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Around the NHL: Hurricanes Vindicated, Sabres in a Tailspin, and a Meager Western Playoff Race

By Ryan Black, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

It’s getting to be that time of the year again, and it’s looking more and more like that time of the year won’t include the Flyers. So who do you root for, if they’re out? Your favorite uniform from the other conference? Whoever's playing the Pittsburgh Penguins?

This year, plenty of Flyers fans’ hearts will be with the Nashville Predators, new home of Wayne Simmonds (with a bonus Peter Laviolette behind the bench). Unfortunately, Wayne’s career in the mustard-and-navy isn’t off to a hot start. He has just one assist in eight games for his new squad, which has gone 4-4-0 in that stretch. He did throw down with Michael Haley of the San Jose Sharks for a rather underwhelming fight, though.

Perhaps he’ll pick it up in the playoffs, which he and his current teammates will definitely be in. Let’s look at other teams that will and won’t also be there in this week’s Around the NHL.

The Hurricanes Are (Probably) Playoff-Bound

For the first time in a decade, the Carolina Hurricanes seem destined to return to the playoffs. They’ve been a darling pick among hockey thinkers for the last couple of years due to dominance in certain advanced stats, but that hadn’t really translated into enough wins to make the dance.

For the first half of this season, it seemed like their middling ways would continue. They drifted through their first 42 games with an unremarkable 20-17-5 record. But they’ve flipped the switch, going 20-8-2 since to put them firmly in a wild card spot, and just three points from a Top-3 Metropolitan Division berth with games in hand.

Key to their success has been the emergence of Sebastian Aho as a legitimate (and unlikely) NHL star. Drafted as a wing, he put up good numbers in his first two seasons before a surprising move to center, where he’s thrived even more. Aho has 78 points in 71 games at just 21 years old, playing a speedy and intelligent game.

The Hurricanes have also had success despite a rather sketchy netminding situation. They’ve been relying on 35-year-old journeyman Curtis McElhinney, claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs the same week they also waived once-Flyer Calvin Pickard, and another familiar face in Petr Mrazek, signed in the offseason after disappointing in a brief Philly stint. Neither is a spectacular option, but both have been just good enough to get the Canes the wins they need to be an almost-certain playoff team.

The Sabres’ Season has Spiraled Away

Perhaps we’re writing about the Hurricanes’ success here as a partial jinx. You see, this very writer declared earlier this season that the Buffalo Sabres’ rebuild was compete. When that article was published, the Sabres were 17-7-3. Since that day, they’ve gone 13-25-6, and just emerged from a seven-game losing streak during which they were shut out in three straight.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with Sabres. Jack Eichel is still scoring admirably. Their defense isn’t horrible, and it features Calder Trophy candidate Rasmus Dahlin, having a great rookie season at both ends of the ice. But the team just isn’t any good. There doesn’t seem to be much secondary scoring to speak of, and the defense and goaltending aren’t great at keeping pucks out of the net.

They’re bottom-10 in both goals for and goals against, and given their nightmare spiral over the last four months, it’s almost amazing that head coach Phil Housley hasn’t joined the army of NHL coaches fired this season -- though it seems unlikely he’ll be back for another go. Either way, retract the previous declaration: the Sabres are definitely not back, yet.

No One Wants the Last Western Wild Card

There really isn’t much wild card intrigue this year. Sure, in the East the Montreal Canadiens are right there, and the Flyers aren’t mathematically out of the picture, but it seems the playoff picture is more or less painted.

In the Western Conference, things are equally lackluster. There aren’t too many teams out there that pass the eye test, other than the leading Calgary Flames (who clinched their spot this week), Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks, and arguably the Nashville Predators. There’s a few other teams that will make the playoffs just by not being downright bad, those being the Vegas Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues, and probably the Dallas Stars.

And then there’s the last wild card slot, which no one seems all that interested in. The two teams closest to it on the outside are the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, respectively one and four points away...and both having only won four of their last 10 games. Just behind them are the Chicago Blackhawks, who do seem interested and have won five straight, but like the Flyers, were likely in too deep of a hole.

Currently, that berth is held by the Arizona Coyotes, perhaps the embodiment of anonymity, with 78 points. By point total, the Canadiens would be in and the Flyers would be tied for the spot if either played in the West. This is their roster. Only one player has scored more than 40 points. No one has 20 goals. Only four teams in the league have scored less. And unless some other team below them gets it together, they’ll get to play at least four postseason games.

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