A big time week in the NHL saw the Eastern Conference have several marquee matchups. Though formality, four teams officially punched their tickets to the playoffs (CAR, NYR, FLA, TOR), with the other four teams looking to do so soon as well.
Playoff teams are on opposite ends of the spectrum right now, and weirdly enough you can split the East into two very distinct categories of “red hot” and “uh oh”.
Starting with the teams in funks, the Penguins are on a four-game losing streak and have only won five of their last 13 games (5-7-1), but they are far from the only good team struggling recently. The Hurricanes have only won five of their last 13 games (5-5-3). The Lightning has only won six of their last 16 (6-8-2). The Capitals went 2-4-0 before going on a two-game winning streak this week (against fellow struggling teams listed above).
On the flip side of the coin, the Florida Panthers are picking up steam and clicking on all cylinders, they haven’t lost since before the trade deadline and are 16-2-1 in their last 19 games. The Bruins are right behind them, going 13-3-1 since March 3rd. The Rangers are 11-3-1 in their last 15 games, and the Maple Leafs are 10-2-1 in their last 13 games.
From last week, in the “key games”, the red hot teams went 4-0-1 in the best matchups. The teams who are struggling only had a 2-5-1 week (this includes when two teams from the same category played each other).
Three weeks of the regular season remains for some teams to get back on track, as Washington is trying to do now, but for half of the conference, they probably wish the games could start counting for real right away.
A look at the week that was:
#1 Carolina (1-2-0): It wasn’t a great week for the Hurricanes, who had to rally from being down 3-1 against Buffalo to earn their only win of the week, dropping games to the Islanders and those pesky Sabres along the way. The next week brings four games, including now a monstrous away game in New York that could go a long way towards determining the Metropolitan winner.
#2 NY Rangers (3-0-1): After starting the week losing a shootout to the Flyers (lol), the Rangers corrected their course in a major way to reel off three straight wins by a combined 11-2 total score. Last night against Ottawa it looked like men against boys. By the end of the second period NYR was up 4-1 on the scoreboard and 25-9 on the shot counter, in a game where Chris Kreider recorded two goals. His next goal, unbelievably, will be his 50th of the season.
#3 Pittsburgh (0-3-0): It was a week to forget for the Penguins, coming up short against three playoff teams. Coach Mike Sullivan was reasonably pleased with the team’s process/efforts in the first two games of the week, but not so much a poor third period effort against Washington yesterday. Battered by the flu, like many teams this time of year, the Pens have another tough week ahead with four games up coming before a break in the schedule hits.
Wild Card #2 Washington (2-1-0): After taking a 5-1 beating at the hands of Minnesota, the Capitals conducted a players only closed door meeting and it seems to have worked. They bounced back with a 4-3 home win over Tampa (rare, since the Caps have been awful at home, to the tune of a 6-12-1 record in calendar 2022 prior to that win) and followed that up by beating the Pens on the road (where Washington thrives with a great 22-7-5 road record this season). Not really sure too many problems are fixed with continued shaky goaltending, but wins are wins this time of year.
#1 Florida (4-0-0): It was another thrilling week for probably the league’s most thrilling team this season. Down 5-1 about mid-way through the game this week against Toronto, the Panthers rallied all the way back for a 7-6 OT win. Right now, these guys have a ton of mojo and everything is working. They haven’t lost a game since St. Patrick’s Day, and this week Florida hosts two non-playoff bound Western teams (Anaheim, Winnipeg) and could well push their winning streak even further.
#2 Toronto (3-0-1): For as well as Toronto has been playing, it seems like no one really cares or is going to buy into them too much until they prove it by winning the franchise’s first playoff series since 2004. Blowing the big lead in Florida will only stir that type of feeling, even though it was a pretty good southern swing for the Leafs, who beat Tampa 6-2 the night prior, and then took care of business with two wins against mediocre teams (DAL, MTL) to close out the week. Auston Matthews keeps going too, up to 58 goals on the season, and has scored 51 in his last 50 games, marking the first stretch of 50-in-50 in NHL history since Mario back in ‘95-96.
#3 Boston (2-1-0): Boston ended their week with a 2-1 OT win over Tampa to salvage a pretty good win. They lost 5-3 to Detroit and it took OT to beat Columbus earlier in the week. So they’re getting the results, but not in the easiest or most impressive ways. We’ll find out a lot about the Bruins this week when they play Washington, St. Louis and Pittsburgh (and also Ottawa).
Wild Card #1 Tampa (0-2-1): The Lightning had a brutal week competition-wise (TOR, @WSH, BOS) and weren’t able to get any wins. They kind of look like the Pens at this point, just coming up a little short when they play high-end teams. The good news for Tampa is the schedule gets a lot easier in the week ahead (BUF, @DAL, ANA, WPG), they might be able to right their ship in the coming days. But as Carolina could tell TB, Buffalo isn’t an easy out right now down the stretch, so then again, maybe the struggles will continue.
Key Games of the Week
Today: Boston @ Washington
Tuesday: Carolina @ NY Rangers
Thursday: Washington @ Toronto
Saturday: Boston @ Pittsburgh, Carolina @ Colorado
Compared to last week’s bevy of key games, this week is a little lacking in quantity of big games. But the importance of all are getting ratcheted up this time of year, like on Tuesday when the Rangers could (potentially) take the top spot away from Carolina.
The Caps go from playing two struggling Eastern playoff teams to two thriving teams, in a step-up in competition.
The Penguins see Boston at the end of the week, but also have a home-and-home with the Islanders on Tuesday/Thursday. That won’t be walk over games, since NYI has defeated both NYR and Carolina in the month of April already.
Pens’ playoff spot chances
The losing streak has turned what looked like a formality into being more up for grabs. The Pens are four points clear of Washington, but the Capitals have two games in hand. However, Pittsburgh retains the top tiebreaker (RW, up 33-30 currently), and with that cushion the Caps are going to have to really pass the Pens to pass them. As such, most models still like the Pens’ chances to finish in third place in the Metro as of right now.
Here are what the models are saying this morning for how the playoff landing spot is tracking for Pittsburgh:
The Athletic: 2% chance second place Metro, 63% third place Metro, 35% Wild Card
Playoff opponent likelihood at the moment is: 45% chance Rangers, 33% Panthers, 20% Hurricanes (it also sees a 61% chance of FLA/WASH)
Moneypuck: 7% chance second place Metro, 69% third place Metro, 23% Wild Card
Ineffective Math: The losing streak is setting in, but the Pens are still projected to finish with 102 points as of now, with the Caps coming in at 99.