Since our last playoff update, the Hurricanes have gone from unlikely underdogs to all but finished in this playoff race. The Hurricanes sit at 14th in the Eastern Conference. A win last night over the Coyotes has shot a tiny bit of optimism into the locker room but most people would agree that a six-spot leap between now and April 9th is unrealistic. The possibility remains — let’s not forget the Blue Jackets’ improbable 12-0-1 run to finish out the 2014-15 season and secure a playoff berth — but it’s hard to imagine a team as inconsistent as this one going on such a run. Let’s take a look at the other teams in the Wild Card race as we close in on the final month of the season.
The Islanders are six games into a grueling nine-game road trip across the continent. Up to this point, they are 3-2-1 with games coming up against the Oilers, Canucks, and Blues. They’ve lost their last two, and I think it’s safe to say that the road is catching up to this team. The Isles currently occupy the WC2 spot with Toronto, Florida, and a hot Tampa Bay team all on their trail.
After a loss to Calgary last night, sportsclubstats.com simulations say the Isles playoff odds went down 10.8% to 47.5%. With just 18 games left on their schedule, every game counts. We could look back at this brutal road trip and point to a string of losses as this team’s downfall.
The Maple Leafs are feeling the lack of experience catch up to them at this late juncture in the season. With just three wins in their last 10 games, the team is fluttering at a terrible time. The Leafs just came off of a three-game tour through California in which they only picked up one point. A few weeks ago the Maple Leafs were trending strongly upwards, but they’re losing ground fast.
However, sportsclubstats.com still gives the team a 44.4% chance to punch their ticket to the postseason. The team’s next four games all come against non-playoff teams (one of them being Carolina), so Mike Babcock’s Leafs have an opportunity to right the ship.
The streaky Panthers are 5-4-1 in their last 10 but they’ve lost 5 of their last 6. Florida’s season has generally been on the up and up since the return of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov from potential season ending injuries. New head coach and GM Tom Rowe seems to be turning this disappointing Panthers season around. But for a team with such a wealth of young talent anything less than matching last year’s playoff berth would be seen as a failure.
Right now, the Panthers sit two points behind the Isles in the WC2 spot. Five of their next seven games come against playoff bound teams, including one against a very hot Lightning team. With some ground to make up, the Panthers need to make hay.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Watch out, here comes the Lightning. Secondary scoring such as Nikita Kucherov has carried the offense and with the return of captain Steven Stamkos a possibility before month’s end, I see them as the most dangerous team still chasing a playoff spot.
Tampa Bay is a team that’s been there before. They have one of the best coaches in the NHL on their bench and a swagger in their forward corps unlike any other team trailing the top 16. The team is an impressive 6-2-2 in their last 10 games with a particularly challenging March coming up. The Lighting are hot and I see them claiming a playoff position, but they still have some ground to make up.
The Bruins have really picked up the pace in the last two weeks. The B’s seem to be responding remarkably well to the Claude Julien firing. I don’t think anyone expected for the Bruins to trend upwards after parting ways with a future Hall of Fame coach. Interim head coach Bruce Cassidy is making a strong case to secure the job come next season.
With a four-point lead in the last playoff spot in the Atlantic division, the Bruins have a good chance to hold on to a playoff spot. Although the team has been playing well, the question of their long term stability without Julien remains. Keep an eye on this interesting team down the stretch as their position in the standings come April will surely be a big news story.
We’re entering the most entertaining month of the season in the NHL. March is a month where teams are weary, fanbases are hopeful, and playoff tickets are punched. Watch closely as the playoff hopefuls enter the final lap of the race.