Coming out of the weekend we have another busy stretch of big games that will shape the playoff picture for the final few weeks.
While the Western Conference playoff picture seems more and more to be about final seeding rather than a true playoff chase, the Eastern races involve a ton of teams, most of which have been running hot or cold of late, and without anyone truly taking hold.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the playoff picture Monday, and what we’re watching for this week…
If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Eastern Conference first-round matchups:
(A1) Bruins vs. (WC2) Islanders
(A2) Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Lightning
(M1) Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Penguins
(M2) Devils vs. (M3) Rangers
TEAMS TO WATCH THIS WEEK
Games: at EDM Tuesday, vs. COL Thursday, vs. TOR Saturday
Ottawa entered last weekend with some promising math, two points back of the second wild-card spot, and six points back of the first with three games in hand. Now, it’s much less rosy.
With back-to-back losses Saturday and Sunday to Vancouver (5-2) and Calgary (5-1) Ottawa is now tied for 11th in the East by points percentage. They’re six points out of WC2, eight behind WC1, and with Detroit are the only teams still alive in this race that have a negative goal differential on the season. And the Wings have been trending the wrong way for weeks now.
But the reason why the Sens needed a strong weekend comes further into focus when you look at their upcoming stretch of games.
This week it’s Edmonton, Colorado and Toronto. That figures to be challenging enough, and then you’ll notice that next week’s schedule brings Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay and New Jersey. The Senators have 16 games left on their schedule and by the time this meat-grinder stretch of games is complete, they’ll have just nine games remaining. If they don’t somehow come out of these next two weeks with a winning record, Ottawa may for all intents and purposes, be finished in the chase.
Games: at TOR Monday, at WSH Wednesday, at PHI Friday
Speaking of outsider teams fading down the stretch, Buffalo got crushed last week, dropping all four games (one in OT), including a dreadful 10-4 loss at home to Dallas. This week doesn’t start easy either, with a trip to rival Toronto and then a stop in Washington to face a Capitals team that waved the white flag at the trade deadline, but is keeping hope alive with a 2-1-1 record since.
Defence and goaltending (mostly the latter) have been Buffalo’s weakness this season and that has continued to be a sore spot this month. Since March 1, Buffalo has allowed the second-most shots against, the second-most expected goals against and has the third-highest goals against per 60 rate in the league with a team .877 save percentage.
Those measures need to improve, of course, but generally has been an issue for the team all season. But the team won’t have any hope unless the offence gets going. Again since March 1, Buffalo is 16th in shots, 28th in expected goals and 24th in actual goals per 60 minutes. When looking at those stat categories across the season as a whole Buffalo ranks 11th, 16th and third.
Games: vs. MTL Tuesday, at NYR Thursday, at NYR Saturday
With a couple of wins over the weekend (and some help from those losing around them) the Penguins are for now back in the driver’s seat and in control of their own destiny. Their .591 points percentage is now easily seventh-best in the conference and it’s not impossible they could chase down Tampa Bay (though they won’t pass them given the two are in different divisions).
Pittsburgh is actually one of the hottest teams in the entire East right now, 7-2-1 in their past 10. A look at the schedule will indicate a couple of tough matchups against the Rangers upcoming, but consider that the Penguins beat New York in OT Sunday and also came out on top when the two met earlier in the season. If Pittsburgh can finish the job this week and sweep their season series with the Rangers, perhaps they could start creating some space between them and the pack of bubble teams.
And it’s probably not a good sign for those chasing that Sidney Crosby is elevating again, earning one of the league’s three stars last week. This may be one of his more under-appreciated seasons, currently sitting tied for 11th in league scoring with 80 points. Evgeni Malkin hasn’t scored this month, but has piled up eight assists in six games as linemate Jason Zucker has potted seven times in March. You may question this team’s depth or its goaltending, but the roster and its hopes remain built around their future Hall of Famers. If they keep going at this rate, that’s always been enough to lift them in before.
If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:
(P1) Golden Knights vs. (WC2) Avalanche
(P2) Kings vs. (P3) Kraken
(C1) Stars vs. (WC1) Oilers
(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Jets
TEAMS TO WATCH THIS WEEK
Games: at MTL Monday, at TOR Wednesday, at OTT Thursday, at Detroit Saturday
On Jan. 13 the Avalanche sat 11th in the Western Conference by points. At that time, Edmonton and Calgary held the two wild card spots and the Avs were 12 points out.
And yet, who amongst us wasn’t expecting the defending champs to not only fight back in, but quite possibly track down a top-three spot in the Central Division?
Off-season changes had an early impact, but injury woes have followed the team all year. Gabriel Landeskog still hasn’t played this season following off-season knee surgery and though he started skating again about three weeks ago, there is no timeline for his return.
And yet, still, the Avalanche have found a way to a 16-5-3 record over the past two months, which is the fourth-best record in the league over that span. In those 24 games, Nathan MacKinnon’s 38 points rank second to Connor McDavid, and the Avs are top five in both goals for and goals against per game. Their power play and penalty kill are also top 10 in the league for the past two months.
March hasn’t been as smooth overall, though, with Colorado running a 2-3-1 record so far. They’ll start the week sitting in the second wild card spot, but with games in hand of everyone in front of them. They’ll be on the road all week and won’t face any Western Conference teams. A strong week would put the Jets back on the hot seat, but if the Avs don’t get back off the mat and continue their March struggle, perhaps they’ll start trending back toward the bubble pack once more.
Games: vs. OTT Tuesday, vs. DAL Thursday, at SEA Saturday
The Oilers have already split with both Winnipeg and Toronto so far this month, and picked up wins in both Buffalo and Boston, so we’ll consider them ahead of March so far. This week they’ll face a hungry and desperate Senators team, a Stars team trying to hold off the surging Wild for first in the Central, and then wrap in Seattle, a team the Oilers are trying to chase down.
While there is some separation between the wild-card Oilers and the non-playoff Preds and Flames, Edmonton’s focus now has to be on getting out of the wild-card spot and into the Pacific’s top three. They’re now five points back of getting home-ice advantage in Round 1.
If you’re an Oilers fan, in Round 1 would you rather face the up-and-coming Kings again (after beating them in seven hard-fought games last spring) or a division winner in Dallas or Minnesota out of the Central? I’m not sure the answer is so obvious.
This week Edmonton will get a taste of the Stars after beating them in their last meeting back in December, and also have a crack at tracking down the Kraken when the divisional foes meet on Saturday. With a good week, can Edmonton set themselves up any closer to the Kings (who play the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Canucks at home) to perhaps still have a shot at home-ice?