The Tampa Bay Lightning had a chance to clinch a playoff spot last night on the first Thursday in March. While it didn’t go their way, the Bolts are undoubtedly going to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are well on their way to a President’s Trophy with a 15-point lead on the next-best team in the league. That next team up is the Boston Bruins, who are second only to Tampa in both the NHL and within their own Atlantic Division. Riding an 18-game point streak, the Bruins’ playoff position is also in little doubt. The Toronto Maple Leafs, currently holding a top-five record in the league, are on pace to finish third in their own division and without home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Boston and Toronto seem destined to meet in that opening round, with the winner likely getting Tampa Bay as their reward for moving on.
As frustrating as the current playoff format may be for the Leafs – as well as the Bruins and Lightning – at least the three teams know where they stand in the postseason structure with a month to go in the regular season. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders. Just eight points separate the New York Islanders, the current Metropolitan Division leaders, from the Columbus Blue Jackets, presently in ninth in the East and on the outside of the playoff picture, in the standings. Between the two are three more Metropolitan teams, as well as the Atlantic’s Montreal Canadiens. With all six of these competitors struggling to pull away from the rest of the group, it could be that each team’s schedule down the stretch determines where they end up by the end of the regular season. Three divisional spots and two wild card spots are up for grabs; who has the luck of the schedule on their side?
According to the strength of schedule numbers released by the NHL this morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ opposing points percentage of .555 is the most favorable of the group. That’s not to say the Pens face an easy slate, though. Pittsburgh faces eight current playoff teams in their final 15 games, not including tomorrow night’s tilt against Columbus, but end the year with a nice stretch that includes a home-and-home against the lowly Red Wings and a final match-up against the Rangers. The experienced Penguins team is a safe bet to stay in the playoff picture, especially if they can get healthy on the back end.
The Montreal Canadiens have a similarly easy schedule, a .575 opposing points percentage, but with a dramatically different ending. Fighting for just one of two wild card spots, the Habs will face eight current playoff teams themselves, again not including a game against the Blue Jackets, but only three of those contests are within their next nine games. Montreal may get a nice boost over the next couple of weeks, but face a daunting final stretch; Columbus, Winnipeg, Tampa, Washington, and Toronto await them in their final five games. How they fare against those Cup contenders could determine whether they make or miss the postseason.
With just seven current playoff teams on the schedule from here on out, not including two run-ins with Columbus, the New York Islanders are in good shape with a .567 opposing points percentage. The team also avoids any road trips of longer than two games for the rest of the season. While a regular season finale against the Capitals could prove critical, the Islanders look as if they should be able to hold on to their playoff spot. The health of Robin Lehner could be a game-changer, though.
Things have not gone as expected since Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets went all out at the trade deadline. The team sits outside of the playoff picture currently, two points back of the final wild card spot, and there is no guarantee that things will get better. The Jackets have a .581 opposing points percentage, including ten games against current playoff teams, and play just six of their final 15 games at home. Perhaps the one saving grace will be trips to Buffalo, the Rangers, and Ottawa in three of their last four games, but Columbus has their work cut out for them.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a similarly tough schedule, but benefit from having a game or two in hand on their playoff berth competition. In their final 16 games, the ’Canes will face opposition with a .586 points percentage, ten of which are playoff teams. They also have three sets of back-to-back games remaining. However, with the cushion of extra games and dates with the Devils and Flyers to round out the year, the red-hot Hurricanes are on pace to erase their league-worst nine-year playoff drought.
Finally, there are the defending champs. The Washington Capitals not only have the most difficult remaining schedule in the East’s wild card race, but in the entire NHL. At a .599 opposing points percentage, the Caps are about to go through the ringer in their final 15 games. Ten playoff teams are on the docket for Washington, including three games against the powerhouse Lightning and five playoff teams among their final six competitors. Fortunately, the team does play more than half of their remaining match-ups at home, but there’s little else to find comfort in. If any team in this race is at risk of a dramatic fall from their current playoff position, it is the Capitals, especially if the extra work of last year’s Stanley Cup run starts to catch up to them down the stretch.