With just over a week remaining in the regular season, teams are clinching playoff spots with each passing day. But many questions remain.
The East: In the Eastern Conference, Ottawa and Florida are the two teams outside the top eight still alive for a postseason berth. The Panthers are hanging on by their fingernails, though – their “tragic number” is down to two points. The Sens have slightly more margin for error, but not much. Boston and Detroit, the two teams closest to the Sens, are still in the driver’s seat. So while the playoff picture is crystalizing in the East, the seedings are getting more and more muddled. Good luck projecting the first round matchups. The Lightning, for example, are closing in on securing home ice advantage in the first round (they need one point to clinch at least second place in the Atlantic). So they’ll likely finish either first or second in the Atlantic and they still have a shot at the East’s top seed. Meaning that they could play any one of the following seven teams in the first round: Detroit, Boston, Ottawa, Florida, Pittsburgh, Washington or the New York Islanders! The uncertainty is because not only are the Sens and Panthers still alive, the Red Wings, Bruins, Penguins, Caps and Islanders are all within three points of each other. It’s unclear which of these teams will earn the first Wildcard (and play the division winner with fewer points) and which will take the second Wildcard (and play the East’s top overall seed.) The deck will continue to be shuffled throughout the next nine days.
The West: In the West, the seeding picture is a little clearer. Anaheim has clinched first place in its division and is closing in on the top seed. It seems likely that Minnesota will be the first Wildcard, meaning that the Wild will face first place team from the Central (assuming Anaheim maintains the top overall seed). Like in the East, however, there are several intriguing storylines.
First is the race for first place in the Central. Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago all have over 100 points are separated by only three points. No playoff matchup is an easy one – as I just wrote, the division winner will likely see the Wild, one of the hottest teams in the league over the past two months. But the other two clubs have to play each other in the first round, a daunting matchup. So which team will win the division? The Predators have a bit of an advantage – they’re already in first place, they own the tiebreaker and the Blues and ‘Hawks still play each other twice before the regular season ends.
Second, the 10th place Sharks, seemingly out of it a few games ago, are trying to make a furious final push. They are five points out of the second Wildcard with five games remaining. But of those five, two are against Arizona and one versus Edmonton. Those are three winnable games. And they finish with rival Los Angeles, one of the teams they are chasing.
And lastly, the most compelling storyline is the three-way race between Los Angeles, Calgary and Winnipeg. Those teams are battling for two available spots. The Flames have a one-point lead on the Kings and Jets, but have played one extra game. Calgary, in its final two games, hosts the Kings and visits the Jets.