What to observe within the closing days of this lengthy NHL season

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The Stanley Cup playoffs are (finally) almost here

Thanks to a slightly later-than-usual start to the regular season and a (sadly unnecessary) Olympic break, the NHL playoffs are running about three weeks behind schedule this year. But the payoff is coming soon. Only 10 nights remain in the regular season, and the playoffs start 12 days from today — on Monday, May 2. From teams battling for post-season positions to players chasing individual awards and milestones, here are some things to follow down the stretch:

How many Canadian teams will make the playoffs?

Probably three. Possibly four. Toronto and Calgary, who are among the league’s best teams, have already clinched their spots. Edmonton is all but officially in, Winnipeg is all but officially out, while Ottawa and Montreal are eliminated.

The only Canadian franchise that’s remotely on the bubble is Vancouver. The Canucks have stayed alive by earning at least a point in each of their eight April games, including a six-game winning streak. But last night’s 4-3 shootout loss to Ottawa was a gut punch, dropping Vancouver’s playoff odds to about five per cent. With five games left, the Canucks trail Dallas by four points for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference and are five back from Los Angeles for the final Pacific Division berth. In both cases, Vegas stands behind Vancouver and the team it’s trying to catch.

Who will the Canadian playoff teams end up facing?

The Leafs just can’t catch a break. With five games still to go, they’ve already set a franchise record for points (108) and sit third overall in the league. You’d think that would be enough for Toronto to finally win the Atlantic Division and avoid another brutal first-round matchup vs. Boston or defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay. But no. Florida is running away with the Atlantic, putting the Leafs on a collision course with Tampa or Boston, who are battling for third in the Atlantic and a playoff matchup with the Leafs.

Calgary is in a more comfortable position. They can’t catch Colorado for the top seed in the West, but the Flames are on the verge of clinching the Pacific Division and securing the No. 2. They’ll face the better of the two Western wild cards in the first round — probably Nashville or Dallas.

Edmonton will likely finish second in the Pacific and meet third-place LA in the opening round. But Vegas and Vancouver both still have a (slim and slimmer) chance to bump the Kings out of that spot.

Who will win the Presidents’ Trophy?

It’s a two-horse race between Colorado and red-hot Florida. The Panthers won their 11th in a row last night to pull even with the Avalanche at 116 points. That’s eight clear of third-place Toronto. Colorado and Florida have identical 55-15-6 records, though the Avs have five more regulation wins. That gives them a slight edge heading into the final six games for both clubs.

Will Vegas avoid a bad beat?

The Golden Knights came into the season as a top-three favorite in the betting markets to win the Stanley Cup. But they now find themselves with only about a 1 in 7 chance of even making the playoffs after losing their last two games.

The return of star forward Mark Stone from a back injury last week promised to give Vegas a boost, but he hasn’t notched a point in four games coming off his two-month layoff. Meanwhile, the Knights’ big trade for Jack Eichel has not really paid off. He has a respectable 12 goals in 29 games for Vegas after missing nearly a full year with a back injury that fully soured his curdling relationship with Buffalo. But the Knights have won only 45 per cent of their games since he started playing for them. Eichel failed to reach the playoffs in each of his six seasons in Buffalo. Then he joins Vegas and suddenly they’re in danger of missing the post-season for the first time in their five-year existence. Coincidence? Or is this guy the hockey version of a cooler?

Who will win the scoring title?

Connor McDavid took the drama out of the race last year with an incredible 105 points in 56 games to run away with the Art Ross Trophy by 21 points. Now, if he’s to win his fourth scoring title in six years, the Edmonton superstar will have to fight all the way to the bell. Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau overtook McDavid last night with a three-assist performance that gave him 111 points — one more than the defending champ. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (108) and McDavid’s teammate Leon Draisaitl (105) are still in the hunt too.

Can Auston Matthews get to 60 goals?

With 58 goals (in just 70 games) and a four-goal lead on second-place Leon Draisaitl, the Leafs star looks poised to capture his second straight Maurice Richard Trophy. Matthews can also become the first player since Steven Stamkos a decade ago to reach 60. That (and even a run at 70) seemed like a good bet when Matthews went on a month-long, 21-goals-in-23-games heater that got him to 58 on April 9. But he went goalless in his next three games and has since missed the last two with an undisclosed injury. It sounds like he’ll be fine for the playoffs, but with the Leafs pretty much locked into their position they’re playing it safe.

Another milestone chase worth watching is Alex Ovechkin’s bid for 50 goals. He needs two more to reach that plateau for the ninth time in his 17 NHL seasons. That would tie Ovechkin with Wayne Gretzky and the late, great Mike Bossy for the most 50-goal seasons in NHL history.

Gretzky, we should note, played 20 seasons. Bossy rattled off nine straight 50-goal campaigns to start his career before retiring at the age of 31 due to a bad back after scoring “only” 38 in his 10th and final season.

Alex Ovechkin is closing in on his record-tying ninth 50-goal season. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

Quickly…

Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players. Following similar moves by most Olympic sports in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, tennis’ most prestigious event will not allow athletes from those countries to compete this year. That means No. 2-ranked Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev of Russia are out of the men’s singles tournament, while No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus will miss the women’s. The people in charge of global tennis decided in early March to let Russian and Belarusian players continue to compete in WTA, ATP and Grand Slam tournaments, but not under their country’s name or flag. Also, Russia and Belarus were kicked out of the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup team competitions. Today’s move by Wimbledon marks the first time a tournament has told Russian and Belarusian players not to show up. It was met by opposition from the WTA, which said in a statement that, while it “strongly condemns” the invasion, “individual athletes should not be penalized or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries.” Read more about Wimbledon’s decision here.

Bianca Andreescu is back. Playing in her first match since October, the Canadian defeated 108th-ranked Jule Niemeier of Germany yesterday at the Stuttgart Open. The 21-year-old Andreescu, who announced in December that she was taking a break from tennis to care for her mental health, has dropped to 121st in the world. She reached No. 4 late in 2019 — the magical year in which she won Indian Wells, the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the US Open to become the first Canadian to capture a Grand Slam singles title. Andreescu will face Sabalenka in the round of 16 Thursday in Stuttgart. Read more about the Canadian’s successful return from her and watch highlights here.

The Raptors’ playoff homecoming isn’t going the way they hoped. Game 3 of Toronto’s opening-round series vs. Philadelphia, happening tonight at 8 pm ET, is the Raptors’ first playoff contest in their home arena since Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals. This could have been a night to look back fondly on the title run while a rejuvenated squad coming off a surprisingly strong regular season gave the favored 76ers a run for their money. But it hasn’t panned out that way. Philly dominated the first two games of the series as Toronto rookie standout Scottie Barnes went down with a sprained ankle in Game 1 and the Raptors looked overmatched and overwhelmed again in Game 2. Hopes of Barnes providing a jolt were boosted today when he attended the morning shoot around with no walking boot, but he’s still listed as doubtful for tonight. Gary Trent Jr., who lasted only nine minutes in Game 2 because of a non-COVID illness, is expected to start and “we’ll see how he’s going,” said coach Nick Nurse. Read more about the outlook for Game 3 here. Can the Raptors come back in this series? CBC Sports’ North Courts hosts Vivek Jacob and Jevohn Shepherd break down their chances in this video.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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