All of a sudden, welcome to the last full week of the 2021-22 NHL regular season. That’s a bit of a stretch since next week still has five days to go of play after this one, but it should be setting in that the NHL playoffs are right around the corner now.
With most teams having six or seven games left, here is how the Eastern Conference looks this fine Easter morning.
The most interesting thing going — aside from the fact that Florida refuses to lose — is probably that we could see two races in the Metropolitan Division down the stretch. Carolina and NY Rangers are in a dead heat after 76 games a piece - and that’s even with the Hurricanes taking a 4-2 victory on the road this week. The Canes being 2-1-0 against NYR right now is standing out, with one more absolutely massive game to go between the two on April 26th.
The Pittsburgh/Washington race should be back on now that Tristan Jarry has a broken bone in his foot, per the Post Gazette. Backup Casey DeSmith has only won eight of his 20 starts this season, which will put winning at a premium in Pittsburgh these days.
Pittsburgh wasn’t the only place with goalie injury woes, Boston and Carolina also suffering injuries to their starting goalies this week as well.
Let’s check out the week that was for the playoff-bound teams:
#1 Carolina (2-2-0): The Hurricanes haven’t inspired a lot of confidence in the last month, and continue on an up-and-down finish to the season. Beating NYR on Tuesday, as mentioned above, was monumentally big. But they followed that up with a 3-0 loss to Detroit and then getting smacked 7-4 by Colorado last night. The good news is the Hurricanes’ schedule down the stretch is not daunting at all (AZ, WPG, NJD, NYI, NYR, NJD) but the bad news is they’re just 2-3-0 in their last five games against non-playoff teams. For much of the season, it has felt inevitable that the division championship banner was going to Raleigh, but is no longer looking as inevitable. Starting goalie Frederik Andersen left the game against Colorado last night with an injury, as did Jordan Staal.
#2 NY Rangers (2-1-0): Unlike their rivals, the Rangers are winning the games they are supposed to win — and doing so quite easily. NYR dispatched both Philadelphia and Detroit this week by matching 4-0 scores after falling at home to Carolina 4-2 on Tuesday. The Rangers’ schedule is tougher than Carolina’s (NYR has Boston and Washington still to come) but at this point they are in a great position to make a run at the top seed for the Metropolitan division.
#3 Pittsburgh (2-1-1): Very busy week for the Pens, who saw Evgeni Malkin remove himself from the equation for four games, Jarry get hurt, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel basically carry them back to wins before dropping off with a 2-1 loss to Boston. Pittsburgh has played the most games at this point of all the Eastern contenders, which means their reward is a long four day layoff this week. They can use the rest.
Wild Card #2 Washington (3-1-0): The Caps went 1-1 against playoff teams (beating Boston last Sunday, losing to Toronto on Thursday) and then handled business going 2-0 against the poor teams (throttling Philly 9-2 on Tuesday and lighting up Montreal for a 8-4 win last night). That’s a lotta, lotta, lotta goals going on all week. Goaltending has been shaky, allowing 11 total goals in the last two games. That included Ilya Samsonov fumbling the reigns of the number one job for about the 1,034th time when he gave up four goals on just 19 shots and getting pulled in Toronto. Vitek Vanecek hasn’t been much better, he’s given up seven goals in the 89 minutes played since that point, leaving the net as big a question and weakness as ever in Washington.
#1 Florida (2-0-0): An easy week in Florida, who won 2-1 (OT) against Anaheim and then turned on the after-burners to leave the Jets in the dust by a 6-1 score. The Panthers haven’t lost in a month (3/17) and though they do have to run a TOR-TB-BOS gauntlet that starts on Saturday, their four other games left this season are all non-playoff competitors. FLA is up eight points on NYR/CAR, the top spot in the East is practically assured at this point.
#2 Toronto (2-1-0): The pesky Sabres rose up and took down Toronto 5-2 on Tuesday, but the Leafs responded with a dominant 7-3 win against Washington on Thursday and then held on for a 5-4 OT win over Ottawa last night. The schedule gets tougher next week, with a Florida swing that will take Toronto @TB and @FLA starting on Thursday. As of now though, the Leafs are anchored in pretty well for a future of ending up in the Atlantic 2vs3 first round matchup.
#3 Tampa Bay (3-1-0): The one change in the standings from last week was Tampa hopping over Boston and getting out of the wild card. The Lightning accomplished that with a great week that saw them beat three lower-end teams (BUF, ANA, WPG) and get tripped up in a 1-0 loss to Dallas. Victor Hedman tied his career-high in points for a season with 72 (19G+53A) in 75 games and is very in control while on the ice, giving a big boost to Tampa.
Wild Card #1 Boston (1-3-0): Scoring goals has been a huge challenge lately for Boston without David Pastrnak, who has missed the last six games with injury, They scored exactly two goals in all of their games this week, and lost three of them. That included blowing a 2-0 lead to Ottawa on Thursday, and the Bruins didn’t even make it to OT to get a point out of it. Add in an injury to starting goalie Linus Ullmark and the B’s are suddenly in shaky territory and three points out from third place now, after being such a hot team in March and early April. The stretch run will be difficult too, with five of their last seven games to be played against playoff caliber opponents. It’s looking like now that Boston is on track for a Wild Card spot, and possibly playing the Metropolitan winner in the first round of the playoffs.
Key Games of the Week
Monday: Washington @ Colorado
Thursday: Boston @ Pittsburgh, Toronto @ Tampa
Saturday: NY Rangers @ Boston, Toronto @ Florida
Sunday: Tampa @ Florida, Toronto @ Washington
The Maple Leafs will be the team to watch this week, with three huge games in four days starting on Thursday. By Saturday, a win by the Panthers over Toronto could be the division clincher, if they can get it.
Penguin matchup outlook
Here are what the models are saying this morning for how the playoff landing spot is tracking for Pittsburgh:
The Athletic: Playoff opponent likelihood before yesterday’s loss was: 54% chance Rangers, 23% Panthers, 22% Hurricanes (it also sees a 61% chance of FLA/WASH)
Moneypuck: 3% chance second place Metro, 66% third place Metro, 30% Wild Card
Point projections over the past fortnight. pic.twitter.com/2Dl7eGZkFf— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) April 16, 2022
With the Rangers and Hurricanes way ahead, the best reasonable spot the Pens could be right now is third in the Metro. To get that, they will need to stay ahead of the Capitals. Pittsburgh is three points clear, but the Caps have two games in hand.
Those games in hand will be tough pulls for Washington. They’re on the road this week @COL, @VGK, @AZ with the first two being tough games. Next week, the Caps close the schedule out with Toronto (who just destroyed them), two games against the Islanders (who we have seen have far from quit) and then the Rangers.
The Pens, for their part, have two tough games remaining (BOS, EDM) and then what should be three easier games at Philly, Detroit and home for Columbus.
If Pittsburgh pulls three wins, that would make for 103 points on the season. To get to 104 points, the Caps would have to win five of the above seven games, which looks like a tall task.