TORONTO (AP) — Even during the All-Star break, Nathan MacKinnon kept thinking ahead to the second half of the NHL season.
“You try not to eat too much,” MacKinnon said. “You’re looking in the mirror and you look fat.”
Maybe MacKinnon — and plenty of other players around the league — put on a couple of pounds during All-Star festivities, but the Colorado center doesn’t have much to worry about on that front. Getting through the Western Conference is another story.
The stretch run starts Monday with MacKinnon and the Avalanche visiting the New York Rangers and there’s plenty to play out over the next 2 1/2 months. The March 8 trade deadline, outdoor games on back-to-back days and the MVP race heating up between MacKinnon and Connor McDavid are among the things to watch before the playoffs start on April 22 and the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.
Two of the top teams in the league, Vancouver and Winnipeg, made a significant acquisition in recent days. The Canucks got Elias Lindholm from Calgary, the Jets got fellow center Sean Monahan from Montreal and much more activity is expected before the March 8 trade deadline.
Much like last year when Vancouver sent Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders, the wheeling and dealing is getting underway early. That’s not good for deadline day television drama, but the next month could be frantic.
“Teams are definitely making some moves,” MacKinnon said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I like our team, for sure.”
Among the players who could be on the move are Minnesota goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Anaheim’s Adam Henrique, Philadelphia’s Sean Walker, Washington’s Nic Dowd and Ottawa’s Jakob Chychrun. The Rangers in win-now mode are a team to watch, as are the rival New Jersey Devils — perhaps in the market for goaltending help.
The NHL is taking it outside for games between the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers and then the Rangers and Islanders on Feb. 17 and 18 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
It’s the first time the league has done outdoor games in consecutive days and a chance to showcase a couple of longtime division rivalries.
“We’re really looking forward to that game,” Flyers All-Star Travis Konecny said. “It’s something that you circle on the calendar when you find out you’re going to be involved in one and try your best to treat it like another game. But there’s obviously some excitement around it, and you’re looking forward to it.”
New Jersey’s Jesper Bratt has never played organized outdoor hockey before, though he’s trying to balance the anticipation against the Devils’ need to win games and get into playoff position.
“We’re coming out playing some really, really meaningful games for the rest of the year,” Bratt said. “Every point makes a lot of difference.”
The Devils, Islanders and Seattle Kraken are among the 2023 playoff teams currently out of a spot. Same with Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are built to try to get back in after missing last season.
“Everyone’s going to be playing a lot of hockey here the next couple months, so consistency’s big,” Crosby said. “If you can string some together here and get hot, you’re playing a lot of games, so for the teams that can do that, they’ll get a big push.”
A big push is coming in the West, with four teams separated by just four points in the standings. The streaking St. Louis Blues, flailing Los Angeles Kings, Kraken and Nashville Predators are competing for two wild-card spots.
Seattle’s Oliver Bjorkstrand said he and his teammates need to “work our butts off” to qualify.
“We know we’re in the hunt for it,” Bjorkstrand said. “There’s other teams playing good hockey, so, yeah, we got to win games.”
McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers have won 16 in a row, one shy of the record, and the reigning Hart Trophy winner is making a case to be MVP for the fourth time in his nine-year career. He trails MacKinnon by 17 points and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov by 18 in the scoring race, but McDavid is arguably playing better all-around hockey than he did last season.
“It might not be the most offensively sexy year, but I think we’re doing a lot of good things,” McDavid said. “I feel good about my game. I feel good about where I’m at, and I feel good about our group.”
MacKinnon and Colorado won the Stanley Cup in 2022, sweeping Edmonton in the West final, but he has yet to be voted MVP.
McDavid would trade that hardware to lift the Cup over his head for the first time.
“It’s about winning, and that’s kind of all it is,” McDavid said.
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