It’s not the end of the 2018-19 NHL regular season, but you can see it from here. Most teams still have about 30 games left to play and, to be sure, that’s a lot of hockey. But as the league moves past the all-star break and the Feb. 25 trade deadline starts to come into focus, we undeniably enter the homestretch where playoff races and draft lottery chances dominate the discussion.
With that in mind, here are nine games to circle on your hockey calendar:
Friday, February 1: Calgary Flames at Washington Capitals
The first game after the all-star break is a big one for the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Capitals have lost seven straight and need to turn things around before they fall from first place in the Metro to the playoff bubble. But the Caps don’t get a pushover and they don’t have their best player. Washington faces an accomplished foe in Calgary, with the Flames riding high atop the Western Conference. And the challenge becomes even more difficult without team captain and NHL leading goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin, who will miss the contest serving a one-game suspension for skipping the NHL All-Star Game. The game is significant for another reason, too – it’s the first in a six-game homestand for the Capitals. A successful showing against Calgary (and then Boston, Vancouver, Colorado, Florida and Los Angeles) would re-establish Washington’s place in the Eastern Conference playoff pecking order. Keep losing, though, and they open the door for Buffalo or Carolina to squeeze them out of the post-season.
Friday, February 1: Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres
Speaking of Buffalo and lengthy post-all-star-break homestands, the Sabres host seven consecutive games in their own barn beginning with Chicago on Feb. 1. Buffalo, seeking its first post-season berth since 2011, is four points out of a wild-card spot and has a relatively favorable schedule during this two-week home run. Besides the basement-dwelling Blackhawks, the Sabres welcome three other teams outside the playoff picture (Carolina, Detroit, New York Rangers) and the only truly elite opponent is Winnipeg. If the Sabres can deliver a solid home showing and win, say, five of the seven games, it would surely vault them to the verge of a playoff spot.
Saturday, Feb. 2: Edmonton Oilers at Philadelphia Flyers
After 10 days off to stew over their three-game losing skid, the Oilers return to action against the Flyers. There was a time, of course, when a trip to Philadelphia was a terrifying prospect, with the Broad Street Bullies handing out beatings on the scoreboard as well as in the alley. But those days are long gone, and the 2018-19 Flyers are a floundering outfit with debilitating goaltending issues. In other words, they’re pretty much the perfect opponent for an Edmonton team trying to salvage its season. As captain Connor McDavid observed during all-star weekend, the Oilers are only three points out of a playoff spot and they very much control their own destiny. But they absolutely have to come out on top in games like this one. Win, and they’re in the thick of the wild-card race. Lose, and that’s four defeats in a row and another opportunity squandered.
Tuesday, Feb. 12: Calgary Flames at Tampa Bay Lightning
There’s nothing like a best-on-best, and this one could feature the top team in the West against the top team in the East. If you’re in the mood for a preview of the Stanley Cup final, you might want to tune in. Plus, the Flames and Lightning have some playoff history after dueling in a seven-game thriller in the 2004 Cup final.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets
Well, this is quite the compelling matchup the day after the NHL trade deadline. The big question, of course, is whether pending UFAs Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin will still be members of the Blue Jackets. If Columbus decides to deal one or both of them, it’ll have a profound ripple effect on the Eastern Conference power balance and the entire NHL playoff race. If the Jackets keep both players, it sends a clear signal they’re taking a shot at the Cup this season. Columbus has only qualified for the post-season four times – never making it out of the first round – but they’ve already established a heated rivalry with the Penguins, who have eliminated the Blue Jackets in two of their past three playoff appearances. Sidney Crosby’s last fight, in case you’re wondering, came against Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky three years ago, and they’ve kept up the bad blood and verbal sparring ever since.
Friday, March 1: Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators
With all due respect to the likes of Calgary, San Jose and Vegas, Winnipeg and Nashville have consistently been the best in the West the past few seasons. They’re both deep, talented and built for the playoffs. This game comes a week after the trade deadline, so we should see the powered-up version of both teams. (And if any big names are on the sidelines, you can always check back in on March 23 when they play again.) The Jets and Predators, of course, have some very recent playoff history. Winnipeg knocked Nashville out of the post-season last year, and the two teams are likely destined for a return engagement in Round 2 this spring. Whomever survives the showdown will be the odds-on favorite to represent the West in the Cup final.
Monday, April 1: Tampa Bay Lightning at Ottawa Senators
This game might feature the NHL’s first-place team against the league’s last-place club in the final week of the regular season. So why does it merit a mention? For the Lightning, it’s the first contest in a season-ending four-game road trip that also takes Tampa Bay through a divisional tour against Montreal, Toronto and Boston. The Bolts could very well have already sewn up the conference title (and the post-season home-ice advantage that comes with it), but how they fare against their divisional rivals will likely impact the East playoff matchups – for example, their own first-round opponent. The Senators, meanwhile, are trying to avoid the embarrassment of finishing last overall and thereby getting the best chances in the draft lottery. Why? Because they no longer have their own first-round pick after dealing it to Colorado in the Matt Duchene trade last season. The chance to select Jack Hughes would be quite the throw-in for the Avs.
Saturday, April 6: Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens
There’s nothing like the Leafs and Habs on a Saturday night, and that goes double when it’s the last night of the regular season. There’s a good chance these two teams could be facing off again a few days later in the first round -- and there's also the chance that one or both of them could be playing for their playoff lives.
Saturday, April 6: Edmonton Oilers at Calgary Flames
The Battle of Alberta is always worth watching, especially on the last day of the regular season. The Oilers could be playing for a playoff spot. The Flames could be playing for first place in the West. And, who knows, McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau could be battling it out for the Art Ross Trophy -- and/or the Hart. Finally, like the Toronto-Montreal finale in the East, Edmonton and Calgary could end up meeting again in the first round a few days later.