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Eastern wild-card race set to come down to the wire

Jared Clinton
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Eastern wild-card race set to come down to the wire

The Islanders and Maple Leafs are separated by one point in the race for the East's final wild-card spot Author: Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

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Eastern wild-card race set to come down to the wire

Jared Clinton
By:

The Islanders are holding onto a narrow lead for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, setting up for a frantic final five weeks.

The Eastern Conference wild-card race is going to have a photo finish.

Heading into Monday’s action, there are four teams within three points of the final wild-card berth. Currently holding onto the final spot in the East is the New York Islanders, who’ve charged up the standings to sit at 71 points after 64 games, but there are four teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, hot on their heels.

Better yet, as the first full week of March is set to kick off, each of the four teams set to fight tooth and nail for their spot in the post-season has 18 games remaining on their schedule, meaning each of the four teams is entering this five week stretch with not so much as a game in hand on the any of the others. That means every single goal, point and victory is going to matter that much more right now.

You won’t find the Philadelphia Flyers listed below, though that’s with some reason. According to our THN Playoff Chances, Philadelphia is sitting at a minuscule seven percent chance of earning a post-season berth. The Flyers’ goaltending has been atrocious for much of the season and the offense is 23rd in the league. Not only that, but the Flyers are going to struggle to win any tie-breaker, if it comes to that. They have 24 regulation or overtime wins, five fewer than the Islanders. For Philadelphia to make it, they’d have pull a rabbit out of a hat, and the rabbit has to be holding a horseshoe made of four-leaf clovers. 

But here are the four teams in the thick of things who are set to make the Eastern wild-card race one to watch:

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Doug Weight replaced Jack Capuano behind the Islanders’ bench on Jan. 17. At the time, the Islanders were last in the Eastern Conference with 42 points and struggling to find any positives in their season. The team has since gone 13-6-3 under Weight and only the respective conference leaders, the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild, have accumulated more points. Weight has come in and turned the team around in a hurry, and now he has them sitting a single point up on the wild-card competition.

Biggest hurdle: Special teams has been a struggle under Weight. The power play is moving along at 18.8 percent, which ranks 17th in the league since Jan. 17, and the 80.4 percent mark on the penalty kill is 13th in the league. Those will both need to improve down the stretch, as a bad game in either respect could cost the Islanders some key points. New York will also have to hope goaltender Thomas Greiss shows some more consistency. He’s had his good nights — four games in which he allowed a goal or fewer over the past month — but he’s also allowed four or more goals four times in his past 12 games.

Key player: John Tavares wasn’t have a great season before Weight came along, but he’s really stepped up his game in the past month and a half. Since Weight came aboard, Tavares is a point-per-game player with eight goals and 22 points, he’s averaging more than 20 minutes per game and has been outstanding in all three zones. It usually goes without saying that Tavares is the best player on the Islanders, but the gap between he and his teammates has been even more pronounced of late. He put the Islanders into the second round last season, and now he’s pushing to get them to the playoffs this year.

How they make it: Of all the teams in the hunt for the wild-card, the Islanders enter the next 18 games with the weakest schedule based on their competition’s current points. The Islanders’ opponents have averaged 71.1 points this season, and the three-game set against the Carolina Hurricanes to end the campaign should do New York some favors. Those are winnable games against a non-playoff team. If Tavares can get some more help offensively, the Islanders can be golden. It’ll also help if Johnny Boychuk’s injury doesn’t keep him out of action too long.

THN Playoff Chance: 34 percent.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The Maple Leafs did the most of any of the Eastern Conference bubble teams at the deadline. They added Brian Boyle, Eric Fehr and Steve Oleksy. Sure, there’s not a star player among them, but those are three players who’ve seen deep playoff runs in recent years. That’s enough to have them at the forefront of any talk about the earning a playoff berth in a tight wild-card race. 

Biggest hurdle: Every young team goes through a rough stretch here or there, and it’s why the Maple Leafs, even if they make the post-season, aren’t expected to go all that deep. This is a learning season for the young guys. And this stretch run might also be a learning curve as Toronto is looking to shake a stretch of bad play. The Maple Leafs are 3-4-3 in their past 10 games and that has cost them precious points. Shaking out of a funk isn’t easy, but if Toronto can manage to string together some wins, things could get right back on track.

Key player: He’s had an up-and-down season, but Frederik Andersen needs to start having more ups than downs right now. Since the start of February, he’s 3-4-5 with a .905 save percentage. That’s simply not good enough. The Maple Leafs are a young team that’s bound to make some mistakes, and they need Andersen to be there to bail them out. The promising thing is that he has turned in three great starts in his past four games, posting a SP above .940 against tough competition in the New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.

How they make it: From top to bottom in Toronto, it’s all about process. The team has been built under the so-called Shanaplan and the Maple Leafs’ on-ice performance has been driven by the superb coaching of Mike Babcock. On an underlying numbers level, the Maple Leafs are impressive. They’ve got a positive possession rate, produce the bulk of the scoring chances for at 5-on-5 and only eight teams have a higher expected goals for percentage. If the goaltending’s there, the Maple Leafs will get the wins.

THN Playoff Chance: 40 percent.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Like the Islanders, the Panthers went through a coaching change of their own. It came much earlier in the season, sure, but Florida is still looking to climb all the way back into contention. The Panthers are the lone team in this race who added a scorer at the deadline, going out and scooping up Thomas Vanek from the Detroit Red Wings. Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon said he was hoping to add a player like Vanek at the deadline, and he made that happen.

Biggest hurdle: As far as strength of schedule goes, the Panthers have the most unenviable run of games of any club. Florida has to take on the Rangers twice, the Montreal Canadiens twice and have two meetings against the very Maple Leafs they’re in a heated battle with for the wild-card spot. Those are six tough games and six games that could very well decide the fate of their season. For Florida, getting into the wild-card is about digging out of the early season hole. They’re not there yet.

Key player: Jonathan Huberdeau has been outstanding since returning and his absence, which spanned 51 games, is a big reason why the Panthers have to fight so hard just to make the playoffs in the first place. In 13 games, he has five goals and 12 points, two game-winning markers and his ice time has steadily been climbing. Huberdeau’s not alone, though. Goaltender James Reimer is also going to have to play lights out because he’s the Panthers’ only option in goal right now with Roberto Luongo on the shelf. Lucky for Florida, Reimer has posted a .939 SP in his past five starts.

How they make it: The Panthers need to start scoring with some consistency. They haven’t scored more than three goals in a single outing since Feb. 17 and it’s no coincidence that Florida has only won once over that span. The lone win was a shootout victory, too. Reimer can stand on his head all he wants, but if the Panthers can’t turn on the red light more than once or twice a game, it’s going to take a herculean effort from the defense and goaltenders to push the Cats into the playoffs.

THN Playoff Chance: 31 percent.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

The Lightning were sellers at the deadline, but not in the sense where all of their top players were shipped out for future assets. Rather, GM Steve Yzerman cleaned house in order to set himself up to keep his young core in tact for the 2017-18 campaign, moving out goaltender Ben Bishop and center Valtteri Filppula. The Lightning didn’t necessarily get better at the deadline, but they didn’t get all that much worse. That’s why they’ve managed to at least stay in the hunt.

Biggest hurdle: Yzerman wanted to add a defenseman. That has been evident for much of the season, and no more so than when a reported trade between the Lightning and St. Louis Blues fell through. That would have been a big addition for Tampa Bay. Instead, they’re forced to go it with their current defensive corps. That’s not easy when Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are limited by being humans and not robots. Getting better performances out of the defensive depth in Tampa Bay can be the difference. Now’s the time for the bottom two pairings to step up.

Key player: Over the past two seasons, Nikita Kucherov has made the case that he’s as important to the Lightning as any other player, and that includes Steven Stamkos. He’s done that again this season, and he’s been on fire over the past month. Let’s even look past the absolutely ridiculous shootout goal he scored against the Buffalo Sabres. In his past 12 games, Kucherov has nine goals and 18 points while seeing more ice time than any other forward. He’s not kidding around in his pursuit of the post-season.

How they make it: As much as the defense needs to step up, the fact is that the Lightning probably only make the playoffs with an all-out offensive assault. Tampa Bay is capable, too. The Lightning boast Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat. That’s quite the impactful foursome, and it stands to be a powerhouse quintet if Steven Stamkos can get back into the lineup. He might be a ways off still, but if he’s back in time for the final few games and the Lightning are still in the hunt, who’s going to count out some Stamkos heroics?

THN Playoff Chance: 21 percent.

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Eastern wild-card race set to come down to the wire