NHL playoff races: Pivotal week in Central, last call for Flames and Predators
The battle for the Central Division crown heats up, while the clock nears midnight for the Flames and Predators.
This deep into an NHL regular season, it’s dangerous to simply judge competition by their records through 70-plus games. The calendar also requires consideration for context.
As early as this coming week, the Washington Capitals could see their hopes — and thus their effort level — wane as their playoff odds have vanished. The Tampa Bay Lightning are playing out the string with little room for movement from the third spot in the Atlantic Division. Then there’s the almost unicorn-like unique beast that is the Vancouver Canucks, a team that’s 8-2-0 in their last 10 games for baffling reasons beyond “Vancouver only seems capable of self-sabotage at this point.”
So, the point is that there’s some guesswork involved in calculating how engaged a large number of opponents might be. A pothole could be paved over and what looked like a layup could instead be as routine as trying to snare a rebound from Dennis Rodman.
(All standings are up to date heading into the games on March 27.)
Current wild-card race
New York Islanders (83 points, 74 GP, .561%): Could be better, could be worse.
Games this week: vs. Devils, @ Capitals, @ Lightning, @ Hurricanes
Last Tuesday, the Islanders earned an impressive 7-2 win over a strong opponent in the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was the peak, however, as they only clawed away a single standings point from two games after a regulation loss to the Buffalo Sabres and an OT loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This next stretch presents a slightly more difficult challenge, with games against Carolina and New Jersey, who should still be motivated with the top spot in the Metro up for grabs. But they also face off against the potentially uninspired Capitals and Lightning twice down the stretch, along with some bottom-feeders in Philadelphia and Montreal.
The best case is that this schedule presents a tough challenge, but not hockey’s answer to the absurd task of beating Dark Souls blindfolded on a piano without ever getting hit somehow.
Pittsburgh Penguins (82 points, 73 GP, .562%): A mixed bag, not unlike the Islanders.
Games this week: @ Red Wings, vs. Predators, vs. Bruins, vs. Flyers
With a 2-1 regulation loss to the Ottawa Senators on Monday, things were looking ugly. In the end, the Penguins were a coin flip this past week, losing twice and winning twice.
Beating the Colorado Avalanche was fairly impressive, and Evgeni Malkin scored the sort of goal that may make the difference in Pittsburgh’s playoff push — and possibly hammered in the final nail for the rival Capitals’ distant dreams.
HE IS SCORE.
HE IS CELLY.
HE IS CLUTCH. pic.twitter.com/RZwkG4TcN1
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 26, 2023
From here, the Penguins’ schedule looks mostly manageable, too, with only three of nine remaining games against teams in playoff position.
Best chance to take a spot from Penguins or Islanders
📉 Florida Panthers (79 points, 73 GP, .541%): Flipped the script from a hot week to one that may doom them.
Games this week: @ Senators, @ Maple Leafs, @ Canadiens, @ Blue Jackets
The Panthers embody “Just when I thought I was out … they pulled me back in.” Only now, it’s the Sopranos parodying Al Pacino. Good for a laugh, but maybe the joke’s getting a little old.
They were red-hot when the Penguins were plummeting, briefly taking a wild-card spot. They then followed a three-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak and enter the week three points back of the Penguins.
The key will be to shut out all of the noise. Their upcoming four-game road trip isn’t against a murderer’s row of opponents, but the Panthers lost to Philly this past week, so they’d be wise to stay focused.
Florida will almost certainly need to do some scoreboard watching, as the Panthers don’t face the Islanders or Penguins again during the regular season.
Extremely faint wild-card hopes
Buffalo Sabres (76 points, 72 GP, .528%): The strongest of the weak chances.
We’re entering backhanded compliment with faint praise territory. MoneyPuck gives the Sabres the best chance of any of the long-shots at a not especially nice 6.9 percent. Beating the Islanders in regulation kept the door open a tiny bit, but it’s almost certainly over.
📉 Washington Capitals (76 points, 74 GP, .514%): Stick a fork in them.
Malkin scoring that game-winner late in regulation just about did it. Like Connor Roy, the Capitals are struggling to keep even a one percent chance alive.
📉 Ottawa Senators (75 points, 73 GP, .514%): Make sure there’s a fork for the Senators, too.
Really, the most relevant thing about the Senators is that they face the Panthers twice, so Ottawa could very well influence how dramatic the race is for other teams.
Race for the Metropolitan Division's No. 1 seed
📈 Carolina Hurricanes (103 points, 72 GP, .715%, clinched playoffs): Almost certainly taking the division title
Games this week: vs. Lightning, @ Red Wings, @ Canadiens, vs. Islanders
With three more points and a game in hand on the Devils, the Hurricanes just about have the division title in the bag. After a good-enough week (2-1-1), Carolina’s schedule is hospitable enough that a slip to second place would involve some significant upsets.
📉 New Jersey Devils (100 points, 73 GP, .685%, clinched playoffs): Slipped enough lately that the Metro prize looks unlikely.
Games this week: @ Islanders, vs. Rangers, @ Blackhawks, @ Jets
Should the Devils be concerned after only winning two of their last seven games (2-3-2)? That stretch may embolden people to view the Rangers as favorites and the Devils as underdogs in their potential first-round matchup. Maybe that was always going to be the case when you consider the disparity in name recognition (though probably not in actual talent).
Race for the Central Division's No. 1 seed
📈 Minnesota Wild (93 points, 73 GP, .637%): A mostly promising ascent.
Games this week: vs. Kraken, @ Avalanche, @ Golden Knights
It may not last long, but the Wild begin this week atop the Central, one point ahead of the Avs and Stars. Aside from a few puzzling losses to the Coyotes and Flyers beyond regulation, and a not-puzzling loss to the Bruins, the Wild remain red-hot lately (6-1-3). They’re showing the sort of burst a hockey player would hope to gain from some potent smelling salts.
(Note: maybe don’t inhale ammonia, at home or anywhere else.)
📈 Colorado Avalanche (92 points, 72 GP, .639%): Rounding into form, very much in the battle for the Central crown.
Games this week: @ Ducks, vs. Wild, vs. Stars
Look, you can downplay the hot streak (8-1-0) considering a cupcake schedule (including but not exclusive to three Coyotes matchups), but it’s still promising to win eight out of nine games.
Two Avalanche home games loom large over the Central Division race this week, as the Avs host the Wild on Wednesday and the Stars on Saturday. Those head-to-head contests could swing home-ice advantage, or even which team takes the top spot.
📉 Dallas Stars (92 points, 73 GP, .630%): Small shrinkage, but it shouldn’t throw too much cold water on their mood.
Games this week: @ Blackhawks, @ Coyotes, @ Avalanche
Losing to the Canucks twice in regulation within a two-week span stinks. Considering how close the Central races are, it may push the Stars to begin the playoffs on the road. That’s not a nightmare, really, as they actually hold a slightly better away record (21-10-5) than they do at home (18-10-9) this season.
As you can see, things are skin-tight, though. The Stars face a fascinating road trip this week with trips to Arizona, Chicago and then a crucial clash in Colorado.
You could argue that, on paper, the Avalanche and Golden Knights are the only remaining games on the schedule where the Stars could be underdogs. They could gear up for a strong finish, though sometimes this Stars team is full of surprises — both good and bad.
Race for the Pacific Division's No. 1 seed
📈 Vegas Golden Knights: (98 points, 73 GP, .671%): On a tremendous run in March.
Games this week: vs. Oilers, @ Sharks, vs. Wild
Here’s a rare nugget: each win from Vegas’s four-game streak involved a different goalie grabbing a victory. It hammers home the point that Vegas just keeps getting it done, especially this month. In March, they’re an impressive 11-2-0, the best mark of any team. The Bruins are really slacking at 10-3-0, tied for second with Vancouver this month.
📈 Los Angeles Kings (96 points, 73 GP, .653%): Also in the conversation for hottest team in the NHL (and Pacific).
Games this week: @ Flames, @ Oilers, @ Kraken, @ Canucks
While the Golden Knights could dream of the top spot in the Pacific and Western Conference, a division title is no guarantee thanks to the comparably-hot Kings. Stretching back to Feb. 28, Los Angeles is 8-0-2.
Expect that hot streak to be tested. The Kings are on the road for four games this week and five of their next six. That stretch ends with an April 6 game in Vegas. It’s too early to call that game decisive for the division title, but it could be if Los Angeles closes more ground. Home-ice advantage against the Oilers adds incentive even if the Pacific title falls through, as the Kings are an impressive 25-9-4 at home and want more chances to dictate matchups against Connor McDavid, if that ends up being a repeat first-round series.
📈 Edmonton Oilers: (91 points, 73 GP, .623%): Most likely able to hold off the Kraken for the Pacific third seed.
Games this week: @ Coyotes, @ Golden Knights, vs. Kings
Did the top Pacific Division teams ingest superhero serum like they’re in “The Boys” or something? The Oilers aren’t far behind the Kings and Golden Knights, as Edmonton is 9-2-1 in March.
Allow me to be a broken record: the Oilers should really consider resting McDavid and Leon Draisaitl here and there. McDavid already got to 60 goals, and easily set a new career-high at 139 points. Is an arbitrary pursuit of 150 points worth playing every one of Edmonton’s remaining nine contests, with just three of those at home? If nothing else, only playing one game of an upcoming back-to-back against Arizona and Vegas seems wise to me.
Current two West wild-card teams
📈 Seattle Kraken (88 points, 72 GP, .611%): Chance to climb, yet seemingly in line for top wild-card spot.
Games this week: @ Wild, vs. Ducks, vs. Kings
For some time, a question lingered: if you’re starting the West playoffs on the road this year, does it matter much who your opponent is? That question resonated the most when it seemed like the Avalanche would be a lower seed, and the top conference contenders seemed merely to be the least-worst teams in a weak West.
With the way things have been going, the question can still be uttered, only now in a positive tone. Just about every team in the top three of a division has been playing at a high level, so you’re mostly splitting hairs.
So, sure, the Kraken would probably prefer to leap over the Oilers to get the No. 3 spot in the Pacific, but securing a playoff spot is the obvious focus. A mostly amenable schedule greatly helps a cause that already looked sound.
Winnipeg Jets (85 points, 74 GP, .574%): Wobbly. Not so wobbly that they’re likely to fall out of the top eight, though.
Games this week: @ Sharks, vs. Red Wings, vs. Devils
Since mid-February, the Jets have been a mess. For all of this turbulence, potential usurpers have failed to take flight.
Starting on Friday, the Jets commence a five-game homestand that ideally would check two boxes: wrap up a playoff spot, and actually get them playing sharp into the postseason. Bank on them checking the first box, if nothing else.
Slim hopes to swipe a wild-card spot from Winnipeg
📉 Calgary Flames (81 points, 74 GP, .547%): It’s never easy with this frustrating team.
Games this week: vs. Kings @ Canucks, vs. Ducks
Uneasy parallels reverberate between the Flames and Panthers, echoing beyond their pivotal offseason trades. While both teams hog the puck somewhat like their previous versions, neither can put enough wins together to make that matter. Calgary and Florida must feel that much more frustrated because the wild-card teams ahead of them have, at times, even left the door open for comebacks.
All of that said, the Flames’ schedule softens up after Tuesday’s game against the Kings, and Calgary can make gains via a head-to-head game with the Jets in Winnipeg on April 8. So, the Flames and Panthers can still talk themselves into things turning around, whether those murmurs are realistic or not.
Nashville Predators (80 points, 72 GP, .556%): Hanging by a thread.
Games this week: @ Bruins, @ Penguins, vs. Blues
Broadly, the Flames resemble a playoff team talent-wise, but games remaining add to the feeling of time running out. The Predators may be the opposite: they’re talent-deficient (even before those trades, but especially after them), yet there is a glimmer of hope.
Much like the Flames, the Predators can attempt to make up ground in their remaining game against the Jets this season. You can talk yourself into a Cinderella run if you embrace blind optimism.
Get back to reality and it’s hard to picture a talent-deprived Predators team closing the gap, particularly with a punishing schedule that features only one matchup against a team not in a playoff race.