SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights have lost eight of 10 games before the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division midway through the NHL season.
They’re still secure in a Western Conference playoff spot, but they can’t keep it.
“We’re still in a good position – that’s how we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There aren’t too many teams that can drive the last 30 home games in this league and we’re definitely not one of them.”
Cassidy’s former team, the Boston Bruins, could probably do it. They are at the top of the NHL and run away with the Atlantic Division.
With 39 wins and 83 points in 51 games, Boston is on track to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next on the table with 76 points.
“There’s no weakness from top to bottom,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West are expected to heat up with around 30 games to go before the Stanley Cup chase begins.
The Hurricanes entered the break on a seven-game winning streak, scaring the Bruins a little in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-court advantage in the playoffs. Winger Max Pacioretty, who tore his right Achilles tendon again five games into his comeback, hasn’t slowed him down and if his guarding lasts, Carolina has a good chance of reaching the league final. ‘East.
“This team is a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, Carolina’s 2006 Cup captain and in his fifth year as coach. “We show this every night. It’s just very consistent and they take their job very seriously. You do it well.”
The No. 2 New Jersey Devils are battling for the first time since 2018. Hitting rock bottom next season helped them win the lottery for two-time All-Star Jack Hughes, allowing them to win early.
“Much better than coming out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of big hockey and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really excited to be where we are.”
They are followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could achieve what the Rangers expected after reaching the Eastern Finals last year.
“I think last year’s run really taught us a few things that we can obviously build on for the rest of this year,” said 2021 Norris Trophy defender Adam Fox.
The Rangers lost in six games to the Lightning last spring as two-time champions Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Finals for a third straight season before being beaten by the Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning will almost certainly face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, who haven’t won a playoff since the NHL’s salary cap era began in 2005, and remain a threat to the Bruins.
But Boston parted ways despite starting the season without left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost just 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.
“You keep winning,” said star right wing David Pastrnak, who ranks third in the league. “Every line and every guy goes and that obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.
The Islanders should feel a bit more confident after beating Vancouver’s 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat, but they haven’t gained ground to get in yet.
The defending champion from Colorado has climbed the standings, winning seven of eight before the break despite an injury-plagued first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog is yet to make his season debut after knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out in the west again.
“It’s up to us: we control our own destiny,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We absolutely have to play like we did before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup, we played well, played hard, so that would definitely help keep the body healthy.
They are still trailing the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild at Central, with the Nashville Predators hot on their heels. Only Stars and Jets are basically guaranteed to have a seat.
“You win every point,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point is going to be a dogfight, so it’s going to be 30 fun games on the track.”
Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, swept by Colorado in the Western Final, have some catching up to do in the Pacific Division.
The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly make the playoffs in their second season but have yet to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights.
Edmonton — and Alberta’s battle rivals, the Calgary Flames — have the talent to not only get in, but also run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than second scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and has produced like no other since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.
Now he will be looking to lead the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.
“It was not easy at all for our group. We kind of had to fight for everything we had,” McDavid said. “For some reason we were a second-half team. Since my first year, we have always been better in the second half, so we will definitely try to continue. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on this and expect it to get us to the playoffs. There is a lot to do.”
Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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