By Stu Hackel
As the days of the regular season dwindle down to a precious few, the playoff picture has begun to get clearer, but only somewhat. Much remains undecided, including the bottom qualifiers in each conference and the first round seedings.
Today, let's look at the East where, realistically, the Canadiens, Islanders, Lightning and free-falling Maple Leafs have little chance of qualifying (and here's a look at the West). The Hurricanes, who have played well of late, remain barely alive. They are a very long shot with a tall mountain to climb and three teams to climb over.
After that, there's still lot's up for grabs.
As always, hot and cold performances plus injuries will be key. So is a team's schedule -- which is just about the only certainty here. Home vs. road games can be a crucial factor, as can head-to-head matchups (in bold below) against clubs that are being chased or held off. So let's take a quick look at who is still alive and the games that remain between now and April 7 updated after Wednesday's games.
Before we do, it's important to keep the tie-breaking procedure in mind since some of these races are very close and could remain that way to the end. Here are the criteria of how ties in the final standings will be broken.
1. The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the shootout. On NHL.com, that is the "ROW" (for regulation and overtime wins) column in the standings).
2. This one's complicated: The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing. Got that?
3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season. In the standings, a victory in a shootout counts as one goal for, while a shootout loss counts as one goal against
OK, with that established, here's how things shape up for the Eastern Conference lead and home ice advantage in the four-five matchup between the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers. In head-to-head games, the Rangers play each team once more, the Flyers and Penguins play each other twice.
Rangers, 99 points with 45 wins, 43 in regulation or overtime -- 9 games remaining, 4 home (Sabres, Canadiens, Bruins, Capitals), 5 road (Maple Leafs, Wild, Jets, Flyers, Penguins). Plus: An edge over the Flyers and a big edge over the Penguins in the first tie-breaker. Minus: After their current homestand, which has one more games remaining, the Rangers go on a three-game road trip, the longest among this group of teams.
Penguins, 96 points with 45 wins, 36 in regulation or overtime -- 10 games remaining, 6 home (Predators, Devils, Islanders, Flyers, Rangers, Flyers), 4 road (Senators, Islanders, Sabres, Bruins). Plus: They have only one trip that takes them from home for two straight games. Minus: A big deficit in the first tiebreaker due to nine shootout wins.
Flyers, 92 points with 42 wins, 39 in regulation or overtime -- 9 games remaining, 6 home (Capitals, Canadiens, Lightning, Senators, Rangers, Sabres), 3 road (Maple Leafs, Penguins, Penguins). Plus: Perhaps the most favorable schedule of the three, with the most home games and weaker opponents. Minus: They've played one more game than the Rangers and Penguins.
For the Southeast Division lead and a low-end playoff spot between the Panthers, Capitals and Jets -- we'll add the non-divisional Sabres to the race for the playoff spot: The Panthers have a good lead at the moment for the only guaranteed spot in this group: the division title. When it comes to head-to-head games, only the Caps, currently eighth in the conference, face each of the other three teams once. The Sabres only face the Caps among this group in their remaining games.
Panthers, 85 points with 36 wins, 31 in regulation or overtime -- 9 games remaining, 4 home (Oilers, Islanders, Jets, Hurricanes), 5 road (Canadiens, Wild, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Capitals). Plus: They don't face many top teams, and play four non-conference games. Minus: A four-game road trip that takes them from Montreal to Minnesota to Columbus to Detroit.
Capitals, 80 points with 37 wins, 35 in regulation or overtime. 9 games remaining, 5 home (Jets, Wild, Sabres,, Canadiens, Panthers), 4 road (Flyers, Bruins, Lightning, Rangers). Plus: All of their head-to-head games are on home ice. Minus: Three tough road matchups out of four.
Sabres, 80 points with 35 wins, 28 in regulation or ooooovertime.. 8 games left, 3 home (Wild, Penguins, Maple Leafs), 5 road (Rangers, Capitals, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Bruins). Not too many plusses here. They have the fewest head-to-head games, tough road opponents, and don't look good in the "wins minus shootout wins" tie-breaker. It may not matter if they keep winning, however.
Jets, 76 points with 34 wins, 30 in regulation or overtime.. 9 games left, 3 home (Senators, Rangers, Lightning), 6 road (Capitals, Predators, Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers, Islanders). Not too many plusses here, either, especially that road-heavy schedule for a team that's not great away from home. Two potentially tough home games out of three, as well.
Because they've played inspired hockey lately under Kirk Muller, let's add the Hurricanes, although they are seven points south of the Capitals for eighth place, have almost have no wiggle room, must win virtually every game left to stay in the picture, and also get some help along the way.
Hurricanes, 75 points on 30 wins, all in regulation or overtime. 8 games left, 3 home (Jets, Devils, Canadiens), 5 road (Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Senators, Panthers). Plus: After beating Florida on They have two more head-to-head games against division foes. Minus: they go on a three-game road-trip that starts Friday.
You can take a look at the Western Conference playoff chase here.
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