It’s the most wonderful time of the year for hockey fans — the end of the seven month marathon known as the NHL regular season finally has the finish line in sight. Playoffs are right around the corner as teams buckle down to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup and to etch their names into hockey immortality.
For the Eastern Conference, it’s a welcome sight as teams make one last gasp chance to improve their playoff positioning in the remaining few games left. Here are the standings as of this morning.
Let’s check out the week that was for the playoff-bound teams:
#1 Carolina (3-0-0, Games Remaining: @NYI, @NYR, NJ): The Hurricanes bounced back from some sloppy weeks to get back on track this week. It hasn’t always been the most glamorous — they were losing 2-0 to New Jersey yesterday before coming back to win 3-2 in OT, but winning is crucial at this point no matter how, especially since the Rangers lost yesterday to put Carolina in the driver’s seat for the division. The massive game vs the Rangers on Tuesday would be the coronation of the Canes in the division with a win, assuming the Canes handle their business today against NYI.
#2 NY Rangers (2-1-0, GR: CAR, MTL, WSH): New York’s four-game winning streak bit the dust yesterday at the hands of the Bruins. Now they get the advantage to have two days off to prep for the Hurricanes and the game is in New York, where the Rangers have been very strong this season. Will those factors help tip the balance of that contest? The Rangers going to need to win that game in regulation and get some help to pass Carolina in the final week of the season.
#3 Pittsburgh (2-0-0. GR: @PHI, EDM, CBJ): The four day break last week looked like it really helped the Penguins. The Pens looked refreshed and played two great games this week, shutting out Boston and then just completely rolling over Detroit. The Oilers have been playing very well lately (8-1-1 in the last 10), but the other games are looking as winnable as NHL games can be down the stretch to help keep the Pens in third place.
Wild Card #2 Washington (2-0-1, GR: TOR, NYI, @NYI, @NYR): The Caps earned a very impressive 3-2 win in Colorado this week and finished up a successful late-season Western road trip. Now they’re back east, and get two games this week against the rapidly collapsing Islanders, who look like they’ve about quit, sandwiched by two tougher playoff-bound matchups against Toronto and the Rangers.
#1 Florida (4-0-0, GR: TAM, @BOS, @OTT, @MTL): Another perfect week for the Cats, who are up to 13 straight wins and could tie the 1992-93 Penguins with a 17-game winning streak if they win out. Florida beat three non-playoff teams fairly convincingly early in the week, then rebounded from a 2-0 hole last night against Toronto, only to comeback and gut out a 3-2 OT victory. Two very tough games remain to start the week, but the Panthers already have the top seed in the East all but wrapped up.
#2 Toronto (2-1-1, GR: @WSH, DET, BOS): The most shocking result of the week might have been Tampa’s 8-1 blowout win of Toronto on Thursday, a game that definitely got away from the Leafs. The good news for them is Auston Matthews returned yesterday after missing the previous few games with injury. Toronto has had little to play for over the last 10ish days, with second place in the division pretty much confirmed for a while.
#3 Tampa Bay (2-1-0, GR: @FLA, CBJ, @CBJ, @NYI): OK, I lied, the most shocking result of the week was probably the lowly Red Wings beating the Lightning 4-3 in regulation on Tuesday night. That loss seemed to awaken something in TB — since then they’ve destroyed two pretty good teams (Toronto and Nashville) by a combined score of 14-3 in their last two games. With a TOR/TB first round almost assured, that 8-1 beating will be fresh on everyone’s minds as we get into the playoffs.
Wild Card #1 Boston (2-1-0, GR @MTL, FLA, BUF, @TOR): The loss to the Pens was disappointing and costly in the race to try and stay with Tampa. But, in better news for them, Boston bounced back with a 3-1 win over NYR and welcomed back David Pastrnak from injury (who scored a goal) and goalie Linus Ullmark (who earned the win). Boston is closing in on the first Wild Card spot, and a playoff series against the Metropolitan division champs.
Key Games of the Week
Today: Tampa @ Florida, Toronto @ Washington, Carolina @ NYI, Pittsburgh @ Philadelphia
Tuesday: Carolina @ NY Rangers, Florida @ Boston, NYI @ Washington, Edmonton @ Pittsburgh
Thursday: Washington @ NYI,
Friday: Columbus @ Pittsburgh, Boston @ Toronto, Washington @ NY Rangers
—The week will start with huge games today and tomorrow that will shape the stretch run. Then the week dies down a bit until Friday, the last day of the season where several positions (Metro 1, 2, 3 and the Wild Cards) could all be decided
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 win was: 49% chance Florida, 26% Rangers, 25% Hurricanes
Moneypuck: 50% third place Metro, 9% Wild Card #1, 41% Wild Card 2
The Pens and Caps are in almost a dead heat down the stretch. Pittsburgh “controls their own destiny” if you want to put it that way for third place, if they were to win out and not need overtime/shootouts to do so, they’re in the driver’s seat and would take RW and ROW tiebreakers if needed. Any losses for Pittsburgh or Washington would change the odds in a hurry — and potentially be very devastating.
The loser of the Pens/Caps race looks increasingly likely to face top seeded Florida in the first round and have to jump to the Atlantic brackets, which is a fate best avoided for many reasons.