Who has the toughest schedule heading into the NHL season’s home stretch?

Tim and Sid debate what team in the Western Conference should be considered the favourite as the NHL Playoffs inch closer.

We’re down to the final month before the 2018-19 regular season gives way to the real one. The final few weeks before we break out the magnifying glasses and inspect every pass, snipe, check and skirmish that flashes across our screen.

For some clubs, this final slate of games is simply an opportunity to fine-tune, the larger goal being to simply stay healthy and pick up some momentum heading into the home stretch. For others, it’s a mad dash, with the post-season pressure already hanging low as borderline clubs fight to secure a spot in the dance.

With a number of teams still in the mix heading into the final handful of tilts, Sportsnet’s statisticians crunched the numbers to tell us who’s set to enjoy the most favourable schedule over the coming weeks, and who’s simply in cruise control.

Let’s dive in. First up, the East, where the Metro looks intent on stuffing in as many of its squads as it can.

The Lightning have run away with the conference and a meeting with a wild-card squad, while the Metro remains in flux, still sorting out where the tightly-packed Capitals, Penguins, Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets will fall.

Here’s how the conference playoff hopefuls’ schedules break down for the rest of 2018-19:

Eastern Conference

Team Strength of Schedule Total Games Home Away Back-to-Backs vs. Playoff Teams
Washington Capitals 0.612 12 6 6 1 6
Montreal Canadiens* 0.599 12 6 6 1 8
Philadelphia Flyers* 0.593 13 6 7 3 10
Carolina Hurricanes* 0.587 13 8 5 3 7
Tampa Bay Lightning 0.579 12 4 8 2 9
Boston Bruins 0.573 12 4 8 1 6
New York Islanders 0.565 13 5 8 2 6
Columbus Blue Jackets* 0.561 12 4 8 3 6
Florida Panthers* 0.558 13 5 8 2 8
Toronto Maple Leafs 0.546 12 5 7 3 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 0.532 12 6 6 1 6

* = in a wild-card spot or on the bubble

Metro Shuffle

The defending Stanley Cup champs draw the toughest schedule over the final month of the regular season, highlighted by three tests against the high-flying Lightning. There’s little worry about that stretch throwing too weighty a wrench into Washington’s playoff hopes, but it is closer than most would assume. Only eight points separate the division-leading Capitals from the second wild-card spot, and a tough stretch could lead to some key re-seeding in the East.

The Islanders remain just two points back of the Metro lead, and sitting only four points back of the division title is Pittsburgh — who, incidentally, has the most favourable upcoming schedule of all Eastern playoff hopefuls, and seems to be picking up steam. The race is on to see who finishes in the top two divisional slots and earns home-ice advantage before the likely assignment of lining up against a familiar Metro opponent in Round 1.

On the Bubble

Eastern clubs on the outside looking in aren’t set to get any favours from the schedule down the stretch. Montreal finds itself just outside the crop, but level points-wise with Columbus. However, the Canadiens are staring down a tough 12 games that will see them meet strong opponents eight times — particularly their final five tilts of the season, which consists of matchups with Columbus, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Washington and Toronto. Piling up as many points as possible before heading into that closing run seems a necessity.

Philadelphia’s hill might be the toughest to climb — five points out of a playoff spot ahead of a 13-game stretch that includes 10 against playoff squads, and three back-to-backs. And the first two in that stretch will come without Jakub Voracek. That should help the Hurricanes’ chances of sticking in a wild-card spot, despite having a decently difficult workload on their hands, too.

Home-Ice Advantage

The Atlantic side of this equation seems more set in stone, given the Bolts’ season-long penchant for rolling through the opposition. Tampa Bay and Boston find themselves in the middle of the pack in terms of the strength of the coming opponents. Both clubs do have to battle through a final slate that’ll see them play eight of 12 games on the road. That won’t be an issue for the Lightning, who are 24-7-2 outside of Amalie Arena, but it could affect the Bruins, who are 15-12-6 on the road.

A slide from the B’s could allow Toronto — four points back — to move up to second in the division, especially with the Maple Leafs on track for one of the less-daunting workloads over the next few weeks. The Maple Leafs’ final 12 tilts feature just four playoff-bound teams, though they will have three back-to-backs to contend with.

Considering the Leafs’ last two series against Boston have both stretched to seven games — and both resulted in Game 7 losses on the road — securing that home-ice advantage over the coming weeks, positioning a potential Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena, could be a welcome bonus.

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And then we have the West, which is chock-full of powerhouses and still has a genuine conference title on the line.

Two of the Western behemoths look set to cruise to the finish line while two others get battle-tested before the post-season begins. Here’s how the schedule breaks down over the rest of the season:

Western Conference

Team Strength of Schedule Total Games Home Away Back-to-Backs vs. Playoff Teams
Minnesota Wild* 0.581 12 7 5 2 10
Nashville Predators 0.558 11 5 6 1 6
Winnipeg Jets 0.555 13 6 7 2 7
Chicago Blackhawks* 0.549 12 6 6 2 6
Dallas Stars* 0.542 13 7 6 3 4
Edmonton Oilers* 0.542 12 6 6 2 8
Vegas Golden Knights 0.541 12 6 6 2 6
Arizona Coyotes* 0.539 12 6 6 1 4
Colorado Avalanche* 0.536 12 7 5 2 6
San Jose Sharks 0.517 12 8 4 2 4
St. Louis Blues 0.517 13 7 6 3 3
Calgary Flames 0.501 12 7 5 2 4

* = in a wild-card spot or on the bubble

Cruise Control

The Calgary Flames head into the final few weeks with the most favourable schedule of any club in the league, with just four of their final 12 games against playoff squads, and only five coming on the road. After a slide that allowed some doubt to creep into the minds of the Flames faithful after an unexpectedly dominant campaign, a confidence-building finish could be a game-changer for the Flames’ hopes of going on a deep post-season run.

Unfortunately, the schedule will do little to affect the Flames’ chances of climbing into the conference’s No. 1 spot, as the San Jose Sharks — who have just one more point at the moment — find themselves with a similar test over the final 13 games of the year. Considering who’s waiting in the Pacific Division’s No. 3 spot, the home stretch will be key for Calgary and San Jose.

Vegas has lost just once since acquiring Mark Stone to beef up its forward corps at the trade deadline, and figures to be a tough first-round test. Calgary was the lone club to halt that streak, but it’s worth noting they did so against backup netminder Malcolm Subban. A few days earlier, with Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the Flames managed just one goal and fell in a 2-1 loss.

Under Pressure

Separated by just a point in the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators are in a similar situation. As it currently stands, Nashville gets St. Louis and Winnipeg draws a weaker wild-card squad. The prospective schedule figures to put some pressure on that arrangement, though. The Blues have the easiest road to the end of the season among the top Central squads, facing only three playoff-bound teams in their final 13 games.

Nashville and Winnipeg, however, have two of the hardest coming schedules, meaning there’s a not-so-unlikely possibility of the Blues jumping them both, which would force the Jets and Predators into the unenviable position of facing one of the conference’s toughest opponents in the very first round.

Uphill Climb

The West’s on-the-bubble squads all find themselves in different situations for their final weeks. Minnesota, who sits just one point out, has a gargantuan task ahead — 10 of its final 12 games come against playoff teams, mostly on the road, with a couple back-to-backs thrown in. The Wild meet Winnipeg and Boston in two of their final three games, for what could wind up being two very tough make-or-break matches.

Edmonton, meanwhile, sits in the middle of the pack of playoff hopefuls, still only six points out as it continues to hang around. Late-season slides from Minnesota and Dallas — both currently above Edmonton in the standings and both with tougher schedules down the stretch — could help the Oilers slowly climb back into the post-season picture.

But eight meetings with playoff-bound teams won’t make it easy for Connor McDavid’s squad. Much like Minnesota, it’ll be the final week that’ll provide the biggest test, if they’re still in it, as they’ll face Vegas, Colorado, San Jose and Calgary (at the Saddledome) to close it out.

Even if that season finale winds up meaning next to nothing for the Flames’ playoff path, you can bet they get up and offer a stiff test for their Albertan neighbours if given the chance to quash Edmonton’s playoff dreams — a potential Battle of Alberta classic.

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