With every NHL team having no more than seven games left to play in the regular season, playoff positioning is becoming more tense and critical each day. Only five of the 16 spots have been clinched, so a lot will come to a head soon.
Now, there are certain things that seem like an inevitable. Even though Pittsburgh and St. Louis have yet to clinch, those teams have more than enough points to believe a playoff berth is going to happen in the next few days.
As these things tend to do, the real drama is going to come from the lower half of both conferences. There are five Eastern Conference teams within seven points of each other for three spots and between six to seven games left.
In other words, a lot will be determined by the teams that can find their stride at the most critical point in the season. Here’s how things stand now, with a look at a projected final bracket and key races to watch closely.
No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 8 Boston Bruins
No. 2 Nashville Predators vs. No. 7 Calgary Flames
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals
No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 6 Vancouver Canucks
No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 6 Detroit Red Wings
No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Minnesota Wild
No. 4 Pittsburgh Pirates vs. No. 5 New York Islanders
Predictions by Adam Wells
Anaheim Mighty Ducks (105 points; Four games remaining)
Montreal Canadiens (102 points; five games remaining)
Nashville Predators (102 points; Five games remaining)
New York Rangers (101 points; seven games remaining)
St. Louis Blues (99 points; six games remaining)
Tampa Bay Lightning (101 points; five games remaining)
Chicago Blackhawks (98 points; six games remaining)
Pittsburgh Penguins (95 points; six games remaining)
Minnesota Wild (95 points; six games remaining)
New York Islanders (95 points; five games remaining)
Vancouver Canucks (93 points; six games remaining)
Detroit Red Wings (92 points; seven games remaining)
Calgary Flames (91 points; five games remaining)
Washington Capitals (92 points; six games remaining)
Winnipeg Jets (90 points; six games remaining)
Boston Bruins (89 points; six games remaining)
Los Angeles Kings (88 points; six games remaining)
Ottawa Senators (86 points; seven games remaining)
Dallas Stars (84 points; five games remaining)
Florida Panthers (85 points; six games remaining)
San Jose Sharks (83 points; six games remaining)
Columbus Blue Jackets (76 points; seven games remaining)*
*Philadelphia, which is eliminated, has one more point than Columbus (77), but the Blue Jackets are not yet eliminated by virtue of having played one less game with as many as 14 points still available.
The Battle for No. 1 in the East
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Even though the top three teams in the Eastern Conference (Montreal, New York, Tampa Bay) have clinched playoff berths, there’s drama because they are separated by a total of one point. The Rangers and Lightning are tied with 101, while the Canadiens have 102.
Yet if there is an edge in the race, it lies with the Rangers. First, they are in a great spot simply by having two extra games to play. Even if they lose two of their final seven games in overtime and win the remaining five, that will be enough to push it over the top.
Keep in mind that would also require the Lightning and Canadiens to go 5-0-0 in their last five games. Alain Vigneault’s team didn’t have a good weekend, dropping games to Washington and Boston.
Sean Hartnett of CBS New York did offer the Rangers and their fans hope on the heels of a disappointing stretch:
What Rangers fans have seen over the past two games is probably a blip. This team has shown an ability to self-correct all season long.
Between now and the playoffs, the Rangers have a sizable checklist in front of them. They will need to iron out their mistakes, get Lundqvist up to speed, figure out how to spark their struggling power play and reincorporate Martin St. Louis and Kevin Klein into the lineup once they’re given the green light.
Plus, the Rangers have something that makes them as dangerous as anyone in the quest for a Stanley Cup: goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist is getting his feet back under him after missing nearly two months, but these final seven games are going to be critical.
Lundqvist was the best goalie in the sport before getting hurt. Yet as ESPN Stats Info noted, his problems against Boston on March 28 really only happened in the first 20 minutes:
Henrik Lundqvist allowed 3 goals in 1st period today in his 1st GM since Feb 2. Rangers allowed 3 goals in entire GM ONCE in previous 12
— ESPN Stats Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 28, 2015
Simple math tells you the Rangers are in an excellent spot to get the No. 1 seed. Combine that with the team getting its top goalie back, as well as the best goal differential (plus-51) in the sport, and things will work out perfectly down the stretch in New York.
Who Wants In?
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On the opposite end of the spectrum, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference is fascinating. Detroit, Washington, Ottawa, Boston and Florida are fighting for three spots. The Red Wings and Capitals are tied with 92 points, the Bruins are in the eighth spot with 89 points and the Senators (86) and Panthers (85) are looking up at everyone.
Keeping the Red Wings and Capitals in the playoffs—since you can’t eliminate everyone even for the purposes of a good story—leaves Ottawa, Boston and Florida in a battle for one spot.
The Senators are the scary team in this scenario because they still have seven games left and trail Boston by three points. Florida feels like one of those lucky teams just happy to be alive because none of the numbers for that team look particularly good with a minus-17 goal differential.
By process of elimination, this brings us down to the Bruins and Senators. Ottawa is trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time with three consecutive losses (one in overtime), including two against non-playoff teams in Toronto and Florida.
On the other side, as noted by Katie Strang of ESPN.com, Boston is finally moving in the direction that was expected all year:
The Bruins know exactly how much is on the line with the Panthers and Senators both aiming to knock them out of a playoff spot; as such, coach Claude Julien’s squad now seems to be playing with the requisite desperation needed at this time of the season. The Bruins have rattled off two straight wins, opening up three- and four-point leads against the Sens and Panthers, respectively, for the second wild-card spot in the East. Rookie David Pastrnak came up huge in Sunday’s 2-1 OT win over the Carolina Hurricanes, notching the winning goal with less than 37 seconds left in the overtime period.
Lining up the schedules, Ottawa’s isn’t going to let up. The Senators have Detroit on Tuesday, Tampa Bay, Washington, Toronto, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia to close things out. Boston has stiff competition in Detroit and Tampa Bay, but two games against Florida and one against Toronto help.
At some point Boston’s light has to click on. This is a team that’s had at least 102 points in three of the last four years, with 2012-13 being the lone exception because of the lockout shortening the season to 48 games.
Beware the Defending Champions
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Just as the Bruins have the ability to turn things on down the stretch, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings are lurking in the shadows in the Western Conference.
This season there is just one team above 55 percent in score-adjusted shot percentage: the Kings, and they have a 36 percent chance at missing the playoffs. The Calgary Flames, on the other hand, see just 44.2 percent of shots in their favor, third worst in the NHL behind the Buffalo Sabres (53.5 percent) and Colorado Avalanche (43.1 percent)…
Now, there’s no denying this has been a disappointing season for the Kings. They are lucky to be in a position to make the playoffs at all, keeping in mind they are two points behind Winnipeg on the final day of March. Losing consecutive games to Calgary and Chicago doesn’t make things easier.
Yet it’s hard to look past the final six games remaining on Los Angeles’ schedule. It closes out with two games against Edmonton, the second-worst team in the Western Conference, and mediocre teams like San Jose and Colorado.
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For comparison, the Jets finish with the Rangers, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis, Vancouver and Calgary. Colorado is also mixed in there, but it’s not an ideal schedule to end the year when examined against what their main competitor has to face.
The one scary thing for this year’s Kings is the goaltending hasn’t played up to its usual standards. Jonathan Quick has been solid with a 2.30 goals-against average and 91.6 save percentage, but that’s not good enough for a team that struggles offensively.
It’s been proven twice in the last three years where Quick can take over a series, so it’s just a matter of this team being able to do enough to sneak in. With a favorable schedule and no one pulling away from the defending champs, expect the Kings to find the No. 8 seed when the season ends.