1. Washington Capitals: 102 Points (46-17-8)
The Washington Capitals were the first team in the East to clinch a playoff spot. After a rough week, the Caps returned to form with a 3-0-1 record since March 14th to regain the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Amazingly, even with 102 points the Caps are not even locked into home-ice advantage in the first round. The Caps are just one point above the Penguins and two points above the Blue Jackets.
The one thing the Caps don’t have is a set of lofty goals for the rest of their season. They need to just make sure that they don’t go into the playoffs on a slump. The Caps’ biggest issue in the playoffs over the past decade has been that their scoring dries up in the playoffs. The tough competition down the stretch will keep the Caps playing at their top level.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 101 Points (46-17-9)
It’s crazy to think that the Penguins have 101 points and aren’t in first place in the division. The good news is that with a 3-1 win over the Sabres last night, the Pens have clinched a playoff spot. The only disadvantage the Pens have is that the Blue Jackets have one game in hand over the Pens. With 10 games left the Pens have half of their remaining games at home, where they have only lost seven games this season.
The Penguins are going to come into the playoffs with the best goaltending duo in the NHL. By keeping Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens have two goaltenders who have won Stanley Cups and can be interchanged depending on who has the hot hand. The Penguins almost the same roster as last season, but upgraded their defensive depth at the deadline. Their biggest strength will still be scoring with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel having over 60 points and 20 goals each.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: 100 Points (47-18-6)
Columbus clinched a playoff position on Monday night after earning a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Islanders. After two consecutive poor seasons for the Blue Jackets, including a last-place finish in the Metro last season, they have turned it around. This season no one, including myself, thought that this team had a chance to make the playoffs but they have. John Tortorella and the entire organization deserve credit.
The Blue Jackets are going to be a tough opponent in the playoffs. If Sergei Bobrovsky stays healthy he will be able to steal any game, just like Jaroslav Halak did with the Canadiens against the Caps in 2010. On top of the good goaltending, the Jackets are a large team with good scoring ability. It is really tough to muscle this team off of the puck or win battles against them which could cause a huge problem for teams in the first round. This team has a similar identity to that of the Los Angeles Kings teams that won two Cups.
4. New York Rangers: 94 Points (45-24-4)
The Rangers are right where they want to be. They can win games without threatening for the 3rd seed in the Metro and they are 13 points ahead of the second wild card position. I know I have broken it down in the past, but with three teams having 100 points or more in the Metro, the best shot to make it through the Eastern Conference is to go through the Atlantic. Currently, the Canadiens would be the Rangers’ matchup in the first round.
Just looking at the basics of that matchup, the Rangers' goal differential is 21 goals better than the Canadiens. The Rangers currently have four more points in the standings with a better away record (26-9-1) than the Canadiens’ home record (21-10-4). The only area where the Canadiens have the advantage is goaltending with a .932 even strength save percentage as opposed to the .923 of the Rangers. However, we all know that Henrik Lundqvist is capable of more and can play at the same level as Carey Price.
5. New York Islanders: 78 Points (33-26-12)
The Islanders came into last week in a playoff position, just one point ahead of the Maple Leafs for the final wild card position. The Islanders needed to have a good week to stay in that position but instead left much to be desired going 1-2-1 in their past five games. Due to their subpar week the Isles now only sit three points behind the Leafs and only one point ahead of Tampa in the standings.
The Isles are going to have to go on a little run to be able to overtake their opponents. With 11 games remaining the Isles are going to have to win at least seven games to overtake the Leafs and Lightning. Only four of their remaining games are against teams who are currently in a playoff position, but seven games will be on the road.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 75 Points (31-17-13)
The Canes have put together quite the last 10 games, only losing one in regulation. The Canes 6-3-1 record over these last 10 games has actually been one of the best in the league. However, this is definitely a case of too little too late. If the Hurricanes did this coming out of their bye week we could be looking at a completely different scenario where the Canes were actually buyers at the deadline.
The Canes sit six points outside of the last wild card spot with only 11 games left, which means that they are not statistically eliminated from the playoffs. However, it would take all of the stars aligning for this to be a possibility. It’s a little annoying that the Canes seemed to wait until the playoffs were out of the picture before they started playing to their potential.
In the month of March, Eddie Lack has outperformed Cam Ward, with a .921 sv% opposed to Ward’s .900. This has given the Hurricanes the ability to actually stay in games and win close games. The Canes now also have five players over 40 points which is two more than the entirety of last season. Jeff Skinner has already tied his last season’s total with 28 goals, and only needs five more to surpass his career best. With 20 goals in his rookie season, Sebastian Aho has already proven that he can produce like a first line NHL player.
7. Philadelphia Flyers: 74 Points (33-30-8)
Since being only one point out of the playoffs, the Flyers have been less than stellar. Philly has gone just 5-4-1 in their last 10 games which have moved them to second to last in the Metro and seven points out of the playoffs in the East. The only reason this is bad news for Flyers fans is because they have high expectations every season. In reality, the Flyers are a similar team to the Hurricanes.
The Flyers are fielding a pretty young team on defense and below average goaltending. The only difference between the two teams really is the fact that the Flyers have top end scoring talent with Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov still need a season or so to develop into complete NHL defensemen. The Flyers need this draft to help rebuild their team into a true playoff contender.
8. New Jersey Devils: 66 Points (27-33-12)
The Devils’ full tank is still in effect, 2-8-0 in their last 10 games. This has seen the Devils fall to the last place in the East and contend for the second to last position in the entire league. (Don't worry; the Avalanche have an insurmountable cushion in the league basement.) After earning a 3-2 overtime victory over the Rangers last night the Devils are just one point ahead of the Canucks for third to last and three points above the Coyotes for second to last in the league.
The thing about the Devils is they could be next year’s Blue Jackets. They have pieces to build a team around including one of the top wingers in the league, Taylor Hall, and one of the best goaltenders in Cory Schneider. With a top five pick, the team could find NHL ready talent in the draft to help with scoring. The only other thing the Devils need is a defenseman. The only problem is that defensemen are currently the hardest position to come by, not to mention they traded one of them away when they shipped Adam Larsson to Edmonton to acquire Hall.