The 2017-18 NHL season entered its final quarter on Saturday, with 956 of 1,271 games in the books (75.2%). A look at key storylines entering the remaining 315 contests of the regular season.
First place in three of the League’s four divisions is well within reach for many teams, with the top two seeds separated by four or fewer points in the Metropolitan, Atlantic and Central Divisions. The Golden Knights own a 12-point lead atop the Pacific Division. Vegas aims to become the first expansion club from either the NHL (since 1967-68), NBA (since 1961-62), MLB (since 1961) or NFL/AFL (since 1960) to finish the season atop the League standings.
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin paces the NHL with 38 goals as he pursues his seventh Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, aiming to become just the second player in NHL history to finish a season with the most goals at least seven times (Bobby Hull: 7x). Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 82 points (33-49—82) as he pursues his first Art Ross Trophy. He leads a group of 43 players age 25 or younger who have collected at least 40 points this season – a cohort that also features rookie scoring leader Mathew Barzal of the Islanders (17-49—66).
PLAYOFF PICTURE: DRIVE FOR DIVISION TITLES
First place in three of the League’s four divisions is well within reach for many teams, with only one point separating Nos. 1-3 in the Metropolitan Division, five points between Nos. 1-3 in the Atlantic Division and two teams tied in terms of points for first place in the Central Division. The expansion Golden Knights are the only club with a lead of at least five points, holding a 12-point advantage over the Sharks in the Pacific Division.
The Capitals (35-20-7, 77 points), who have posted the League’s top record in each of the past two seasons, sit atop their division – where the top four clubs are separated by only five points. This is contrary to the trend since 2013-14, as the gap between the top two clubs has been largest in the Metropolitan Division in every season during that span compared to the other three divisions (2013-14: 13 points; 2014-15: 12 points; 2015-16: 16 points; 2016-17: 7 points).
The Lightning (42-17-3, 87 points) pace the Atlantic Division and NHL after missing the playoffs last season. Tampa Bay has relinquished first place in the NHL for only six days since Nov. 28, never falling more than one point from the top spot. Only one team in the past 81 years has finished with the League’s best record after missing the playoffs the previous season – the Rangers did so in 1993-94 en-route to winning the Stanley Cup.
The Predators (37-14-9, 83 points) lead their division race – with the Jets (37-16-9, 83 points) hot on their heels – after advancing to the Stanley Cup Final as the final Western Conference playoff entrant in 2017. The Central has been the most tightly contested division since the League’s current alignment was introduced in 2013-14, with the top two seeds separated by five or fewer points in each of the past four seasons (2013-14: 1 point; 2014-15: 5 points; 2015-16: 2 points; 2016-17: 3 points).
The Golden Knights (41-16-4, 86 points), who have held first place in their division since Dec. 23, have already established records for wins and points by an NHL team in its inaugural season. Vegas now aims to become the first expansion club from either the NHL (since 1967-68), NBA (since 1961-62), MLB (since 1961) or NFL/AFL (since 1960) to finish the season atop the League standings. The Golden Knights would become the second expansion team from any of the four North American professional sports leagues to finish first in its division, joining the NBA’s Denver Nuggets who did so in 1976-77 (aside from 1967-68 Flyers, when all teams in the NHL’s West Division were expansion clubs).
PLAYOFF PICTURE: WILD CARD PUSH
Overall, 22 teams either occupy a playoff spot or sit within five points of one, including 11 teams who were not part of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs (East: TBL, PHI, NJD, NYI, CAR, FLA; West: VGK, WPG, DAL, LAK, COL).
The Eastern Conference features three teams – the Islanders (63 GP), Hurricanes (62 GP) and Panthers (59 GP) – who currently sit outside the playoff picture but within five points of the second Wild Card position. The Western Conference includes three teams outside the top eight – the Blues (62 GP), Kings (62 GP) and Avalanche (61 GP) – who are within four points of a playoff spot.
Last season, seven teams made the playoffs after not qualifying in 2015-16 – matching the largest year-to-year change in NHL history. There has been a playoff turnover of at least five clubs in 10 of the past 12 seasons.
* Information provided via NHL Press Release