Unless you were dying to see who would finish with the most points, last season’s NHL playoff races severely lacked drama. For a league obsessed with parity, the party seemed over before it began. This time around, though, fans of nail-biting races should rejoice: this season’s playoff races look a lot more interesting.
Realistically, you could make a case for at least six Eastern Conference bubble teams claiming the two wild-card spots. Right now, the Penguins and Capitals hold those positions, but the Panthers, Islanders, Red Wings, and Sabres all have a chance to wrestle those spots away.
This piece provides reasons why each of those six teams could make the playoffs, and why they may not. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this shot of the standings.
Seventh in the East (first wild-card): 27-18-9, 63 points in 54 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: The Penguins hold enough small-to-big advantages that the odds are on their side. Aside from the Sabres (who tie Pittsburgh with 29 games left), the Penguins hold games in hand over the rest of the pack. Enhancing that cushion, the Penguins play 16 home games versus 13 on the road the rest of the way.
Much like Washington, the other current wild-card team in the East, Pittsburgh’s repeated playoff trips earn them serious benefit of the doubt. It’s not just about nostalgia with the team or with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. This Penguins team is either still competitive or legitimately strong in stat categories that hint at a genuine playoff squad, while Crosby and Malkin are still worth every penny.
Why they won't make the playoffs: Yes, there have been many Penguins teams who weathered injuries — including to Crosby, Malkin, or both. Yet, the issues that plagued the Penguins during another early playoff exit last year could derail their playoff run this season. Once again, starting goalie Tristan Jarry is banged up. With the Penguins’ depth crumbling and their defensive structure looking more vulnerable, the margin for error is slim enough that another Crosby/Malkin injury could finally doom this perennial playoff team.
New York Islanders
Eighth in the East (second wild-card): 28-23-7, 63 points in 58 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: Every now and then, we get a glimpse of what the Islanders had in mind when they moved away from Barry Trotz, and then added Bo Horvat. Ideally, the Islanders maintain some of that stout defense, enjoy the elite goaltending of Ilya Sorokin, and add much more offensive might than recent versions.
When you’re chasing other playoff teams and lack an advantage like games in hand, you might feel a lack of control. The Islanders can take some comfort, however, in “controlling their destiny” to at least one extent: head-to-head matches. Beginning with Friday’s game against the Penguins, the Islanders face Pittsburgh three more times this season, and also face the Capitals in three more games. Combine that with two matchups against the Sabres (plus one game versus Detroit), and the Islanders could singlehandedly change the complexion of the East wild-card race, particularly with regulation wins.
Why they won’t make the playoffs: They haven’t exactly presented a great “proof of concept” lately, so who says they deliver in those important matchups? Following a promising four-game winning streak, the Islanders lost three in a row to the Canucks, Canadiens, and Senators. While the Islanders salvaged two “loser points” from those games, you’d hope that a desperate team would carve out five or the maximum six.
By opening things up, is it possible the Islanders drifted from what actually made them successful? It’s hard to say, but even with added firepower in Horvat, the odds aren’t on their side.
Ninth in the East (currently outside playoff picture): 28-23-6, 62 points in 57 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: Like the Penguins, there’s a level of brand recognition and trust here. Though the Capitals are no longer a juggernaut team, they’ve almost always made the playoffs after taking off under Alex Ovechkin. They’ve hung in there without Tom Wilson for all of this season and key players like John Carlson missing significant time; would it be that outrageous to imagine a healthier Capitals team becoming downright dangerous?
Why they won't make the playoffs: The sports world would be a happier place if you could turn injuries off, like in a video game. In the real world, the Capitals must tangle with the reality that an old core often translates to a beat-up core. Beyond the team’s injury issues, Ovechkin is also grieving the loss of his father. Those are big hurdles to overcome, and when you consider how many defensemen are on expiring contracts, the Capitals may even consider being trade deadline sellers. Really, that might be the smart play even if Washington still tries to make the playoffs, but there are a lot of forces against them making it — and the team’s buffer basically burst when it comes to breathing room ahead of others in the bubble.
10th in the East (currently outside playoff picture): 28-25-6, 62 points in 59 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: No doubt, it must be bewildering for the Panthers to find themselves in this spot after winning the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy. That confusion shouldn’t stem from comparisons to last year’s impressive regular season alone, either.
While not as dominant offensively as last year’s terrifying attack, the Panthers still create a ton of dangerous scoring chances, far more than they give up. Look at how they own so many key parts of the offensive zone in this Hockey Viz chart for even-strength offense.
Could you blame the Bruins if they’re grimacing at the idea of following a potentially historic regular season with a first-round matchup against a team as menacing as Florida? Don’t blame Panthers management if they simply believe that all they need is better luck.
Why they won't make the playoffs: You know how the Penguins and Capitals earned ample benefit of the doubt after years of finding ways to get to the postseason? Paul Maurice stands as the opposite of that. Maybe it hasn’t always been his fault, but it sure feels like his teams disappoint more often than they deliver. Couple a questionable coach with the sort of goaltending that can spoil any party, and you start to understand why the Panthers find themselves in this predicament.
What if they don’t wake up soon? From Feb. 20 through March 18, the Panthers play nine of 10 games at home, including an eight-game homestand. That could be the run that pushes them into a reasonably comfortable playoff position. On the other hand, if they continue their trend of trading wins and losses, it could also be another squandered opportunity.
There’s also the possibility that the Panthers might do some trade deadline selling, potentially depleting the talent needed for a desperate push.
Detroit Red Wings
11th in the East (currently outside playoff picture): 26-20-8, 60 points in 54 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: Alongside the Sabres, the Red Wings rank among the “objects are closer than they appear” bubble teams thanks to games in hand. Recent events give hope that the Red Wings might actually do something with those games in hand, too. They’re riding a five-game winning streak. Where the Penguins, Capitals, and arguably Islanders are older teams prone to possibly running out of gas, the Red Wings are brimming with young players who are actively finding their games. Those young legs could very well push the Red Wings past those teams. With contract year motivation for key players Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, hunger shouldn’t be an issue.
Why they won’t make the playoffs: Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Red Wings hold onto Bertuzzi and others on expiring contracts. (A Larkin trade feels far-flung, but Steve Yzerman has a knack for surprising us.) Some of the excitement from that five-game winning streak evaporates when you realize how weak the opponents were. This surge could be a nice chapter in a larger story about a team that’s simply not “there” yet.
12th in the East (currently outside playoff picture): 27-22-4, 58 points in 53 GP
Why they will make the playoffs: Again, games in hand make it easier to imagine a team like the Sabres or Red Wings making a push, particularly compared to games played by the Capitals (57), Islanders (58), and Panthers (59). Only the Edmonton Oilers (3.73) average more goals per game than the Sabres’ 3.70. (The Panthers are the only other East wild-card hopeful in the top 10.)
The Sabres compare to the Red Wings in rolling out the sort of young players who are basically getting better with every game and every shift, only Buffalo’s enjoying more obvious immediate results. Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and other top Sabres could create massive (Tage Thompson-sized) headaches for opposing defenses in the playoffs.
Why they won’t make the playoffs: According to plenty of metrics, the Sabres are playing a bit over their heads on offense. That’s a concern, because all of those goals painted over some of the team’s issues in their own end.
Ultimately, this Sabres team remains a work in progress on defense, and carries plenty of questions in net. This franchise appears ahead of schedule, yet that lack of balance likely leaves Buffalo a few strides short of actually making the playoffs.
All stats live as of Saturday, Feb. 18