NHL playoff races: The fate of the West reaches a critical point

The Western Conference playoff picture could be solidified this week with several crucial head-to-head matchups on the schedule.

When you think about how the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers were struggling as recently as last week, it seemed like the NHL playoff race was running out of steam.

But at least for now, those races received a final burst of energy entering the penultimate week of the regular season and delightfully, there are stakes beyond survival-level stuff. Both Western Conference division title races look like they could come down to the wire and there's plenty of meaningful hockey on tap before teams reach Game 82.

(All standings are up to date heading into the games on April 3.)

Eastern Conference

Current wild-card race

🟰 New York Islanders (87 points, 78 GP, .558 points percentage): Won the games they should, lost against good teams, still face uncertainty.

Games this week: vs. Lightning, vs. Flyers

The Islanders began with a strong win by beating the Devils and avoided being upset by the Capitals. Then, they fell in regulation to two teams there’s little shame in losing to: the Lightning and Hurricanes. Yet, by failing to salvage a “loser point” from those defeats, their playoff future remains up in the air.

The key, then, is to remain steady. Aside from Thursday’s home game against the Lightning, the Islanders are no-doubt favorites for the rest of their regular-season contests. Even better: they play three of four games at home, where they have been 22-13-3 compared to 17-17-6 on the road. Overall, the Islanders seem to be in a good spot, but they’re far from bulletproof.

📉 Pittsburgh Penguins (86 points, 77 GP, .558%): Some might argue they’re in nearly the same spot as the Islanders, but this sure feels worse.

Games this week: @ Devils, vs. Wild, @ Red Wings

By beating the Flyers and Predators, the Penguins arguably salvaged their week. Most, understandably, would pencil in a loss to the mighty Bruins. But last week’s loss to the Red Wings? If the Penguins miss the playoffs, they’ll look to defeats like those as ones they’d want back.

One morsel of comfort is that the Penguins “control their destiny.” If all three of the Islanders, Penguins and Panthers win their remaining games, Pittsburgh would finish with one of the two wild-card spots.

On paper, the next two games loom as the biggest hurdles in two seemingly superior teams in the Devils and Wild. After that, it’s three games the Penguins “should” win, although they’ve already clearly whiffed on a previous chance to beat up on Detroit.

That “control their destiny” bit really clashes with the larger impression that the Penguins need someone else to stumble at least a little down the stretch if they want to gasp into the playoffs. We’ll see.

Panthers out of playoff position, but putting incredible heat on Penguins, Islanders

📈 Florida Panthers (85 points, 77 GP, .552%): Sitting up like The Undertaker at “Wrestlemania.”

Games this week: vs. Sabres, vs. Senators, @ Capitals.

Maybe the Panthers should change their logo to a see-saw. As early as last Monday, the Cats looked cooked after dropping their fourth loss in a row. Then they rattled off three road wins in a row, including an OT-winner against the Maple Leafs. Perhaps Matthew Tkachuk’s dad needs to question their intestinal fortitude more often?

Ideally, the Panthers would avoid upsets this week (no guarantee, their most recent loss came against the Sens) and then catch their last two opponents (home games vs. the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes) in “rest players and generally avoid injuries” mode.

Good luck forcing me to promise anything about the M. Night Panthers lately, as they keep swerving hockey fans left and right.

Extremely faint wild-card hopes

📈 Buffalo Sabres (81 points, 75 GP, .540%): Made enough of a push that they deserve a passing mention.

Games this week: @ Panthers, @ Red Wings, vs. Hurricanes

Yes, it’s charitable to mention anyone other than the Panthers having a chance to usurp the Islanders or Penguins. That said, the Sabres made a spirited-enough push to at least demand a mention. If they won their remaining five games, they’d finish at 91 points. Even that best-case scenario leaves the Sabres with long odds, although the three teams ahead of them have stumbled enough that Buffalo could dream a little.

Race for the Metropolitan Division's No. 1 seed

🟰 Carolina Hurricanes (107 points, 76 GP, .704%, clinched playoffs): Almost certainly taking the division title.

Games this week: vs. Senators, @ Predators, @ Sabres.

Going forward, if they’re more focused on strategically resting big-minute players than they are any minor threat to the Metro top seed, would you blame them? Carolina cannot afford another Andrei Svechnikov-grade injury.

📉 New Jersey Devils (104 points, 77 GP, .675%, clinched playoffs): By failing to gain ground, they’ve likely run out of time.

Games this week: vs. Penguins, vs. Blue Jackets, @ Bruins

Realistically, the Rangers have a better chance of snatching home-ice advantage from the Devils than New Jersey does of winning the division title.

Western Conference

Race for the Central Division's No. 1 seed

📈 Minnesota Wild (97 points, 76 GP, .638%): Beating the Avalanche in regulation last week could be significant.

Games this week: vs. Golden Knights, @ Penguins, vs. Blues

Both the Stars and Golden Knights could conceivably wrestle away the Central Division crown from the Wild — it’s all skin-tight. The Wild did what they could last week, winning their last regular-season meeting with the Avs.

Winning the Central looks like a bigger deal now than it did even a few weeks ago. All three of these top teams have been playing well, while the likely top wild-card team (Seattle) has been middling.

📈 Colorado Avalanche (96 points, 75 GP, .640%): One big loss to the Wild, one big win against the Stars, a general upward trend continues overall.

Games this week: @ Sharks @ Sharks @ Kings, @ Ducks

Factoring in games in hand, the Avalanche’s pursuit of the Central Division title mirrors the Penguins’ push for a playoff spot. If they win out, they’d grab it. Of course, it’s easier to imagine Colorado actually pulling that off (or something close to it).

It helps when you consider how winnable their upcoming games look. Such a road-heavy trip should inspire some caution — not just with “trap games” against crummy teams, but maybe even injury risks — but Colorado’s in a nice position to emerge.

📈 Dallas Stars (96 points, 76 GP, .632%): Won the games they should, but lost to the Avs in regulation.

Games this week: vs. Predators, vs. Flyers, vs. Golden Knights

Although Dallas is a stride slow in the race for the Central Division title, they can make it. If nothing else, they have a reasonable shot at the second spot and a chance to begin the postseason at home. That’s because, on paper, their schedule looks more accommodating than that of the Wild.

This race has all the makings of a photo finish.

Race for the Pacific Division's No. 1 seed

The Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings are right on the heels of the Vegas Golden Knights for top spot in the Western Conference. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

📉 Vegas Golden Knights: (101 points, 76 GP, .664%, clinched playoffs): Gave up some ground for the Pacific crown.

Games this week: @ Wild, @ Predators, vs. Kings, @ Stars

Losing to the Oilers hurts those Pacific/West top-seed chances, and only gathering a point against the Sharks stings. The race for the top seed in the Pacific is almost as tight as the Central squabbles.

With a fairly tough schedule to end their season, Vegas could slip — but the Golden Knights still own enough edges that they may hang on to the top spot if they finish hot.

📉 Los Angeles Kings (100 points, 77 GP, .649%, clinched playoffs): Like the Golden Knights, their last week looks worse thanks to a loss to the Oilers.

Games this week: vs. Oilers, @ Golden Knights, vs. Avalanche

With two regulation losses and two regulation wins, the past week was by no means a disaster for the Kings. One of those losses stings because it came against Edmonton, though. Los Angeles prepares for a week that may well swing the division, as they face the Oilers and the Golden Knights for the final time in the regular season.

Throwing Colorado into that mix sets the stage for a challenging week.

📈 Edmonton Oilers: (99 points, 77 GP, .623%): Hot enough to go from safely in a playoff spot to credibly vying for a division title.

Games this week: @ Kings, @ Ducks, @ Sharks

Are we finally witnessing a sight for sore eyes: Connor McDavid on a team worthy of his talents? We’ve viewed glimpses of that since they reinforced their lineup with Mattias Ekholm at the NHL trade deadline. Beyond winning a layup against Arizona, the Oilers gained potentially pivotal wins over the Kings and Golden Knights. Edmonton gets another crack at Los Angeles on Tuesday, and faces California teams in three of its final four games with the only other game being against the also-rising Avs.

Maybe this is a greedy thought, but if you’re the Oilers, you’d like to have the final line change if you dealt with another Game 7 against the Kings, wouldn’t you?

Current two wild-card teams

📉 Seattle Kraken (90 points, 75 GP, .600%): Categorize the past week as a stumble rather than a faceplant.

Games this week: vs. Coyotes, @ Canucks, vs. Coyotes, @ Blackhawks

Losing to the Wild and Kings but beating the Ducks sounds about right, though scavenging a point against higher-ranking teams would be heartening. The Kraken have looked more like docile beasts since early March, but maybe they just need the urgency of the playoffs (or a cushy upcoming stretch) to gain some confidence.

Weighing their schedule and margin for error, it would be shocking if the Kraken fell out of the West playoff picture. Merely dropping a spot would honestly be surprising enough. They sit three points ahead of third-place Calgary with two games in hand.

🟰 Winnipeg Jets (89 points, 77 GP, .578%): Must hope that a promising week translates into a successful week.

Games this week: vs. Flames, vs. Predators

Truly, it’s staggering and troubling that Winnipeg is by no means assured of a playoff spot.

The next week presents a fascinating challenge, then, as the Jets host a team doing its Western Conference interpretation of the Panthers’ late, unlikely push (Calgary Flames) and another somehow technically alive for reasons that likely defy their own management team (Nashville Predators). The Jets hold the edge on each team on the outside, but things could get boa-constrictor-tight if Winnipeg loses both games in regulation.

Winnipeg’s wild-card spot by no means a lock

📈 Calgary Flames (87 points, 77 GP, .565%): The Panthers parallels are almost eerie, as the Flames are in a tough spot, yet are making a genuine push.

Games this week: vs. Blackhawks, @ Jets, @ Canucks

Winning the West’s top seed sure would look less enticing if that meant facing the Flames instead of the Jets. Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg already carries “grab the popcorn material,” and get this: the Flames also host the Predators on April 10. The Flames should emphasize beating the Jets in regulation, as even an OT/shootout win might be insufficient. Buckle up.

🟰 Nashville Predators (84 points, 75 GP, .560%): Probably still a mirage, but credit them with some fighting spirit.

Games this week: @ Stars, vs. Golden Knights, vs. Hurricanes, @ Jets

Entering this week, the Predators and Flames are the only teams outside of playoff position in the West who haven’t already been mathematically eliminated. Optimistic math gives the Predators a solid chance here, especially with head-to-head games remaining against both teams (in Winnipeg on April 8, in Calgary on April 10).

The deeper you dig into their games in hand, the easier it is to sober up to Nashville’s poor odds. Every team on their remaining schedule ranks higher in the standings. The Predators are also ravaged by injuries. It’s almost certainly not happening for the Preds.