Five teams in the Eastern Conference have officially punched their ticket to the postseason - four of which are Metropolitan division clubs. However, there’s very little separation between a majority of the remaining teams in the conference. What does that mean for us?
Any permutation of about 6 teams could find themselves in the last 2 Atlantic Division spots and the elusive WC2 spot in the East. The playoff race is as close as can be down the final stretch this year. Let's take a look into the Eastern Conference and the teams most closely connected to the race in the final days of this season.
The Bruins are hot at the right time. The B’s have put five straight in the win column in the past week and have launched themselves into the second spot in the Atlantic.
Their win streak can be partially explained by very strong play between the pipes. Their past five wins have featured a .962 SV% and 1.00 GAA by Tuukka Rask including one shutout. Additionally, former Cane Anton Khudobin has compiled a .952 SV% and a 1.50 GAA in two games played.
The offense hasn’t been struggling either; they’ve averaged over three goals a game since their streak began last Saturday. Despite some lag coming into late March, this Bruins team is playing like playoff contenders.
However, the B’s have just three games left in the season, and none of them are easy wins. They will face off against two Atlantic Division foes who are both chasing the same spot, the Lightning and Senators, as well as a Washington team that has won eight out of their last 10.
Based on their late success, the Bruins have earned themselves a 94.2% chance at the playoffs according to sportsclubstats.com. The B’s are playing good hockey and I would expect them to clinch a spot, but a slide in the big matchups to close out the year could mean a long offseason.
Similar to their rival Bruins, the Maple Leafs are hot. At 7-2-1 in their last ten, the Maple Leafs look poised to make their first playoff appearance since 2012-2013. They’ve picked up three straight going into a game tonight against the eliminated Sabres.
The young Leafs are a few wins away from punching their ticket to the postseason. They’re currently tied with the Senators with 91 points through 77 games but trump them in a tiebreaker (most regulation + overtime wins). Additionally, they have been playing much better hockey down the stretch than the struggling Senators.
With two games in hand on the Bruins and just one point back, I would expect this Leafs team to overtake the B’s for the second spot in the Atlantic. The club really only needs to average a point per game down the stretch to earn their first playoff berth in four seasons. Sportsclubstats.com gives the Maple Leafs a 94.5% chance to punch their ticket to the dance. Based on their recent play and their advantage on the B’s and Senators, I see them as a given in the postseason.
The Senators are running on fumes. At 2-5-3 in their last 10 and one point in their last four games, the club is seriously struggling. All hope is not lost for the Sens, they still occupy the WC2 spot and are tied for the last Atlantic Division playoff spot.
A team that was essentially a given just a few weeks ago now finds a pack of hungry teams at its tail. They’re just three points in front of the Lightning with the Islanders and the Canes close behind.
So what's the root of their struggles? Well, the team has a bad case of the injury bug. Additionally, their goalie play has been abysmal. In the past week and a half neither Mike Condon nor Craig Anderson have save percentages above .900. The absence of Captain Erik Karlsson is certainly weighing on this team.
Luckily for them, they still occupy playoff position. Sportsclubstats.com gives the team a 93.1% chance to make the postseason. They simply need to play between average and good hockey for the remainder of the season if they want to find themselves in the playoffs. However, their current trend of play could land them out of the top 16. The Sens have five games remaining in the season and they’re ultimately in control of their own destiny.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been playing really solid hockey down the stretch. Despite the distracting and seemingly endless absence of captain Steven Stamkos from the lineup, the Lightning are getting it done.
That said, the Lightning will need nothing short of a perfect ending to the season as well as a collapse from either the Leafs or the B’s if they want to be in top three in the Atlantic. The team will need help even grabbing the WC2 spot at this juncture in the season. They find themselves three points behind the Senators with one fewer game to play.
Luckily for them, the Senators are the perfect team to be chasing right now. The Lightning are picking up steam at a perfect time and I think it’s very realistic that they could catch Ottawa. A decisive win against the tired Dallas Stars last night has improved them to five wins in their last six games. All it would really take to overthrow the Senators would be a few more wins from the Bolts and a slow finish to the season from Ottawa. Both are very realistic. Sportsclubstats.com gives the Lighting a 15.1% chance to make the postseason but my gut tells me that their chances are higher than that.
New York Islanders
The Islanders are down, but they’re not necessarily out. Captain and catalyst John Tavares has been ruled out for their remaining four games and the club is five points out of the WC2 spot. Similar to the Lightning, the Islanders do not control their own fate. All they can do is win out and hope that Tampa Bay and Ottawa struggle to close out the season.
They struggled to stay alive last night, gutting out a win against the Sabres. The team currently has a 2.8% chance to make the postseason, and even a perfect 4-0-0 finish to the season will leave them with just a 32.9% chance to make the playoffs. The Isles were in a playoff position just a matter of weeks ago but a slide has left them on the outside looking in.
In retrospect, the Islanders really have nothing to be ashamed of this season. They started out remarkably slow and endured a mid-season coaching change and are still in the hunt just a week before season's end. No matter the outcome, I wouldn’t count this Islanders team out in the coming seasons.
Wow, it has been quite a month for the Hurricanes. The team has picked up a huge amount of ground in the standings to find themselves fighting for a playoff spot in late March and early April. It has taken the team less than a month to climb from last place to the edge of the playoff race. And it's been nothing if not fun to witness. This team and this fanbase has been energized as the club has come closer to the playoffs than they’ve been in a long time.
Unfortunately, the Hurricanes are in a similar, if not worse, situation as the Islanders. They have 84 points through 78 games, landing them seven points behind the Ottawa Senators with one fewer game to play. Their fate is entirely out of their hands. The unfortunate truth is that the Hurricanes could be eliminated from contention before the puck drops Tuesday night.
Sportsclubstats.com gives the Canes a 0.04% chance to make the playoffs, and to win out only increases their odds to 1%. While this season may be over after 82 games, it's not all doom and gloom. The team has shown incredible progress in this past month and the point streak could very well be the confidence that the young core needs going into next October. The streak has been the most exciting time for the team in perhaps eight years. You could see in the effort and the body language that the team truly believed they had whatever it takes. That’s refreshing.
This season may be ending in April again, but it's a good time to be a Hurricanes fan.