The NHL's Eastern Conference playoff race is basically over by the All-Star break; Blackhawks vs. Penguins may be Stanley Cup Final preview; more news, notes, highlights.
Off The Draw
Good news for the eight Eastern Conference teams that currently hold down a playoff spot as the NHL heads into the All-Star break: You can start printing those postseason tickets now.
For the other eight teams, the outlook isn’t so sunny. Despite having nearly half a season left to play, they’re all but finished.
That’s not just my opinion. That’s math.
According to the algorithms created by Sportsclubstats.com, each team currently in playoff position has at least a 71.8% chance of still being in playoff position when the season ends on April 12.
Just 46 games into the season, the conference-leading Islanders are a virtual lock at 99.6%. Same with the Lightning (99.5%), Rangers (99.4%), Red Wings (98.9%), Canadiens (98.8%) and Penguins (98.7%). The Capitals (94.4%) are pretty safe too.
Only the Bruins (72%), who knocked off the Stars in Dallas on Tuesday night, are in a remotely precarious position. But Boston’s 72% looks pretty solid when put into perspective. The Bruins can actually lose more games than they win down the stretch (16-15-4, to be exact) and still have a better than 50% chance of holding down the second wild card spot.
If Boston keeps rolling at its current .596 winning clip—a pretty safe bet considering that the team is only now getting healthy after being hammered by injuries to key players during the first half—the Bruins have a 97.2% chance of holding on.
Add in Boston’s massive advantage in the tie-breaker—23 regulation or overtime wins compared to 15 for the Panthers—and it’s clear that the Bruins control their own destiny.
That's a cold slap in the face to Florida. The Panthers are currently in ninth-place in the East, just six points behind Boston, and even hold three games in hand, but they have just a 17.8% chance of overtaking the Bruins.
To have a 50% chance of grabbing the last wild-card berth, Florida will need to go 20-13-15 the rest of the way. That’s not impossible for a team that is currently 20-14-10, but it’s still a grim reminder that the Panthers have little margin for error. A five or six-game losing streak—kind of like the four-gamer they’re in the midst of now—could mean the end of their postseason hopes.
The Senators have even less wiggle room. Ottawa, in 10th place in the conference, has only a 13% chance of mounting a late charge, and need to win at least 22 of their final 37 to have a shot. It only gets worse for the other bubble teams. The Maple Leafs have to go 22-9-4 to stay close. The Flyers need a 23-7-4 finish. Based on what we’ve seen from those teams to this point, such second-half records seem unlikely.
As for the rest of the conference, it's pretty much run the table or plan on opening up the cottage a little early this spring.
Of course, the math doesn’t account for every variable. Injuries to a significant player—say, Braden Holtby in Washington or Patrice Bergeron in Boston—could derail a team with solid chances. Trades can also shift the balance of power in the conference. Or maybe a team will have just enough puck luck to turn a decent stretch of hockey into an eight- or 10-game winning streak.
In other words, there’s still a chance for teams on the outside to make a late push.
But you might not want to tell them the odds.
What to watch tonight
Blackhawks at Penguins (8 p.m. EST; NBCSN)
Neither team is playing particularly well at the moment, but isn’t there something about Chicago–Pittsburgh that feels like a Stanley Cup finals preview? If nothing else, a meeting between these two promises the greatest gathering of star power outside of this weekend's midseason classic in Columbus.
The Pens are coming off a nasty, draining 3–2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night, a game that probably left them covered in ice packs until the wee hours of the morning ... and certainly left them wanting to put their power play on ice. The unit went 0 for 6 despite being up against one of the league’s worst penalty kills and one of its worst goaltenders. Its failures with the man-advantage cost Pittsburgh the game.
The Penguins also played most of the night without defenseman Kris Letang—injured early by a cheap-shot from Zac Rinaldo—which forced Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff to assume crushing workloads (32:49 and 27:19, respectively). No word on if Letang will be available for tonight’s game. Pittsburgh can, however, count on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The’'ve been productive even as the team has struggled, combining for 23 points in their last eight games.
The Hawks have been in win-one-lose-one mode for most of January, but they come into this game off a convincing 6–1 win over the Coyotes on Tuesday. Arizona might not provide the stiffest of challenges, but Chicago, which has struggled to find consistency of late, was solid nevertheless. Coach Joel Quenneville might have found a little magic in the teaming of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen. Shaw scored twice against the ’Yotes after having scored just one goal in his previous 22 games. Teravainen provided a sweet assist to set up one of those goals before scoring one of his own for first career multi-point game.
Rest of the schedule:Maple Leafs at Senators (7 p.m. EST; TVA, SN); Blue Jackets at Jets (9 p.m. EST; SN1, FS-O); Bruins at Avalanche (10 p.m. EST; NESN, ALT); Flames at Ducks (10 p.m. EST; SNW, PRIME); Kings at Sharks (10:30,p.m. EST; NBCSN)
What you missed last night
• The NFL's Deflategate scandal has drawn a playful response from the Predators.
• A scheduling conflict between the NHL and the CFL will likely mess up the 2016 Heritage Classic in Winnipeg.
• Bet you didn't know that New Zealand has a world junior hockey team, and that it uses a pretty colorful psych-out tactic.
The numbers game
• Nashville’s loss to Montreal on Tuesday night marked the first time this season that the Predators have dropped two games in a row.
• P.K. Subban’s four career overtime goals are the most ever scored by a defenseman in the storied history of the Canadiens, one more than Andrei Markov and Sheldon Souray. Saku Koivu holds the franchise record, with seven.
• The Rangers are 20-6-0 in their last 26 games dating back to Nov. 19, including a 16-3-0 run in their last 19. The last time New York won at least 16 of 19 was from Oct. 30 to Dec. 15, 1993, when the Blueshirts went 17-1-2.
• Former bad boy Sean Avery wants aspiring NHL players to learn from his mistakes. Just not the ones you expect.
• A screw-up by the NHL’s American legal team means that Canadian clubs can’t access funds from the league's $2 billion line of credit. Not a great concern for six of the teams north of the border, but it will cost one financially-strapped franchise tens of millions.
• Toronto police are considering filing criminal charges the next time a jersey is tossed onto the ice at the Air Canada Centre. The way the Maple Leafs are playing, Ontario is gonna need to build bigger prisons ...
•Tyler Seguin went nuts on Tuesday night but couldn’t carry his new team past his old one.