 victory on Jan. 22. That win marked Edmonton’s first since Dec. 18, ending what was a pretty devastating stretch that saw them endure 10 COVID-induced postponements over the 34 days that followed, playing just seven games – and losing all of them. And yet despite that horrific spell, and the coaching change that came just a few weeks later, here’s Edmonton sitting in a playoff spot as we stare down the final stretch. Saturday’s matchup should be a good measuring stick for how they stack up against the West’s best.

While Edmonton’s season has been the bumpiest of rides, Calgary’s has been pretty much smooth sailing. The Flames sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division and after a series of smart trades stretched out over the month leading up to Monday’s deadline, look all the more prepared for a playoff run. In the two and a half weeks since defeating the Oilers 3-1 on March 7 for their first win of the season series, the Flames have had mixed results, however, winning four of eight games and continuing an impressive 2022 trend: Calgary hasn’ t lost back-to-back games since losing three straight way back in early January against a murderers row of opponents (Panthers, Lightning, Hurricanes). The Flames are at a bit of disadvantage Saturday night, as they’ll be coming off a Friday matchup against Arizona. A pair of wins will see the Flames pad their Pacific lead, but there’s little room for error.

Central, Atlantic heavyweights headline huge weekend

Avalanche @ Wild, Sunday 6 p.m. ET | Panthers @ Maple Leafs, Sunday 7 p.m. ET

The NHL clearly didn’t get the memo about lazy Sundays, considering how stacked this one is. We’ve got two massive divisional matchups featuring top clubs in the Central and the Atlantic going head-to-head when the Colorado Avalanche visit the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Florida Panthers.

The Wild’s back-to-back weekend schedule means we’ll be getting our first glimpse of Minnesota’s newest netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury, after the club traded for him at the deadline. According to Wild reporter Michael Russoit’s expected that Fleury will make his Minnesota debut Saturday against the Blue Jackets, leaving Sunday’s showdown for Cam Talbot.

The reigning Vezina winner was at Xcel Energy Center to watch new teammate Talbot shut out his old club Vegas, and watched again Wednesday as Talbot tallied his seventh straight victory.

There’s probably no catching Colorado in the standings, considering the Avalanche are 15 points ahead of them with a month to go and have all but officially locked in the West’s top seed. But Sunday’s game will be a really intriguing measuring stick for Minnesota after losing the first two installments of this season series … and a hint of what could be coming later on this spring. And all the while, the Wild’s goalie situation and how they balance the crease, will be a fascinating one.

Speaking of intrigue and goalie situations … Sunday’s prime-time headliner between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers should be a real barn-burner – and it’ll be interesting to see how the Maple Leafs approach the crease, considering they’ve got a back-to-back situation of their own with a game against Montreal Saturday night. Jack Campbell skated Friday but still has yet to practice with the team since the announcement of his rib injury March 10, which means we’ll be seeing more of Erik Kallgren, as Campbell remains out. It’s likely, then, that Petr Mrazek will start Sunday in what’ll be his most important test of the season – and a massive opportunity to build some confidence all around. After the Maple Leafs didn’t land a goaltender at Monday’s deadline, there’s more pressure than ever on this trio. Florida, too, will enter Sunday’s game having played Saturday night – they’ve got a date with Ottawa.

After Boston leapfrogged Tampa Bay in the standings Thursday by defeating the back-to-back champs, Toronto is hanging on to second place by a thread. The Panthers have space between themselves and the tangle of teams in second, third and fourth in the Atlantic, but by weekend’s end that 2-3-4 order could be completely changed. The Bruins and Lightning both have winnable games ahead, with Boston playing the Islanders Saturday afternoon and Tampa taking on Detroit and the Islanders.

The heavyweight Panthers welcomed deadline acquisitions Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot to the lineup for the first time Thursday night, with both players landing on the score sheet. Chiarot tallied one assist against his old team in Montreal, while Giroux got two helpers in the winning effort. As if Florida wasn’t already a force, we could see a downright dominating team down the stretch.

This is the first time Toronto and Florida are meeting this season. They’ll face each other again April 5 followed by their final meetup April 23.

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