In terms of points, team potential, and the swing of results over the last few weeks, there are a good 11 teams in the mix for the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff places. At the top end, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and New York Islanders look to be locked for the postseason, quite possibly tightening their grasp on divisional places at the trade deadline.
Expected to be in the mosh-pit between the final Metropolitan Division slot, the two wildcard places, and end their season in April are the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, and the resurgent Philadelphia Flyers. But, which of these teams will make it to the playoffs?
A place up for grabs in the Metropolitan Division, too
The Columbus Blue Jackets managed to stop the rot and climb up the standings and into the third Metropolitan place, aided by the belly slide of the Pittsburgh Penguins. With two games in hand, the Blue Jackets could put four points between themselves and the Penguins, with the Hurricanes potentially trailing by seven points at that stage.
But, the Blue Jackets’ fate may not be decided on the ice but rather in the front office. A lot of their playoff and subsequent Stanley Cup hopes depend on what happens with impending free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. If they both leave and Columbus fails to recuperate a top-class scorer or potential game-winner in net, they could begin to slide. On the other hand, keeping two players who have indicated that they want to test the free agency in the summer could be toxic for the locker room, further hindering the team.
Without politics coming into the equation, the Blue Jackets are well-equipped to go deep in this postseason, but unfortunately, that’s just not how the game works. Pittsburgh may be struggling, but they have the powerhouse stars to pull them into that third Metro place if the Blue Jackets trade away their two best players and begin to slip.
The battle for the wildcard places
Assuming that the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, and the soon returning Justin Schultz can pull their team back into the divisional spot, as they often do, it looks to be a scrap between the Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Hurricanes, Sabres, and Flyers for the wildcard places.
A fleeting look at the standings would rule out the Philadelphia Flyers, but seeing their 8-1-1 record over their last ten to pull them to within eight points of the second wildcard place sets them as the dark horse. The team is certainly strong enough to be contending for a divisional place, but inconsistency from the many young stars and a merry-go-round of goaltenders has hindered them greatly. They have the talent to keep the hot streak going, especially if rookie Carter Hart continues to impress in the net, and if they keep Wayne Simmonds after the trade deadline, they’ll be looking to push into a wildcard place.
The Buffalo Sabres are in a precarious position as while they started the season very well and then sunk down the standings very quickly, their form has turned distinctly tepid. The rebuilding team shall just be happy that they’re well above the basement, but likely won’t be able to push for the playoffs now.
Having turned their fortunes around, the Carolina Hurricanes are back on the charge with a 7-2-1 record in their last ten games and boast a tremendous amount of power in the trade market. The Canes have plenty of cap space, a surplus of top-class defensemen – expected to be a coveted asset in this trade window – and a much sought-after power forward in Micheal Ferland. The deep but developing team could make trades to strengthen the team in the future and for this playoff push.
Montreal is doing better than expected, and with Carey Price in goal, they can certainly contend for a wildcard place. At the 56-game mark, the Habs had conceded the fifth-fewest goals against, averaging 2.89 against per game. Seeing as they’re only averaging 3.44 goals scored per game, it’s clear that a lot relies on their defensive and goaltending strength. If they want to solidify their place in the wildcard spot, they’ll need scoring help, as well as a center who can dominate in the circles.
Predictions and what the odds say
By using the odds given to each team to win the Eastern Conference including the playoffs, the bookies see the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Islanders, Bruins, Canadiens, Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets as the favorites, thus seeing them as the most likely to make it to the postseason.
As current standings greatly influence outright odds, they may not currently consider the cost to the Blue Jackets if they trade away Bobrovsky and Panarin, or the resurgence of the Hurricanes and Flyers, rated at +1600 and +3300 to win the conference in the playoffs, respectively.
There is a lot of weight on the trade deadline in the Eastern Conference’s wildcard battle, and with two teams outside of the wildcard places on the charge, it’s very difficult to see who will miss out.
If they keep their Russian stars, the Blue Jackets should be able to hang onto a playoff place, as should the Penguins. But if the overachieving Canadiens don’t patch some of their glaring holes, their particularly daunting March and April schedule should see them sink out of contention, leaving the Hurricanes, or quite possibly the Flyers, to claim the final postseason slot.