This article is part of our The Daily Puck series.
For a while, it really looked like the Blackhawks' reign of terror on the Western Conference would end. The Sharks had a sizable lead over the rest of the Pacific Division, and the Wild were sitting pretty atop the Central thanks to Bruce Boudreau's offense and Devan Dubnyk. But, oh, how little has changed! The Wild have won just two of their past 10 games, the Sharks have lost six straight, and the Blackhawks have all but clinched top spot in the Western Conference.
Boudreau was highly critical of his team following a 4-2 loss Saturday against the Canucks, allowing all four goals in the second period and even needed a few lucky bounces to get on the board. Things looked so desperate in the second period it looked like the Wild needed a goalie change despite playing the first half of a back-to-back, and a team that looked like a Cup contender just a month ago now looks fragile and on the verge of pressing the panic button.
The Sharks' situation is even direr. The defending Western Conference champs are in a three-way tie for first place in the division even though many had pegged them to be the favorite, and after a 6-1 drubbing by the Stars and a tongue lashing by Peter DeBoer, followed that up with a 7-2 loss at the hands of the Predators.
Despite being an afterthought for much of the season when the Wild were on their 12-game winning streak and Brent Burns was chasing records, it's amazing how the Blackhawks simply don't panic, and have quickly and quietly asserted themselves as the best team in the West once again. With Cup titles in 2013 and 2015, could 2017 be their year? One thing's for sure right now: no team in the West is in the same class, and all roads to the Stanley Cup Final will almost assuredly go through Chicago.
Wild (PP: 10, PK: 8) at Red Wings (PP: 29, PK: 11), 12:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Devan Dubnyk (37-19-3, 2.17, .927), Jimmy Howard (8-8-1, 1.91, .935)
Key Injuries:Jonathan Ericsson (wrist), Darren Helm (lower body), Ryan Sproul (knee), Victor Bartley (triceps)
The Red Wings have won three of their past five while the Wild have lost two of their past 10, including a 4-2 loss to the Canucks yesterday. Bruce Boudreau was beet red and visibly unhappy with his team's performance, and serious doubts about the Wild's status as a Cup contender area starting to creep in, starting with the boo's that rained down from the hometown crowd. All the pressure is on the Wild in this matchup while the Wings are simply just trying to play spoiler. Howard has won three of his past four games and allowed just two goals in his past two games. The Wild are firmly in second place in the Central Division, but the more losses they suffer, the more likely the odds of a potential first-round upset.
Flyers (PP: 14, PK: 22) at Penguins (PP: 4, PK: 19), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Steve Mason (22-21-7, 2.73, .906), Matt Murray (28-9-4, 2.34, .925)
Key Injuries:Nick Cousins (upper body), Michael Raffl (lower body), Trevor Daley (knee), Jake Guentzel (concussion), Carl Hagelin (lower body), Ron Hainsey (upper body), Kris Letang (upper body), Olli Maatta (hand), Evgeni Malkin (upper body), Tom Sestito (upper body), Scott Wilson (lower body)
The Flyers aren't in the same league and Claude Giroux's been bothered by his hip all season, but the battle of the Keystone State is always a lively affair. Even without Malkin or Letang, the Penguins offense continues to be a force thanks to Sidney Crosby, who is still without equal in the league. Murray, who is having a spectacular season and deserves some consideration for the Calder Trophy, has a 2.43 GAA and .925 save percentage in four career games against the Flyers, and the Flyers are playing the second half of a back-to-back and have scored just five goals in their past three.
Canucks (PP: 28, PK: 25) at Jets (PP: 20, PK: 29), 8:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Ryan Miller (18-23-6, 2.79, .915), Connor Hellebuyck (23-19-4, 2.95, .906)
Key Injuries:Joseph Cramarossa (foot), Derek Dorsett (neck), Loui Eriksson (lower body), Brendan Gaunce (undisclosed), Markus Granlund (wrist), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Jacob Markstrom (lower body), Jayson Megna (upper body), Anton Rodin (knee), Jack Skille (ankle), Dustin Byfuglien (undisclosed), Marko Dano (undisclosed), Toby Enstrom (concussion), Shawn Matthias (shoulder), Tyler Myers (lower body), Ondrej Pavelec (knee), Paul Postma (lower body)
That injury list is exhausting, but the upside is that the two teams will have no choice but to showcase their youngsters. Top prospect Brock Boeser made his NHL debut yesterday, less than 24 hours after his sophomore season with North Dakota ended, and scored his first career goal playing on a line with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi. The Canucks will also likely dress speedster Reid Boucher and slick playmaker Nikolay Goldobin, and see if they can beat the Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine in a horse race. Skille was injured yesterday after getting hit by Charlie Coyle, and unless Megna, Gaunce or Cramarossa are ready to go, the Canucks may be forced to make a call-up. The two teams really don't have much to play for, but it should be pretty exciting to get a glimpse of their respective futures.
Stars (PP: 23, PK: 30) at Devils (PP: 18, PK: 18), 5:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Kari Lehtonen (18-22-7, 2.86, .904), Keith Kinkaid (7-11-2, 2.77, .913)
Key Injuries:Dan Hamhuis (lower body), Jiri Hudler (lower body), Mattias Janmark (knee), Antoine Roussel (hand), Patrick Sharp (hip), Michael Cammalleri (shoulder), Jacob Josefson (upper body), Devante Smith-Pelly (lower body)
The game is largely meaningless, but that doesn't mean it won't have its fair share of fireworks. The Stars offense made the Sharks look like chum with a 6-1 win on Friday, and with Kinkaid potentially starting, the situation is ripe for another blowout. Lehtonen has been surprisingly good lately, allowing three goals or less in his past 10 games.
Rangers (PP: 16, PK: 23) at Ducks (PP: 21, PK: 6), 9:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Henrik Lundqvist (30-17-2, 2.65, .913), Jonathan Bernier (16-7-3, 2.50, .917)
Key Injuries:Kevin Bieksa (face), Simon Despres (head), John Gibson (lower body), Kevin Klein (back)
The Pacific Division is the Wild West at the moment, with the Ducks, Sharks, Oilers and Flames separated by just three points, but it's imperative for the Ducks to finish as one of the top two seeds in their division because they're a concerning 15-15-7 on the road. Securing home ice advantage is far less important for the Rangers, who bring an NHL-best 26-9-1 road record to Anaheim, but have not played since Wednesday, and the record for teams coming off an extended break is not good. It's also worth noting that Bernier has been an unsung hero for the Ducks lately, winning eight of his past 10 games and allowing just one goal in four of his past five.
Brock Boeser, RW, VAN – The highly-touted winger signed shortly after North Dakota was eliminated from the Frozen Four, and didn't seem worse for wear despite playing two overtimes the night before his NHL debut. The Canucks recognize his talent, putting him on a line with top center Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi right away; Boeser didn't disappoint, finishing with four shots on goal and buried a rebound in the second period to score his first career goal in front of his hometown crowd. Buyer beware: Boeser, who scored 27 goals last year but just 16 this year, has been hampered by a wrist injury all season, but is locked in as a top-six winger on a team that has scored 10 goals in their past three games.