The marathon that is the NHL season has now turned into a sprint.
Every team is down to its last 10-12 games and there is still much left to be sorted out before the puck drops for the Stanley Cup in April.
Things we know for sure
The Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, and Columbus Blue Jackets are all going to the playoffs after clinching this weekend. The Capitals did so by taking care of the injury depleted Lightning, the Blackhawks by two controversial non offside calls and wins over the Avalanche and Maple Leafs, and the Blue Jackets after a 4-1 win over the Devils. Chicago now looks like the favorite to finish as the top team in the Western Conference after their winning ways have distanced themselves from the struggling Wild, now giving the Blackhawks a 7 point cushion from their Central foes. As for the Capitals and Blue Jackets, they will finish as a top three team in their Metropolitan division, but that might not be a great thing. Right behind the both of them is the Penguins who appear destined to finish within the top three as well, and with the given playoff format, two of those teams will meet in the first round and one will be going home…
The Montreal Canadiens beat the Senators in back to back games this weekend (one in a shootout, one in regulation) and appear to have a firm grasp in the Atlantic division. Though they only have a 4 point lead on the Senators as of now, they only face one team currently in a playoff spot (Ottawa) in their last 10 games of the regular season. Their reward for most likely winning their division? A first round match up with the New York Rangers who currently (and have for some time) sit in the first wild card spot in the East. Montreal would still have home ice advantage regardless of which team finishes with the most points (Rangers currently 3 points ahead of Montreal).
Although the only team currently eliminated from playoff contention is the Colorado Avalanche, it is safe to add the Arizona Coyotes to that list.
Things we are pretty sure we know
Saturday night the San Jose Sharks could have provided themselves a healthy lead over their divisional opponents with a win over the Anaheim Ducks, but that of course didn’t happen. Instead, the Ducks are now within 4 points of the Sharks, but the Sharks do have a game in hand. Baring any cases of Shorking or another 10 game winning streak from the Calgary Flames, the Sharks should FINish 1st in the Pacific.
Also set to qualify from the Pacific division are the Ducks, Flames, and Edmonton Oilers. Only two points separate the three of the teams (87,86,85 points respectively) and the Kings are treading water at 75 points, 10 back of the Oilers. The thing left to be determined of these three is where the three will be seeded. It is possible we could see a first round match up between the Flames and Oilers, the Battle of Alberta. The last time the Battle of Alberta took place in the playoffs was in 1991, and has only taken place a total of 5 times in the playoffs with the Oilers winning 4 of them. If that’s not the case, it could be a rematch of second round tilt two years ago between the Flames and the Ducks (Ducks won in 5 games). Whatever the case, the team out of the three that finishes with the fewest amount of points is likely to face off against the Sharks.
The other team with playoff aspirations in the Pacific is the Kings, but it may be too little too late for LA. While mathematically still alive, the Kings have failed to win key games down the stretch and now face a daunting uphill climb. They have 11 games remaining and trail the Oilers by 10 points. In their remaining games they play the Oilers and the Flames a combined 5 times. If they can win those games, in regulation, they would be theoretically tied with the Oilers and have 6 more games to try to pass them. But that’s just not going to happen, the Kings will miss the playoffs again.
As for the other division in the West, the Blackhawks, as mentioned above, are primed to win the Central. The Wild should finish behind them as the 2 seed in the Central and then the St. Louis Blues behind them, in third. Even thought the Blues only have 81 points and are currently tied with the Nashville Predators, the Blues have the easiest remaining schedule out of anyone in the league and should ride that into the playoffs as the three seed. The Predators will show their teeth and end up with the last wild card spot in the West.
If you’re doing the math, that is 8 teams set to make it in the West, so it is safe to now eliminate the Kings, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and Vancouver Canucks from playoff contention. From the Eastern Conference, it is also pretty safe to eliminate the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Philadelphia Flyers. While the Flyers, Hurricanes, and Panthers still have a chance to get hot and get in, it is not likely due to schedules and teams ahead of them.
things that we don’t really know
For those keeping score, we have the Western Conference teams set to be in, it just comes down to the last few weeks to determine seeding (and to see if we really know what we’re talking about).
As for the Eastern Conference, it is going to come down to the wire to determine the Atlantic 2 vs 3 match up and the last wild card spot. Already the Metro is all but locked up, the Rangers have the first wild card spot, and the Canadiens with the top spot in the Atlantic. When you take out the teams we just eliminated from the East, that leaves the Senators, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning all fighting for the three open spots.
The Senators have looked good enough to hold on to the second spot in the Atlantic, even with the Bruins nipping at their heals, they hold a 4 point lead and should be able to sustain that. The Bruins, currently sitting in third, have their work cut out for them as both the Leafs and Lightning are gunning for them. But here’s where it gets tricky…Boston has two games remaining against the Lighting and another game against the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins can win those three games, in regulation nonetheless, they will be in good shape for the third seed. However, if they falter in those games, it will be up for grabs.
Then comes the Lightning and Leafs. The two played each other last week, with the Leafs winning decisively 5-0. The two also play each other twice more before the season is up. They both have a very tough remaining schedule and it might come down to injury/fatigue factor or the youth vs experience factor. Both are huge story lines: Tampa has been there the past two years but have lost key players via trade and injury that it might just be too steep of a hill to climb. Toronto wasn’t even expected to be this close to the playoffs, so can their youth continue the push and get them there with the help of some added veterans?
The once left for dead Islanders also have a shot, which might have sounded crazy at the start of the year. The improbable story might be a difficult one as the Islanders can only fit in to the last wild card spot, being as they are in the Metro division and that is already accounted for. But that chance is as good as any. Their last 11 game stretch starts very difficult with games at the Rangers and then at the Penguins, then they have a very important 4 point game at home against the Bruins. While the game against Boston might not be a must win in order to get to the postseason, it will definitely be a measuring stick to see what it will take to get back to the playoffs for a second straight year.
But if there is one more thing we know for sure, it is that you will not want to miss the final stretch of games heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.