East playoff bubble: Panthers, Caps in driver's seat
There is nothing more stressful at this time of the season than finding yourself on the playoff bubble. A two-game losing streak that would be a blip on the radar in October can suddenly become the difference between a postseason berth and planning a month-long May vacation in Alberta with the family.
Throw in the fact that hockey players wear sharp metal blades on their feet, and there is really nothing more easily burstable than a playoff bubble.
Yet that's where a bevy of NHL teams find themselves as the calendar flips to March.
For the sake of argument, we'll assume playoff spots in the East for the Rangers, Bruins, Penguins, Senators, Flyers and Devils, and in the West, we'll do the same for the Canucks, Red Wings, Blues and Predators. On the other side of the spectrum, we'll say the Hurricanes, Islanders, Canadiens, Oilers and Blue Jackets are more focused on the draft than the playoffs.
Here, we'll take a look at the bubble teams in the East. Keep an eye out later in the day, as we'll examine the wide-open West as well.
3. FLORIDA PANTHERS (30-20-12, 72 points, 20 games remaining)
Position: 4 points ahead of ninth place, 3 games in hand on Winnipeg.
If they finish .500…: If the Panthers close the season 10-10-0, they'll have 92 points. To miss the postseason with that number, the Capitals must win the Southeast AND ninth-place Winnipeg needs to go 12-4-1 OR 10th-place Toronto needs to go 13-4-1 OR 11th place Tampa Bay needs to go 14-5-0 OR 12th-place Buffalo needs to go 14-5-0. Buffalo may need to go 14-4-1 due to its lack of regulation/OT wins.
Getting healthy?: Forward Kris Versteeg (lower body) is out at least a week. As long as it's not serious, he'll be back for the playoff push. Forward Scottie Upshall (hernia) could be back in the next few weeks. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had knee surgery, and he's expected to return near the end of the month. Forward Marco Sturm (knee) should be back soon after sitting since Feb. 1.
Outlook: The Panthers have an even split of home and road games to finish the season. They play a whopping 11 games against teams outside of the top eight in their conference as of today, making it seem like a great bet that the Panthers will end the NHL's longest playoff drought -- 10 seasons.
3 Key Games: March 1 at Winnipeg: A win at MTS Centre would give the Panthers a six-point lead on the Jets with three fewer games played.
March 30 at Columbus:It's not so much this game itself, but it ends a stretch of three in four nights against non-playoff teams (Canadiens, Wild, Jackets). The Panthers can't let those points get away. April 5 at Washington: This could be for a division title, or it could be life or death for either the Panthers or Capitals.
Position: 1 point ahead of ninth place, 2 games in hand on Winnipeg.
If they finish .500…: If the Capitals close the season 9-9-1, they'll have 88 points. To avoid losing the No. 8 seed with that number, ninth-place Winnipeg needs to go 10-6-1 OR 10th-place Toronto needs to
go 12-6-0 OR 11th-place Tampa Bay needs to go 12-6-1 OR 12th-place Buffalo needs to go 12-6-1. Of course, if the Caps win the Southeast, the battle for the No. 8 spot won't matter.
Getting healthy?: Center Nicklas Backstrom was recently placed on LTIR, making his chances of coming back from a concussion this season slim.
Outlook: The Capitals have one major thing on their side -- regulation/OT wins. They have 31 of them, which means barring something strange happening, they'll win the first tiebreaker with any team near them in the standings. That's why in the above scenarios, if the Capitals end up with 90 points, the teams chasing them need 91 points.
3 Key Games:
March 11 vs. Toronto: It's possible the Leafs could be done by then, but the Caps getting a win here could go a long way in securing a playoff berth.
March 19 at Detroit: A test against one of the League's best could tell us if the Caps are for real or limping into the postseason.
April 5 vs. Florida: It could be a big game for the Caps for the same reason it could be a big game for the Panthers.
Position: 1 point out of eighth place, have played 2 more games than the Capitals.
Chasing 90 points: As of March 1, it's projected that 90 points is what it will take to earn the eighth seed. The Jets need to finish 11-6-0 to get to that mark. The Jets would likely lose a tiebreaker if the Caps also have 90 points, so they would need to go 11-5-1 in that scenario to reach 91 points. The Panthers have a
four-point lead in the Southeast and have played three fewer games, so the Jets should be focused on No. 8.
Getting healthy?: Defenseman Zach Bogosian has been out two weeks with a foot injury, but he's expected back in the lineup tonight.
Outlook: With so many games left, all teams technically control their own destiny. But the Jets have a real say in their fate, as they face the Panthers and Capitals twice each over the rest of the season. Beating either of those teams twice in regulation will boost their playoff hopes.
3 Key Games: March 1 vs. Florida: The final meeting is April 3 in Sunrise, but tonight's clash could be devastating for the Jets if the Panthers win in regulation. March 5 vs. Buffalo: This is the Jets' next game after tonight. The Sabres are surging, so knocking them down before they get any closer would be nice. March 16 vs. Washington: They play again seven days later in D.C., so defending home ice is huge for a team that struggles on the road.
Position: 4 points out of eighth place, have played 1 more game than the Capitals.
Chasing 90 points: As of March 1, it's projected that 90 points is what it will take to earn the eighth seed. The Leafs need to finish 12-5-1 to get to that mark. The Leafs would likely lose a tiebreaker if the Caps also have 90 points, so they would need to go 13-5-0 in that scenario to reach 91 points.
Getting healthy?: The Leafs lack any lingering injuries right now.
Outlook: It's pretty bleak in Toronto. The Leafs are 1-9-1 in their last 11 games and have lost four straight. They only play the Capitals once more and have a five-game road trip in the middle of March. The schedule is rough, too; they play 10 of their final 18 games against teams in a playoff position.
3 Key Games: March 3 at Montreal:This is the Leafs' next game. Should they lose again, this time to the East's last-place team, the rest of the games may not matter. March 11 at Washington: The way the Leafs are going, they may be done at this point, but this is a must-win-in-regulation for Toronto. March 29 vs. Philadelphia: As the standings sit now, this is Toronto's last game against a playoff team before four straight to close the season against non-playoff teams.
11. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (29-28-6, 64 points, 19 games remaining)
Position: 5 points out of eighth, even in games with the Capitals.
Chasing 90 points: As of March 1, it's projected that 90 points is what it will take to earn the eighth seed.
The Lightning need to finish 13-6-0 to get to that mark. The Lightning would likely lose a tiebreaker if the
Caps also have 90 points, so they would need to go 13-5-1 in that scenario to reach 91 points.
Getting healthy?: Forward Vincent Lecavalier (fractured hand) projects to return in mid-March. Defenseman Victor Hedman has an upper-body injury that GM Steve Yzerman said isn't concussion-related, so it's possible the d-man could be back before season's end. He hasn't played since Feb. 25.
Outlook: Getting back Lecavalier and Hedman would be a boon for the Lightning, who have a seven-game homestand in March in which five of their opponents are out of the playoff picture. Taking care of business at home is a must for the Lightning to crawl up to eighth.
3 Key Games:
March 8 at Washington: The two teams meet again April 2, but it might not mean anything if the Lightning don't pull out the win next week.
March 22 vs. Edmonton: Letting two points slip away against a team that will likely be mathematically eliminated by this point would be devastating.
March 31 vs. Winnipeg: It's not so much the points but the teams between the Lightning and Caps that make reaching the playoffs so difficult. The Jets are one of those teams the Lightning must leapfrog.
12. BUFFALO SABRES (28-27-8, 64 points, 19 games remaining)
Position: 5 points out of eighth, even in games with the Capitals
Chasing 90 points: As of March 1, it's projected that 90 points is what it will take to earn the eighth seed. The Sabres need to finish 13-6-0 to get to that mark. The Sabres would likely lose a tiebreaker if the Caps also have 90 points, so they would need to go 13-5-1 in that scenario to reach 91 points.
Getting healthy: The Sabres said Jochen Hecht, out since late January with a concussion, has a chance to return this season.
Outlook: The Sabres dealt forward Paul Gaustad at the deadline, much to the dismay of goaltender Ryan Miller. Rookie center Cody Hodgson, in the discussion for the Calder Trophy, was acquired from the Canucks in exchange for rookie forward Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, so it's not as though the Sabres have given up on this season. They have won four of five, and how the rest of their season unfolds will depend largely on how they finish their current West Coast trip.
3 Key Games: March 7 vs. Carolina: The Hurricanes are playing well, and this is the Sabres' first game back from the long road trip. Buffalo only has seven more home games this season. March 24 vs. Minnesota: A prototypical trap game. It's the Sabres' third game in four nights, it's a non-playoff squad, and their next game takes place … March 27 at Washington: Yes, pretty much any game against the Caps for the teams chasing them is key. It's this type of insight that keeps you coming back here.