The Carolina Hurricanes are fighting for their playoff lives, but they are not alone. Realistically, at least six teams in the Eastern Conference are in the same boat as the Canes and their postseason hopes all ride on what transpires during these final four weeks of the regular season.
Let's call these six teams the "contenders". As of Monday, March 16th, a total of six points separate the contenders, from the 5th place Penguins and their 82 points, to the 10th place Sabres, who have 76.
- 5th Pittsburgh -82 points, 11 games remaining
- 6th Montreal - 80 points, 13 games remaining
- 7th Rangers - 80 points, 12 games remaining
- 8th Carolina - 79 points, 11 games remaining
- 9th Florida - 78 points, 13 games remaining
- 10th Buffalo, 76 points, 13 games remaining
Now let's examine each team's remaining schedule a little bit closer to see if we can determine who might have an edge.
For comparison sake, I have categorized teams into three basic groups, the contenders, (teams fighting for a spot), the pretenders, (teams out of it), and of course the top-enders, (teams who are in). While each game is of vital importance to the contenders because every single point is valuable, the highest emphasis must be put on the games against the other contenders. Those games are worth the equivalent of four points each because not only does the winner earn two points, but they keep their adversary from earning two as well. It should also be considered that those games are the toughest to play because there is equal desperation on both sides.
Is it harder to play against the top-enders, rather than the pretenders? The teams who have already pretty much locked up a playoff spot are not playing with as much on the line as the contenders are, but they are still good teams and are tough to beat. The pretenders have nothing to lose and play with zero pressure. Sometimes they are tough to beat as well, even though they should be beaten.
All in all, it's difficult to say who would have the toughest schedule based upon these groupings, but we will take a look at it anyway.
First let's look at the Hurricanes and see what they need to do, then we will review the other teams.
Carolina - 11 games remaining.
The Canes have a favorable schedule in that eight of those games are at home.
Four games are against teams who are already in the playoffs. (Devils 3, and Caps)
Four games are against other contenders, which are certainly the most important games of any the team will play. (Sabres, Pens, Rangers, and Panthers)
Three games are against pretenders, (Sens and Islanders 2)
Analysis: The games against the other contenders are vital. If they can win those games and split the others, (8 points plus 7 for a total of 94), that would be enough to get the job done. Can they sweep the other contenders?
Pittsburgh - 11 games remaining
The Pens have a favorable schedule in that 7 of of their last 11 games are going to be at home.
They have four more all important games against other contenders, (Canes, Habs, Panthers, and Rangers).
Four games are against pretenders, (Thrashers, Kings, Lightning, Islanders).
Only three games are against top-enders, (Flames, Flyers, Devils).
Analysis: The Penguins are probably in the best shape of the six teams in the battle.
Montreal - 13 games remaining
The Habs have eight games remaining at home and five away.
Four of those games are against contenders, (Pens, Rangers 2, Sabres).
Only two of their games are against top-enders, (Boston, Chicago)
They have seven games remaining with pretenders, (Leafs 2, Sens 2, Islanders, Thrashers, Lightning).
Analysis: At first glance, they would seem to have the easiest schedule based upon the strength of their opposition, but the Leafs and Sens will not be "gimme's". Is a contender better off to play against teams with nothing to lose, or teams who have already locked it up? This will be interesting to watch.
New York Rangers, 12 games remaining
The Rangers finish with six games at home and six away.
They have five tough games against other contenders, (Canes, Pens, Habs 2, Sabres)
Four games are against top-enders, (Flyers 2, Bruins, Devils)
Only three games are against pretenders, (Wild, Thrashers, Sens)
Analysis: These games seem to be tougher because they have the opposite schedule of the Habs, very few games against pretenders. Although once again, we will have to see how this ends up because at this point it's hard to determine which games are more difficult to play. Although logic would dictate that a team would rather play the Thrashers versus the Bruins.
Florida Panthers, 13 games remaining
The Panthers have eight homes games and five away.
They have five more games against other contenders, although two of them are in the West, (Stars, Blue Jackets, Canes, Sabres, Pens)
Four of the games are against pretenders, (Sens, Leafs, Thrashers 2)
Four games are against top-enders, (Caps 2, Flyers 2).
Analysis: Hard to tell here although four games against the Caps and Flyers will be no picnic. The Stars and Blue Jackets should be just as desperate as teams in the East, although the Stars are almost out of it.
Buffalo Sabres, 13 games remaining
The Sabres have seven away games and only six at home.
They play four games against contenders, (Canes, Habs, Panthers, Rangers)
Four of the games are against pretenders, (Sens, Thrashers, Leafs 2)
Five games are against top-enders, (Flyers, Caps, Devils, Wings, Bruins).
Analysis: It could be easily said that the Sabres have the toughest remaining schedule here. More of their games are on the road, plus they still have to play the Red Wings. The Leafs always play them tough and the Thrashers just beat them the other night.
Who do you think has the easiest schedule, and who has the toughest? Does it matter at this point of the season?