Analyzing the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoff race down the stretch

The Athletic's Shayna Goldman joins Jeff Marek to discuss the difficult situation of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the decisions they need to make about their upcoming draft picks to remain competitive in the twilight of Sidney Crosby's career.

With the trade deadline behind us, all that’s left ahead for teams is the chase for the final tickets to the big dance. The NHL is a strange league among the major sports, as the expression “get in and you have a chance” is not just some cursory slogan.

The Los Angeles Kings won the Cup as an eight-seed in 2012, five years later the Nashville Predators went to the Cup final as the bottom seed, and more recently we’ve seen both Montreal and Florida get to the Cup Final despite just squeaking into their final post-season spots.

These teams are not necessarily lambs racing to their immediate demise.

The good news for the more distant teams is that the NHL is a streaky league, more now than ever. You know who’s won five straight games this season? Arizona, Calgary, St. Louis, Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit, the latter of whom has a separate streak of six straight wins.

And all of those six teams sit outside a playoff spot today.

Heck, Anaheim won six games in a row. Seattle won nine in a row. There’s still time for middling teams to get hot. 

And so, below you’ll get some thoughts on who I think are the most likely teams to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs (we’ll do the West on Friday), followed by those with even a faint whiff of a chance.

(Note: for “playoff odds” I’ve chosen two sources I trust, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, and Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz, both models use a variety of factors including strength of remaining schedule to calculate their odds.)


Playoff Odds
The Athletic: 72%
HockeyViz: 73%

Where they’re at: This season Real Kyper and Bourne has been lucky enough to welcome both Keith Jones and Daniel Briere on our program, and neither hesitated about where they thought their team was: decidedly, not a Stanley Cup contender. In fact, in talking to the GM maybe a month before the trade deadline, it sounded like they were happy to be involved in games that mattered, but would soon be selling.

And sure, they traded Sean Walker. But they also made a flip to get Denis Gurianov who has upside, they traded for Erik Johnson to fill Walker’s role, and they re-signed Nick Seeler. In sum, it seems the Flyers (and most people) thought maybe they were about the 20th best team in the league, and they’d be selling and missing the playoffs this season.

But now it seems like they’ve got a chance to get in if they just play well down the stretch. If they come back down to earth they’re going to leave a door wide open for some teams below.


The Athletic: 85%
HockeyViz: 78.1%

Where they’re at: By adding Matt Dumba and Anthony Duclair, the Lightning stated what we all assumed would happen: they’re going for it. I mean, they have too many elite talents in their prime not to.

They’re just two points ahead of Detroit with the same amount of games played, but the Wings’ losing streak has put the Bolts back in the driver’s seat. It’s really, really hard to see Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman and Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy and Anthony Cirelli and all the rest missing the playoffs. And that should be scary for whoever may draw them as a top seed.

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The Athletic: 78%
HockeyViz: 61.3%

Where they’re at: There are “dead cat bounces” with some coaching changes, but rarely do we see tangible improvement in the underlying performance of a team like we have with the Islanders under Patrick Roy. A team that couldn’t create a lick offensively has become one of the NHL’s best chance-generating machines of late, and has cut back on its time in the defensive zone by whole minutes per game.

There’s a sizeable discrepancy in the playoff odds given by the models above, but Dom’s leans more on the “true talent” of a roster, and the Isles played well below theirs for most of this season. As fringe teams who make playoff runs go, the Isles have that formula — an elite goalie capable of stealing games, veterans and size, and a D-corps that has rarely been healthy but could come together at the right time.


The Athletic: 34%
HockeyViz: 40.9%

Where they’re at: For a while, the Red Wings seemed like the Flyers — a team on the upswing that was punching a bit above its weight but was likely to come back down to earth at some point. Unlike the Flyers, the “come back down to earth” thing seems to be finally happening to Detroit, where the wins and losses are starting to align more with the underlying process numbers.

There are pieces to like in Detroit, and they do have a fairly soft schedule coming home. It’s not impossible they’ll get in. But if they do, they seem more like a feast for a top-seed than one possessing the pieces for a sneaky post-season run.


The Athletic: 17%
HockeyViz: 26.1%

Where they’re at: You may have noticed Dom’s model prefers the teams already ahead, while Micah’s gives the chasing teams a bit more hope. The Caps are down to 26 per cent on the generous end of things. They’re a team that pruned some dead weight at the deadline and is hoping to make gains internally, but I find it hard to see. They have a minus-27 goal differential on the year, one of the most challenging strength of schedules ahead in the NHL, and just don’t produce chances like a playoff team.

They have a few difference makers, of course, but it’s tough to see this Capitals team finding its way in.


The Athletic: 9%
HockeyViz: 10.8%

Where they’re at: In terms of the immediate roster, they sold Jake Guentzel for Michael Bunting at the deadline, and over the past week or so have played with the energy and passion of a team trying not to get hurt before the golf courses open up.


They have the elite players we all know — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson — and solid depth players, too. I know they’re behind Washington, percentage-wise, but it’s easier for me to see the Penguins getting red hot than it is the Caps. Do I think it’ll happen? I don’t. I think they’re morally defeated. But they are physically more capable.

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The Athletic: 2%
HockeyViz: 7.2%

Where they’re at: If it could go wrong this season for New Jersey, it has. But they’re still a team that has a number of elite talents. If they had a goalie get red hot, and the Flyers started losing, they could still make it interesting (and it’s easy to see them with a goalie and Dougie Hamilton next year contending to win the Metro). But it seems like their season might be all but over.

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The Athletic: 3%
HockeyViz: 2.9%

Where they’re at: Buffalo is a team that could turn it around quickly … next season. I like so many pieces on their roster (including Bowen Byram!), but they need a full shake up here. They finally have talent but the team plays light, passive hockey, and needs a full-on off-season kick in the butt.

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