Not that long ago, there was a robust field of NHL teams with realistic playoff hopes. Unfortunately, many of those teams are running out of steam as the cream gradually rises to the top.
But it’s not yet time to give up on fun races to the finish. And, beyond the most desperate battles for final playoff spots, there’s increasing intrigue at the top of the West in particular.
Allow yourself to dream of a buffet of playoff glories. The East already looked like a feast, as plenty of strong teams could threaten the Bruins’ date with destiny. If the Avalanche and other West teams peak at the right time, hockey fans could truly end up spoiled this postseason.
(All standings are up to date heading into the games on March 20.)
Current East wild-card race
In a time when contending and desperate teams are dropping precious points to cellar dwellers, the Islanders are staying hot in part because they aren’t whiffing against lesser teams. They lost to the Kings to begin a three-game California trip, but held serve against the Sharks and Ducks.
They play three of their next four games at home, which is key because there may only be one layup in the mix (at Columbus), although some understandably already stuck a fork in the Sabres.
Last week, the discussion boiled down to “sure, the long-term outlook is dubious, but they’re getting it done for their playoff run.” After an awful week, the Penguins gave up a lot of their buffer in what could be a three-horse race for two spots between the sturdy Islanders and the climbing Panthers. Dropping two regulation losses to a Rangers team that’s still coming together already hurts, but zero points versus the Habs? Ouch.
Their upcoming schedule doesn’t spell obvious relief, yet this team seems to (modestly) exceed expectations with its back against the wall. Perhaps that’s some comfort, because they’re leaning against the bricks once again.
Florida Panthers (77 points, 69 GP, .558%): Looking more and more like the frisky cats people expected. 📈
After dropping seven historic goals in the first period alone against the Canadiens, you might have worried about a lag in Florida’s next game, especially against a superior opponent in the Devils. Instead, the Panthers won that game too, extending an impressive point streak to six games (5-0-1).
Their upcoming schedule is heavy on away games (six of eight on the road), but it’s padded mostly with winnable matchups (aside from two bouts with the Maple Leafs and one against the Rangers).
Bruins management could be forgiven if, deep down, they’d rather face the Islanders or especially the Penguins to open the playoffs.
Fading fast from fights for East wild-card spots
By next week, positions 10 and on in the East may totally fade from even optimistic views of the wild-card races. During the past week, the Capitals gained two points from a shootout win against Buffalo, but lost their other three games in regulation. If they don’t make the most of two home games against lousy teams (Chicago and Columbus), you could probably drop any facade of them competing.
Seeing a team overachieve but run out of gas is almost always a bummer. It’s an even bigger bummer when that team is a lot of fun to watch, and perhaps the biggest bummer when that team plays for a passionate market that’s been through a lot.
Here’s hoping we’ve merely caught a glimpse of a bright new era for Buffalo.
This Sens team carries a lot of parallels with Buffalo (although the Sabres came into this season with fewer expectations). With this recent tumble, their eyes turn toward the future, which may include a famous new owner. A tough week ahead could make it that much tougher for this cold team to thaw out.
Race for the Metropolitan Division's No. 1 seed
During the past week, the Hurricanes won two of three games. Nothing spectacular, yet the Devils stumbled enough to threaten the chance for some Metro crown drama. As the Rangers start to cook, finishing first could be quite valuable.
Over their next two games, the Hurricanes head to MSG and then host the Rangers, so we’ll see if that duo of games breathes life into this race (or throws even more cold water on fiery upstarts).
Sunday served as a relief for the Devils. They beat the Lightning after Tampa Bay topped New Jersey in two other recent games, and the Devils also fell once to the Panthers. With a tough schedule through March, the Devils may not be able to gain ground on the Hurricanes.
Race for the Central Division's No. 1 seed
Focus only on this past week (two regulation losses, one OT win) plus some keyed-in Central competition, and you might waver on the Stars a bit. True, a Central Division title is no guarantee. Nonetheless, Dallas won four of six games on a fairly rigorous road trip, and should only really kick itself for losing to a Canucks team that’s been more competent lately.
After two toss-ups (home games against the Kraken and Penguins), the schedule puts the Stars in a position to mop up the rest of March with softer opponents.
The Wild have only failed to gain a standings point in a single game in more than a month, rattling off a 12-1-3 run. While they’ve been able to rely on stout defense almost every night, they’ve seen big swings in both finishing on offense and goaltending. Overall, it’s promising that they’ve been able to win games even when those bouts leave their typical comfort zone.
Remember when there was legitimate concern the Avs might miss the playoffs? Now the Avs have a real chance to finish first in the Central, or at least begin the postseason at home. Most of their remaining March schedule is easy, and there are two home dates to circle: vs. Minnesota (March 29) and Dallas (April 1). Those are Colorado’s last head-to-head games remaining versus teams currently in the Central top three.
Race for the Pacific Division's No. 1 seed
The Golden Knights boast a shiny 8-2-0 record in March. They followed a recent four-game winning streak with a humbling 7-2 loss to the Flames, then bounced back to trounce Columbus by that same 7-2 score.
Up next is an interesting trek (at the recently robust Canucks, at the desperate Flames, then an interesting home-and-home set versus the Oilers). If the playoffs began on Monday, the Golden Knights would hold home-ice advantage in the Western Conference side of the postseason. Vegas could easily slide to the second Pacific seed, yet this up-and-down team remains in a pretty strong position overall.
For a healthy portion of this season, the Kings felt like a paper tiger, or maybe monarchs that had no clothes. They managed to hang in various relevant playoff races, yet unlike their peers, Los Angeles allowed more goals than they scored.
Around Jan. 22, the Kings finally actually started to rule, posting a 15-4-4 record in 23 games played. The .739 points percentage in that span ties the Hurricanes for the best mark in the NHL. Lately, even recent disappointing losses (Predators, Canucks) netted the Kings shootout points. Their point streak is currently at nine games (7-0-2), keeping them in the hunt to begin the playoffs in a favorable position, possibly even as the top seed in the West.
Now they just need their hunting expeditions to go better than those of Robert Baratheon.
Edmonton Oilers: (86 points, 70 GP, .614%): Surged enough to have a strong hold on third in the Pacific. 📈
Last week, it felt necessary to put the Oilers and Kraken side by side in a battle for the third spot. Things shifted enough that, right now, it’s reasonably appropriate to sequester Winnipeg in the wild-card races. That can change — these teams have been ebbing and flowing for much of this season — but the Oilers took command with a three-game winning streak.
Theoretically, the Oilers would be a bigger threat to at least the Kings if they pushed their losses to overtime or shootouts. Their four most recent defeats all happened in regulation; 9-4-0 is a strong span of 13 games, yet this division is so hot that it’s not quite enough.
Think back to moments where their playoff hopes seemed shaky, and these feel like champagne problems.
Current two West wild-card teams
In their last regular season head-to-head match, the Kraken fell to the Oilers in regulation on Saturday. With that, the Kraken would still sit a point behind the Oilers if they win their game in hand. This team’s been slipping for a while now, so they’ll need to be road warriors once more. They’re facing a four-game road trip against the Stars, two games with the Predators, and then the Wild.
That road features some potential potholes, but if they remain steady, the rest of the ride is potentially smooth. (Although the Kraken have three games remaining against a Coyotes team that’s quietly become an upset threat lately, so maybe there could be sneaky speed bumps along the way.)
Winnipeg Jets (81 points, 71 GP, .570%): Current West playoff team most vulnerable to falling out of the top eight. 📉
Look, you can’t totally sugarcoat losing three out of four games, especially with those three defeats all happening in regulation (and by multiple goals). The Blues loss was really the only painful one, though, as the Hurricanes and Bruins are the two best teams in the league.
Crucially, the Jets’ lone win in four games came against a potential usurper in Nashville. Even then, the Predators grabbed an OT point. The Jets still have the advantage in the wrangling for the final West wild card, but that margin shrank recently.
With a relatively easy slate to end March, the Jets need to shake off this slump and be sharp with a single head-to-head game apiece against the Predators and Flames.
Hoping to stay in race for West wild-card spots
Calgary Flames (77 points, 70 GP, .550%): It’s never easy with this frustrating team.
Although many underlying stats paint the picture of a Flames team that should be in a better playoff situation, they've been baffling in 2022-23. They continue to bewilder onlookers, clobbering the Golden Knights 7-2 yet also wincing through agonizing losses to the Ducks and Coyotes. Squint hard enough and you can picture the Flames blazing a playoff trail, yet recent patterns suggest that something random will just catch on fire.
Nashville Predators (76 points, 68 GP, .559%): Painful week for playoff hopes. 📉
Although games-in-hand advantages keep the Predators alive, the past few days took a lot of air out of the balloon. A rising Rangers squad stomped them 7-0, Nashville lost to Chicago in regulation, and only grabbed a point against Winnipeg.
With potential obstacles ahead, the Predators' faint hope could fizzle out very soon. Then again, this team is full of surprises, so it may just hang in there despite so many signs pointing otherwise.