Being healthy in the playoffs is taking priority over seeding, with a few teams sitting their top players Saturday in the final game of the regular season.
MVP front-runner Taylor Hall will sit out the New Jersey Devils’ regular-season finale after the team clinched a playoff spot but can still move up the standings.
New Jersey is resting Hall, fellow forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, and defenseman Sami Vatanen in Game 82 at Washington, and it isn’t alone in taking precautions. The Columbus Blue Jackets won’t play stars Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in their final regular-season game at Nashville.
Columbus coach John Tortorella told reporters he was “absolutely not” trying to avoid facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. New Jersey coach John Hynes similarly answered that giving Hall a break is more important after a grueling push to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2012.
“We’re not looking to get in the playoffs and just be a Cinderella story,” Hynes said before his Devils faced the Metropolitan Division-champion Capitals on Saturday night. “We’re looking to get in the playoffs and win, and (Hall is) a big part of that.”
Hall, who is one goal short of reaching 40 for the first time in his career, said he’s cool with the decision to rest instead of taking a chance on the eve of the playoffs.
“It’s a good time to get some rest and recuperate a little bit,” said Hall, who has 93 points in 76 games and is expected to be a finalist for the Hart Trophy. “We’ve played a lot of hockey lately, and a lot of the stuff in the standings is out of our hands other than our game.”
No Eastern Conference first-round matchups have been determined going into the final weekend of the season. The only series that’s set is the Winnipeg Jets facing the Minnesota Wild out West as the second- and third-place teams in the Central Division.
There are still numerous combinations of matchups among the seven teams in the East that have clinched, with the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers still in the running for the final spot. Matchups can make a big difference in how the playoffs go, but players and coaches are careful not to look like they’re favoring one opponent over another.
“I learned a long time ago that you don’t wish for certain opponents,” Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “It can backfire very quickly.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning certainly aren’t playing that game. With a chance to clinch first place in the Atlantic Division and avoid facing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, the Lightning are expected to start backup Louis Domingue in net at Carolina instead of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads the NHL in wins.
The Boston Bruins, who could catch the Lightning, are going with backup Anton Khudobin against Ottawa, but they also play Sunday night against Florida in a game that was rescheduled because of snow.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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