Analyzing the NHL’s Eastern Conference wild card playoff race

Brian Burke and Elliotte Friedman hand out their awards for the NHL All-Star break, debating who the most improved player has been this season and which team has been the biggest surprise.

After looking at the extremely tight race in the Pacific Division where any of five teams could win it or miss the playoffs entirely, the next race that’s beginning to grow in intensity is for the Eastern Conference wild card spots.

Not long ago the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens were in it, but now they look locked-in as sellers for the trade deadline. The Tampa Bay Lightning were way out of the picture at one point and now appear to be a lock for not only the playoffs, but likely even home-ice advantage in the first round.

The way things are shaking out, it looks like the red hot Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets will be fighting with Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the last couple of spots in the East. The Toronto Maple Leafs have cooled off after a hot start with new coach Sheldon Keefe, but are still very much in the running for both a wild card spot and jostling with the Panthers for the last-locked in spot in the Atlantic Division.

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The fluctuations in the standings aren’t as wild as the Pacific Division, but which teams have been full value for their place in the standings so far? Which teams might be due to get hot or fall off?

Let’s break down how they’ve all controlled play at even strength.

Unlike the Pacific Division, which looked like a couple contenders and a lot of deeply flawed teams, the race for the Eastern Conference wild card spots is a murderer’s row of very strong teams with relatively few big weaknesses in the bunch.

The Panthers are currently the team in the best position, holding onto the last non-wild card spot in the Atlantic Division, meaning they’d have to get bumped out by the Leafs to even be in danger of whiffing on a wild card spot. And Florida has a four-point lead in the standings and three more regulation wins. Surging of late, the Panthers are significantly improved over last season with new head coach Joel Quennville in charge, despite a terrible season from Sergei Bobrovsky.

Offensively, this might be the best the Panthers have ever played from an underlying numbers perspective, but defensively they’re still highly exploitable, which is part of the reason Bobrovsky has been so bad.

The weakest area for the Panthers this season has been the inner slot area, where they give up tons of chances and don’t get an overwhelming amount either. But they make up for that by dominating the high slot and chances off the rush, which allows them to at least climb back to a flat 50 per cent expected goals for at even strength by SPORTLOGiQ’s measures. That isn’t a hugely impressive mark or anything, especially with suspect goaltending, but the Panthers are in strong position to play even down the stretch and hang on once this hot streak cools off.

Moving slightly north to Carolina, the biggest contender of the group storms into the room. The Hurricanes have been back to their strange selves this season, absolutely dominating games on a consistent basis, but not winning them nearly as often as you would expect. Goaltending has been a bit of an issue on a surface level with Petr Mrazek posting worse numbers than last season, but James Reimer has been a strong backup, and defence hasn’t really been the Hurricanes’ forte anyway.

The Canes have been the highest event team in the league this season, giving up a lot of quality chances but generating wildly more than that. They lead the league in nearly every offensive category at even strength, have the ninth-best power play, and yet their goals scored ranks just 12th. It’s not a lack of talent, they’ve just been pretty unlucky in the goal scoring department. Nothing is a guarantee, but if that luck turns for the better, the entire league better watch out.

The Hurricanes aren’t without weaknesses, though. They struggle to create much off the rush, which leads to them actually getting outplayed in that area. And at times they can be too complacent in shooting from far out, but they also exert extreme control over dangerous passes. I don’t think any team in the East wants them in the first round. Winning your division only to face this bunch of jerks will likely create a lot of grumbling about the playoff format.

The rumours of the Blue Jackets’ demise after the departure of Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin over the summer appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Last week I pointed out how great Elvis Merzlikins has been of late, and that’s definitely a huge part of the reason Columbus has been destroying everyone, but let’s not ignore how great they’ve been outside their own crease.

Eschewing perimeter shots for control of the inner and high slot, the Blue Jackets have been playing smart, effective hockey all season long, and it’s been paying big dividends lately. Like the Hurricanes, the Jackets will forecheck you into the ground, but they’re better at attacking off the rush, and more committed to getting their shots from in close to the net.

Losing Panarin has caused one big problem for the Jackets though; they’re not controlling passes nearly as effectively, so that’s an exploitable weakness for other teams to key on. But Columbus, the team that executed the biggest playoff upset since the Washington Capitals went out in the first round in 2010, don’t look like they’re going away.

The Philadelphia Flyers might have the toughest road of anyone here, because they’re a very good team, but their margins by which they outplay opponents are thinner than the other teams they’re competing with. There are more areas in which they get outplayed, and only 18 of their 27 wins have come in regulation, with another six in overtime.

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The Flyers are very good at controlling quantity of chances, but the quality part is where things go against them. Specifically they’re slightly outplayed off the rush, off the cycle, and in controlling slot passes. Those are very important aspects of the game and it’ll be tough to get past teams that control quantity of chances and shots just as well as they do, but also control the more high quality areas.

Bringing up the rear with a big challenge on their hands are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who likely did not expect to be in a fight for their playoff lives at this point in the season, but they enter the all-star break four points back from Carolina in the second wild card spot and Florida in the last Atlantic Division spot.

Completely reversing their areas of dominance after changing coaches, the Leafs are now mainly weak off the forecheck, but have crawled from deeply negative differentials in the inner slot and off the rush into the black. They’re still not good defensively, and losing Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin hasn’t helped that at all, but they’ve been outplaying opponents thanks to their ability to overwhelm on offence.

That’s not going to matter if Frederik Andersen doesn’t round back into form, but he’s a guy who should benefit from the all-star break more than most.

It’s a little unfair that the West seems to have so many below average teams in playoff positions whereas the East has five excellent teams vying for three spots here, but life isn’t fair and neither are professional sports.

The Leafs have the toughest climb of all these teams, but they have the advantage of competing for all three spots, unlike the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, and Flyers. As red hot as the Panthers have been, I don’t think it would be surprising if the Leafs overtook them, and I expect that to happen by the end of the season.

In the last two spots in the East, I just can’t bring myself to bet against the Hurricanes or Blue Jackets, which leaves the Flyers and Panthers out. That’s an unfortunate result for two very good teams, but that’s going to be the result for whichever two teams don’t make it.

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