Mitch Marner and Zdeno Chara
With less than two weeks remaining, every point matters that much more for the five teams fighting for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Following Tuesday’s games, five points separate the five teams battling for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and crucial victories by the Maple Leafs, Bruins and Hurricanes — each of whom picked up two points to keep pace in the race — are a great indication of just how tight the battle for the final post-season berth is going to be the rest of the way.
One may have expected the playoff picture in the East to be a bit clearer by now, with only 11 days remaining, but the fact is the point-for-point battle between Toronto and Boston hasn’t seen either pull away far enough to exclude their three other close competitors from the race. As noted, Carolina, who have been hot over the past few weeks, continued to stay in the mix by picking up three of a possible four points in a back-to-back against the Detroit Red Wings, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders have managed to hang around with time running out in the season.
Four of the five teams left in the race have seven games left on their schedule — the Bruins are the only club with six — and that stands to make every single night a big one in the Eastern wild-card race. But when the dust settles, who earns the final wild-card spot?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Maple Leafs’ victory Tuesday was a big one, especially with the Bruins picking up two of their own. Toronto now stays one point clear of Boston for the final spot in the Atlantic Division and the Maple Leafs also got back on track after being blown out on Saturday.
What’s concerning is that the easy part of the remaining schedule is over for the Maple Leafs and there are some extremely difficult games coming up against teams who are going to be just as hungry for the points. The Maple Leafs will have to square off against each of the top three teams in the Metropolitan Division — three of the league’s four 100-point teams — over the final week-plus of the season. If that’s not hard enough, Toronto will also face Tampa Bay in an all-important divisional and wild-card race game. Overall, the Maple Leafs’ final seven opponents average 91.1 points, giving Toronto the hardest schedule of any team in the wild-card mix.
The Maple Leafs also have to be concerned about a letdown. The youngsters, led by Auston Matthews, have played incredibly well, but they’re entering unfamiliar territory. Sometimes young teams face growing pains and tough lessons, and the hope in Toronto is that this doesn’t end up being one of those times. Luckily for the Maple Leafs, they’re one of the most well-coached teams in the league, and Mike Babcock should have his team ready for each outing.
The health of Frederik Andersen will also be key. He was forced out of Saturday’s game and missed Tuesday’s contest with an upper-body injury, but the Maple Leafs will want Andersen back for the stretch run. He could be the backbone of the final push to the playoffs.
Don’t count Toronto out, though, especially because the wild-card race comes almost secondary to landing a divisional seed come playoff time. If the Maple Leafs can hold off the Bruins for third spot in the Atlantic, it will matter much more than landing in the wild-card.
There’s going to be a lot of out-of-town scoreboard-watching for the Bruins over the next week and a half, and Boston’s collective eyes are going look like saucers waiting for the Toronto’s scores to show up. It might be the most intriguing point-for-point battle to watch the rest of the way as the Bruins try to get back into the post-season. Like the Maple Leafs, though, there are two ways for coach Bruce Cassidy’s team to earn a spot in the playoffs. The first is by way of winning the third spot in the Atlantic. The other is by sneaking into a wild-card. And while Boston trails in the first regard, they’ve opened up a three-point lead in the latter.
That the lead has been stretched to three points matters, too, because it gives the Bruins at least a one-point edge on the three teams in their rearview regardless of what happens in the single game in hand each of the Lightning, Islanders and Hurricanes hold. It wasn’t an easy win, either, as Boston downed a Nashville Predators club that’s in a battle of their own in the Western Conference.
One of the biggest worries for the Bruins is that half of their remaining games could be nail-biters. This coming Sunday, Boston will have a head-to-head with the West-leading Chicago Blackhawks, followed two days later by a game against the very Lightning who are eying up their own berth in the wild-card. Making life tougher is that to close out the season, in a game that could be literally make or break for Boston, they’ve got the league-best Washington Capitals. Realistically, the next two games against the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars are the only contests where the Bruins will enter as clearcut favorites, and opponents over the final six games boast an average point total of 89.2.
Boston will be watching the third spot in the Atlantic, though. Because no matter what happens in their own games, if the Maple Leafs stumble, the Bruins have the chance to back into the playoffs.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
A poor start to Monday’s game against the Blackhawks almost put the Lightning in a precarious position as the final two weeks of the season began, but Tampa Bay stormed back from a 4-1 deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime victory. The two points pushed the Lightning to 83 on the season, and Tampa Bay is now a mere three points back of the Bruins for the final wild-card spot. There are some serious must-win games coming up for the Lightning, though.
At the start of next week, Tampa Bay will have what are quite possibly the two most important games of their season. The first is a Tuesday meeting with the very Bruins who the Lightning are chasing for the final wild-card spot, followed by a Thursday matchup against the Maple Leafs. If Tampa Bay can manage to pick up consecutive victories, there’s an outside chance at the Lightning making a last-minute push for more than a wild-card spot. In fact, if Tampa Bay can make up some ground, there’s an outside shot they — not Toronto or Boston — could end up in the third spot in the Atlantic.
The Lightning could possibly have the most winnable schedule of any club down the stretch, though. It’s hard to point to a single game in their final seven outings that Tampa Bay couldn’t win. The two meetings with the Montreal Canadiens are arguably the two toughest outings, but the Lightning are heating up lately with three straight wins. The average point total of their opponents across the final seven games is 83.7.
Most expected Tampa Bay to be in the post-season this campaign, so the more shocking result would be the Lightning ending up on the outside looking in. Coach Jon Cooper’s bunch has had to battle through injury, a deadline-day sale and some defensive struggles, but few are going to overlook a team that has made it to the conference final in consecutive seasons.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Let’s start with the positives. In John Tavares, the Islanders boast arguably the single-best player of any team fighting for the wild-card, and if there’s any one player who could singlehandedly drag his team into the playoffs, it might be Tavares. New York also boasts one of the better defense corps in the league, and that’s going to help them down the stretch. Also, after an awful start to the season, Andrew Ladd has come alive offensively and is set to finish with 22 goals. That’s a massive turnaround considering the way the campaign started.
The other big bonus for the Islanders down the stretch is they have arguably the easiest schedule of any team fighting for the wild-card berth. There are two games against the Eastern Conference’s worst team, the New Jersey Devils, and another three games against teams who have as many or fewer points than the Islanders in the standings. Total, the average opponent has a mere 79.1 points. No other team in the race faces opponents with an average below 80.
Where things get tougher for the Islanders, though, is that they’ve been falling apart lately. Over their past 10 games, New York has gone 4-5-1, and they’re the only team in the race that has a below-.500 record in their past 10. Not only that, but since the start of March, not a single team bound for the playoffs in the East has fared worse than the Islanders, only two teams in the league have allowed more goals against and only three teams have had a worse power play.
The rise the Islanders have had under coach Doug Weight has been incredibly impressive. That they’re in this position at all after spending some time at the bottom of the conference earlier in the campaign is a testament to how well the Islanders have played to get into this position. But even with an “easy” schedule, it looks as though it’s going to take another gear for New York to get over the hump and back to the playoffs.
One might assume a league-leader such as the Capitals, Blackhawks or Penguins might have started to gear up for the post-season by dominating the league over the past month, but the truth is no team has been hotter than the Hurricanes. That’s right: the least expected wild-card competitor isn’t just in the mix, they’ve been making a push unlike any other club.
Since the start of March, Carolina has taken 23 of a possible 32 points, dropping just two games in regulation along the way. Possibly more impressive than the rate they’ve been winning at is the fact the offense has also been the league’s most lethal over the past month. It’s not a star-studded group, but coach Bill Peters has to be in the conversation as one of the most effective bench bosses in the league. He’s taken a severely underrated group and made them incredibly competitive.
One would be remiss to mention Carolina’s post-season chances without bringing up their goaltending, though. Because while the offense has been sharp for the Hurricanes, the goaltending has left much to be desired. In fact, despite scoring 52 goals over the past month, Carolina’s goal differential is a mere plus-10. The 42 goals the Hurricanes have allowed are the eighth-most since March 1.
Unfortunately for Carolina, it’s not as if they’re going to have an easy road to the playoffs, either. Games against the Penguins and Blue Jackets are going to be tough to win, as will meetings with the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. The Hurricanes have the second-toughest schedule based on average opponent point total (89.6) of the five teams in the running for the wild-card spot.
The injury to Eddie Lack, who had been solid in goal, is going to hurt, but the hope has to be that Cam Ward is able to get the job done as the season comes to a close. The Hurricanes are in tough, but their performance over the past month is proof Carolina isn’t going to go away quietly.
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