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Top storylines for final month of 2023-24 NHL regular season

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at Colorado Avalanche
Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There are four weeks remaining in the 2023-24 NHL regular season, but yet still so many intriguing storylines ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There are individual and team goals still to be achieved and postseason berths still to be clinched. There’s also the “race” to the bottom of the League standings to see which team has the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and a chance to select Macklin Celebrini with the No. 1 pick.

And there’s still unforeseen drama on the horizon. Injuries, slumps, controversy.

There’s plenty to look forward to in the final four weeks.

Related: 3 hot topics to be discussed at NHL GM meetings

Top 5 storylines in final month of 2023-24 NHL regular season

NHL: New York Islanders at New York Rangers
Mar 17, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren (55) is helped off the ice by teammates after an injury during the second period against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

5. Banged-up Rangers try to hold off Hurricanes in Metro

The New York Rangers are on a 16-3-1 heater and have held first place in the Metropolitan Division since late October. Yet, they can’t shake the Carolina Hurricanes, who are 14-4-1 in their past 19 games and remain  four points behind the Rangers.

New York edged Carolina 1-0 in the final game of their season series last week or else its lead would be down to as measly two points. 

Now the Rangers must try and hold off a healthy Hurricanes team, buoyed by the return of goalie Frederik Andersen and trade-deadline acquisitions Jake Guentzel and Evgeny Kuznetsov, without two of their best defensemen in the lineup.

Rangers captain Jacob Trouba has missed six games with a lower-body injury and is expected to miss another 1-2 weeks. Ryan Lindgren sustained a lower-body injury of his own in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders on Sunday and is out a few weeks.

It’ll be some great theater to see if the Rangers can remain ahead of the Hurricanes down the stretch for coveted home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

4. Furious finish in Central Division

Speaking of battles for first place, how about what’s taking place in the Central Division?

The Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars each have 91 points, forging, technically, a three-way tie for first place. The Jets have a .679 points percentage and one game in hand on the Avalanche and two on the Stars, so they are currently first in the division.

The Jets have the best goal differential in the Western Conference (+52) and are getting great production from newcomers Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli. But watch out for the Avalanche, who won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, juiced their lineup ahead of the NHL trade deadline and have won six in a row. And overlook the Stars at your own peril.

3. Who will win NHL trade deadline?

The NHL trade deadline has come and gone, and it’s far too early to say who were the winners and which teams were losers. But some answers will emerge by time the regular season ends. Ultimately, of course, the final grades won’t be counted until the Stanley Cup is handed out in June.

That said, it’s going to be interesting to see what boost the Hurricanes get from Guentzel (one goal, four assists in four games) and Kuznetsov (two goals, two assists in six games). The Rangers are 5-1-0 so far since adding center Alex Wennberg (three assists) and forward Jack Roslovic (one goal, two assists).

Toffoli (four goals, one assist in four games) is tearing it up with the Jets and Monahan (eight goals, five assists in 19 games) was an excellent addition before the All-Star break.

Will deadline acquisitions Noah Hanifin and Anthony Mantha (and, eventually, Tomas Hertl, who’s injured) push the Vegas Golden Knights into the playoffs or will there not be a Cup defense on the strip this spring?

2. Three-way battle for Hart Trophy

It was pretty cool to watch probably the two best hockey players on the planet go head-to-head Saturday, when Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche defeated Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 in overtime.

Their next battle plays out over the next month to see which superstar will win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. MacKinnon leads the NHL with an NHL career-high 116 points (42 goals, 74 assists) in 68 games. McDavid, who’s led the NHL in scoring each of the past three seasons and five of the past seven, is third with 106 points in 63 games and leads the League with 81 assists.

Should McDavid reach 100 assists this season, he’d become only the fourth NHL player ever to do so, joining Wayne Gretzky (11 times), Bobby Orr (once) and Mario Lemieux (once).

Of course, theirs is not just a two-player race for the Hart. Nikita Kucherov has almost single handedly kept the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff spot with 114 points (40 goals, 74 assists) in 66 games.

The frontrunner is MacKinnon. But there’s still four weeks to decide who the League MVP is this season.

Related: NHL icon Mark Messier explains how Connor McDavid ‘separated himself’ this season

1. Capitals rise as Eastern foes collapse

Don’t look now but the Washington Capitals are in a playoff spot for the first time in more than two months. A 5-2 win in Calgary against the Flames on Monday lifted the Capitals into the second wild card from the Eastern Conference. But they should have their sights set even higher.

Washington is now only one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third place in the Metro, with a game in hand. It’s a massive turnaround for a Capitals team that was left for dead, far out of the playoff hunt after losing eight of nine (1-6-2) from Jan. 20 – Feb. 8. 

SInce that lowpoint, the Capitals quietly are 10-4-1, including their current three-game winning streak. But that’s only half the story.

The teams in front of them in the wild-card race, as well as the Flyers, who’ve held down the third spot in the Metro most of the season, are in collapse mode. 

The Flyers have lost three of four and are 5-7-1 in their past 13 games. The Detroit Red Wings have lost eight of nine after a six-game winning streak. The Islanders have lost four in a row (0-3-1) since their own six-game win streak. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 3-7-1 in their past 11 and traded Guentzel away before the deadline. And the New Jersey Devils continue to be a massive disappointment, losing four of their past five and seven of nine.

Does anyone want to claim a playoff berth here? Or better yet, is anyone capable of of earning the final berth in the East?

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