1. Washington Capitals: 99 Points (46-24-7)
With a late come from behind win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, the Capitals were able to put even more distance between themselves and the Pittsburgh Penguins by reaching 99 points. Braden Holtby came to play and earned a .946 sv% which has to make the Caps more confident heading into the playoffs. Previously he was playing inconsistently, and Philipp Grubauer looked poised to take the starting position before heading to the playoffs.
T.J. Oshie changed his stick setup before their game on March 15th. Since then he has scored five goals and registered eight total points. Before this game, he had a 19 game streak without a goal and two goals in his previous 42 games. So what was the change? The stick is a tad longer and the stiffness increased from 82 to 87. More stiffness and a longer length add for more snap on the puck and a quicker shot but requires more force to be imparted on the stick. So far so good, and Oshie looks to be back to the goal scorer the Caps need him to be.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 94 Points (44-28-6)
The Penguins are five points behind the Caps with only five games left. The Caps also have a game in hand, which means the Pens aren’t likely to get to first place, but they are in a battle for second, third, and fourth. The Pens are just two points above the Flyers and four points above the Devils for the two wild-card positions. The Pens have three of their five remaining games against Metro playoff teams, whereas the Blue Jackets and Flyers just have two.
Crosby is here for opening day in OT. ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/hy4PUGJn00— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) March 30, 2018
The Penguins realistically have just four remaining games to get Matt Murray comfortable between the pipes. Murray has missed significant portions of the season with injuries and the passing of his father. He has been unable to get into a good rhythm and groove throughout the season. This hasn’t been too much of an issue for him as he has a 24-15-3 record. However, the downside is that he does have a 2.91 GAA and a .907 sv% which is less than ideal heading into the playoffs.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: 93 Points (44-29-5)
The Blue Jackets are going to be a handful for any team that they face in the playoffs. At the moment, it looks like it will be a first-round rematch with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are a daunting team that is very top heavy, but the depth of the Blue Jackets being able to roll four lines that are all very comfortable with each other could be their biggest advantage.
They have ten different goal scorers since they started getting hot at the beginning of March. The third line of Boone Jenner, Alexander Wennberg and Thomas Vanek has combined for 16 goals in this time. In this same period, the Penguins third line has only combined for seven goals. Now the Pens have some of the best players in the league, but Artemi Panarin is making his case to be considered an elite goal scorer in Columbus. Panarin has 26 total goals but has six this month.
4. Philadelphia Flyers: 92 Points (39-25-14)
When the Flyers acquired goaltender Petr Mrazek, I doubt they expected him to be this important. Wednesday, after returning to the ice for the first time since February 18th, Michal Neuvirth was injured again. This time Mrazek had to come in and fill in mid-game and performed admirably in a 2-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche, who are fighting for a playoff position.
The win against Colorado was huge for Philly, allowing them to keep pace with the Blue Jackets and Penguins as well as maintain their two-game lead on the Devils. The Flyers are only 5-2-3 in their last 10 games, but they have a seven-game point streak heading into the final week of the season. This will be a very fun last week of the season with four teams within five points of each other.
5. New Jersey Devils: 89 Points (40-28-9)
The Devils are now 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and have gotten through their toughest games down the stretch. They currently sit three points ahead of the Florida Panthers for the final wild-card position in the East. The Devils look like a playoff team, winning tough games and beating good teams.
They have done this on the back of Keith Kincaid who looks to have taken the starting gig for the Devils. Kincaid started in back to back games when he started Saturday against the Lightning and then again on Tuesday against the Canes. He has been streaking at the right time. His season sv% is just .909%. However, in March alone it is a .929% which is the sixth best in the league over that time period. The Devils have been smart to ride the hot hand down the stretch.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 79 Points (34-32-11)
Openings in the Canes lineup came from both Brett Pesce and Victor Rask being out with shoulder injuries. Bill Peters mentioned that both players have been dealing with these injuries for a while. Rask has taken a step back this season, but you have to think that the shoulder injury could be a factor to why his play took a step back. A shoulder injury is going to affect his ability to win faceoffs, passing, and scoring. His 31 points are a career low, and this comes at the worst time for the Canes who signed him to a six-year extension at the end of the 20-6 season.
Rask can be a good player, and he is likely to get back to where he has been in the past three seasons and not where he was this year. With Sebastian Aho’s move to center, that now leaves the Canes with Aho, Jordan Staal, Elias Lindholm, and Rask as centers that are signed for 2018-2019.
Martin Necas is also in the fold for next season, since he will likely be coming to North America next season. Necas is likely to get at least half of a season in the AHL, but neither Rask nor Lindholm are the type to play as a fourth line center, and Necas will need time in the top 9 to develop to his potential. The Canes will have plenty of interesting moves to make this offseason, all with a brand new GM.
7. New York Rangers: 75 Points (33-35-8)
When the Rangers sent out a letter to their fans earlier this season saying that they were going to rebuild and tank, I thought of two things. First, how many other teams would follow suit. You see this in baseball with the Miami Marlins, who sold off all of their best players but still pretend like they are in contention for a World Series. This has alienated fans and made them angry, and I wonder how many more teams will choose the Rangers approach as opposed to the Senators/Marlins route.
Second, I wonder how the league felt about the letter. The NHL has tried very hard to discourage tanking, but the Rangers letter told fans they were going to rebuild and get the best pick possible. You would have to think that they aren’t too thrilled to have the largest hockey market in the US announce that they were openly throwing in the towel. I wonder if we will see this again, or if the league sent a letter to teams strongly discouraging this kind of thing in the future.
8. New York Islanders: 74 Points (32-35-10)
Last year when Doug Weight took over behind the bench for the Islanders, there was a lot of talk about his future. Not because he was a bad coach, it was because at the time he was an assistant GM and not a part of the coaching staff at all. Many speculated that he would forgo an opportunity behind the bench to stay with the front office, but he accepted the job as coach.
Now after this long season and unsuccessful season, you have to start wondering if he is eyeing a return to a front office role. He has seemed relatively uninterested in the media and many questions that he has taken. It has just started to appear that he doesn’t like the grind of being an NHL coach. We see this to some extent with Bill Peters at the end of this season where he just looks beaten down and only gives one or two-word answers to questions. An 82 game season seems to not just take its toll on the players, it takes a toll on coaches’ psyches too.