Into the Boards: Punching Playoff Tickets
The clinching craziness has begun as nine of the 16 playoff teams have been decided in the past week. Scott looks out East to break down who’s in, who could play who, and the race for the final wild card spot. Vin takes us out West to check out the streaking Anaheim Ducks as well as the race for third place in the Central Division. That playoff feeling is in the air, folks.
This week we’ve seen a hell of a lot of clinching in both conferences, so let’s take a look at who is locked in in the Eastern Conference. It’s all Metro, as it’s been all year, with no teams in the Atlantic Division having the “X” next to their name. Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers have all punched their ticket to the big show.
So what is left to play for, you might ask? Well, playoff matchups! The Caps are riding a six game winning streak which puts them in first place with 110 points. Sitting three points back at 105 points are the Columbus Blue Jackets and just behind them are the Penguins with 103. Washington is slowly pulling away, so it’s likely that they’ll draw whatever team ends up in WC2, be it Boston, Tampa Bay, or the New York Islanders. CBJ and Pittsburgh will likely face each other as the Rangers sit six points back of Pittsburgh and having played two more games, so it’s really just a matter of home ice for PIT/CBJ.
What you will most likely see as a result of this goofy playoff format is the New York Rangers crossing over into the Atlantic bracket as WC1, so they will draw either Montreal or Ottawa. It is insane that the Rangers are sitting in a wild card spot despite having more points than every (yes, every) team in the Atlantic Division, but these are the types of situations that punish good teams in this format. The Penguins and Blue Jackets will be forced to play each other in the first round instead of being rewarded for being good and playing a weaker team like Ottawa or Toronto. If the playoffs started today with the current playoff format, the matchups would be as follows:
(1) WSH / (WC2) Boston (1) MTL / (WC1) NYR
(2) CBJ / (3) PIT (2) OTT / (3) TOR
In a Best 8 teams playoff format, they would look like this:
(1) WSH / (8) BOS
(2) CBJ / (7) TOR
(3) PIT / (6) OTT
(4) NYR / (5) MTL
While this doesn’t account for the “division leader” seeding that used to exist in the old six-division format, this is a much more sensible playoff format. In the current format, a 110+ point team will be eliminated in the first round because it will be forced to match up against ANOTHER 110+ point team, instead of being rewarded with a weaker team. It creates a false sense of division parity when in reality, the Metropolitan Division has three of the league’s best clubs. In any event, this is the system the NHL is employing for now, so it’s what we will deal with for the foreseeable future.
Lightning Strikes and the Isles are Sliding
It breaks my heart to write this, but my Islanders are hitting a miniature skid and the timing couldn’t be worse. The boys in blue and orange dropped two seismic games against Boston (their direct wild card competition) and Nashville. That makes five straight losses at Barclays Center (0-4-1), but they still have hope because of two wins on the road in between. The Isles have left themselves extremely little room for error as they currently sit four points back of Boston for the last wild card spot, but they do have one game in hand. With only seven games remaining on the schedule for NYI, I think it’s reasonable to say they have to go 6-1 in that stretch to fend off Tampa and catch Boston. Here’s to hoping they turn on the afterburners and draw the rival Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
Right in the thick of it are the Tampa Bay Lightning, who, like the Islanders, have been experiencing a late-season surge in a last ditch effort to sneak in. They sit one point ahead of the New York Islanders with 83 points and have played the exact same amount of games with 75. They notched a huge comeback against the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night which makes three big wins in a row for Tampa, including a gigantic victory over Boston.
The NHL standings sway wildly and quickly this time of year, so while it appears that the bell has been rung on the Islanders, the next few performances by NYI, TBL, and BOS could flip the pressure entirely the other way by this time next week. Only time will tell!
The Battle for Third
The race for the wild card spots out West is pretty much all wrapped up. With the closest team being the LA Kings, who are 11 points out (as of this writing), we can now turn our focus to the battle for third place in the Central. A clinched playoff spot is great, even if it’s for a wild card. The downside to that postseason ticket is that your first round opponent is the best team in either division looking to mow you down and send you home packing. Currently the two juggernauts out West are the red hot Anaheim Ducks and the always dangerous Chicago Blackhawks.
In the Central Division, the Nashville Predators have been on a roll despite dropping the ball at TD Garden against the Bruins on Tuesday night. A healthy Subban and company have won four of their last five contests and look to keep rolling against a wounded Toronto Maple Leafs whose starting netminder Freddy Andersen is out with a UBI. Despite their recent success, the Preds are holding onto their third seat by the skin of their teeth (as of this writing). The St. Louis Blues have turned their mid-season woes around, are out for blood and are 8-1-1 in their last ten games. With just a single point dividing these two teams, the third seat is up for grabs and it’s honestly anyone’s game. Hopefully this race stays close so we can all watch the hailstorm game when these two teams meet in their final regular season matchup on April 2nd.
The Mighty Ducks
Quack! Quack! Quack! If you are a ’90s kid like me, you know you have a tender spot in your heart for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Ducks have been red hot as of late, and as I write this article they are closing in on their fifth straight win over a struggling Vancouver Canucks team. The highlight of the Ducks in recent games has been winger Patrick Eaves and goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Eaves was acquired at the trade deadline earlier in the season from the Dallas Stars and has seemed to fit within the Ducks system quite nicely. Eaves has found his place on the top line alongside veteran Ryan Getzlaf and young stud Rickard Rakell and has gone off in his last five games scoring just as many goals. Netminder Jonathan Bernier has been the backup to John Gibson all season, but due to a lagging LBI, Gibson has been off the ice. Bernier has since taken over the role as starter and hasn’t lost in regulation in his last 10 starts, going 9-0-1 in that span. Anaheim currently sits in the first seat of the Pacific with 95 points and clinched a playoff spot earlier in the week. However, the battle of positioning still continues as things are still very close points-wise.
As it stands now, the Edmonton Oilers are only two points behind and the San Jose Sharks, who finally ended a six game losing skid against the Rangers, have fallen from grace and have a small lead on the wild card contender in the Calgary Flames. The first seat can still be obtained for any of these teams with a little over a week left in the regular season. There are still a handful of interdivisional games to play; depending on the outcome, the standings can be turned on their head.
Vin: Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov. Despite the team’s shortcomings due to injuries and lackluster performance, Kucherov has been quite stellar and hit the 80 point plateau this week. Nikita has been blowing up the stat sheets in his last few games, tallying up five goals and four assists. Lightning fans can only look forward to next season when a healthy Stamkos and Kucherov can work together to return the team to their former glory.
Scott: Neon Leon Draisaitl. The German-born forward has been fantastic all season, but he’s been absolutely on fire this past week. In his last five games, Draisaitl notched three goals and five assists for eight points. The Oilers are going to be a super fun team to watch in their first postseason appearance since 2006.
Plays of the Week
Vin: We head to North Carolina for this week’s POTW. We witness the masterful glove of the great Jimmy Howard as he robs Victor Rask of a wide open shot from right on the doorstep. Enjoy this highlight as it is one of the finest saves you’ll witness all season:
Scott: Do you ever get tired of watching John Tavares be a fucking wizard? Watch him receive a pass in neutral ice, put a head fake on Torey Krug, go inside on the stepping-up David Pastrnak, and wire a wrister past Anton Khudobin while using Adam McQuaid as a screen. Truly amazing.