Two teams - the Capitals and the Blue Jackets - have clinched their spot in the NHL postseason. In the coming weeks, 14 more teams will emerge as playoff contenders who have punched their ticket to the big dance.
For our purposes, seven teams have high enough point totals to call them safely in. Aside from the two already mentioned, the Penguins (who are a point away from clinching a spot), Rangers, Canadiens, Senators and Bruins are all at or above 90% to make it per sportsclubstats.com. At the other end, the Sabres, Red Wings and Devils aren't eliminated mathematically, but practically speaking they're done, and the Panthers will likely join them in the consignment bin with a loss to Carolina tomorrow. Let's take a look into the Eastern Conference and the teams most closely connected to the race with three weeks to go.
The young Maple Leafs find themselves in a very favorable position with less than a month left in the season. Toronto holds the WC2 spot behind a Rangers team that would be dominating almost every other division in hockey. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; this Maple Leafs club has seen a drastic culture change since the Mike Babcock hiring just two years ago. The Leafs, 4-3-3 in their last 10, are in playoff position but being heavily chased by the Islanders and Lightning. While both trailing teams have a lot on the line and are significantly more experienced throughout their lineup than the Leafs, Toronto has proven that their youth is not a thorn in their side. Sportsclubstats.com gives the Leafs a 63.5% chance to make the playoffs come April. Toronto is in a favorable position but they need to continue playing winning hockey down the stretch if they want to secure their first playoff berth in four seasons.
New York Islanders
The Islanders’ playoff chances have taken a hit since dropping two straight games. The team was in playoff position before a loss to Winnipeg last Thursday. With a record of 16-9-3 since taking over, the club has seemingly found their man in new head coach Doug Weight. Despite a strong home record of 20-10-6 on the season, the Isles have dropped their last two games in the Barclays Center which is a red flag for a team with serious playoff hopes.
New York is facing a goaltender problem that has manifested itself from the beginning of this season. This much was apparent in Carolina’s 8-4 win against the Isles last week, and the question remains why the Isles won’t do something about it. AHL goaltender Jaroslav Halak is a realistic callup option for the desperate Isles as they race down the stretch. According to sportsclubstats.com simulations, the Islanders have just a 26.2% chance to punch their ticket this year. The Islanders need to go on a significant run if they want to be dancing in April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning sit just 2 points in back of the WC2-holding Maple Leafs and give up a game in hand. On top of trailing in the race, the club has dropped their last two by an ugly goal margin of 10-2, one of which was a 5-0 shutout at the hands of the Leafs team they’re chasing. Luckily, the Lighting will get another shot at their division foe in April in a crucial 4 point game just days before the conclusion of the season.
Despite a recent slip the Bolts are generally trending in the correct direction with a 4-3-3 record in their last 10. 3 of their next 5 games feature a team out of playoff contention which allows them the wiggle room to make up some ground. Sportsclubstats.com gives the Lightning just a 19.8% chance to punch their ticket this year. Despite Steven Stamkos’ return remaining up in the air, the Lightning have the necessary pieces in place to successfully orchestrate a playoff run, but may run out of time to make it happen.
The Flyers picked up a huge win last night against the Hurricanes. With the OT win the Flyers move to 5 points out of the WC2 spot that they nabbed a season ago. Their win improves their playoff odds from 0.2% to...a whopping 0.5%.
Despite their proximity to the race, it's safe to count this Flyers team out. Dropping 5 out of their last 8, the Flyers don’t appear to be in any form to make a miraculous run to the playoffs this season. Just last Thursday the Flyers lost to a New Jersey team that had just one win in their last 13 contests. To me that constitutes a season defining loss. The Flyers will begin a four game road trip that features three very good playoff teams (Wild, Blue Jackets, Penguins). If the Flyers want a chance to punch their ticket, they’re going to need to go on an extended streak down the stretch, and get a lot of help.
Which brings us to the Hurricanes, who find themselves in a familiar position this March. The Canes sit six points out of the WC2 spot in the East with three teams between them and the Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes have been playing better recently since their midseason doldrums but a playoff push at this juncture is probably too little too late. The team dropped in overtime last night to the Flyers despite a third period lead; a very familiar narrative.
Unfortunately, the Hurricanes have only a 2.2% chance to make the playoffs. According to their simulations, the team would need to make a miraculous 10-2-0 run or better just to have a 50% or better chance to punch their tickets. That's a steep hill to climb for a team that has had so much trouble this season stringing wins together. Despite the fact that the team seems down and out, they still ride a seven-game point streak into their game in Sunrise, Florida tomorrow night.
This young team deserves a lot of credit for coming out strong every night despite being seemingly out of the race. After another subpar season, the heat is undeniably on the players, coaching staff, and management to ice a truly playoff-competitive hockey team next season.