Less than three weeks from the end of the regular season, an important part of the standings to look at is RW: regulation wins. That is the first tie breaker and an indicator of who can put away games without the aid of 3-on-3 play or the shootout, neither of which we'll see in the playoffs.
Carolina, Toronto and Colorado are the only teams at 40 regulation wins and you can fairly call each of them contenders. Dallas and Los Angeles, both competing for a final spot in the West, are the only two playoff teams without at least 30 so far.
With so many tight races for either a place in the post-season, or for seeding, keep a close eye on the RW column. And, when picking your bracket, it might be worth seeing if any team has a decided advantage in that category over their first round opponent. You could pick worse places to start looking for upsets.
With that in mind, here is our look at the playoff picture:
If the playoffs started today, these would be our Eastern Conference first-round matchups:
(A1) Panthers vs. (WC2) Capitals
(A2) Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Lightning
(M1) Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Bruins
(M2) Rangers vs. (M3) Penguins
Can the Capitals catch the Penguins?
Ever since the Bruins started surging weeks ago, the Capitals have been the East's forgotten playoff team, lagging behind the pace of those around them. Part of that was because they weren't stringing together winning streaks like we saw elsewhere and, sure, injuries have been a factor. But they've also had some games in hand. Now, with three weeks left in the season, the Capitals have won three in a row and five of their past seven. Just last week they toppled Tampa, Boston and Pittsburgh. At the same time, it's the Pens' turn to sag, winners of just three of their past 10. The Capitals enter the week four points behind the Penguins, but with two games in hand. Pittsburgh has the tie break advantage by two, so it's quite possible the Caps would need to outright pass the Penguins to slide into the third spot in the Metro. Third in the Metro could mean a first-round date against the Rangers or Hurricanes, while a fourth-place finish would line you up with the Florida Panthers.
This week, the Pens play the Islanders twice and the Bruins once. The Caps play Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal.
Boston or Tampa Bay: Who will hold the Atlantic's third seed by end of the week?
There is a similar race to third place in the Atlantic Division as well: the winner will get the reward of playing Toronto in Round 1 and the loser will get the Metro's top seed. The Bruins and Lightning have 10 games left each and Tampa has a one-point advantage, though Boston holds the tiebreaker. All the momentum appears to be with the Bruins as well. Since Feb. 1, Boston's .700 points percentage is fifth in the league, while Tampa is 14th at .593. You can look at Tampa two ways: One, you don't discount the back-to-back champs and expect them to turn it on down the stretch or at least in Round 1. Or, two, this is a team that's played a lot of hockey the past two years under challenging circumstances and is starting to run out of gas. Not that they can't still be dangerous, but maybe they're vulnerable.
The Bruins get St. Louis, Ottawa and Pittsburgh, all at home, this week, while the Lightning face Dallas, Anaheim and Winnipeg.
Rangers-Hurricanes meet as top spot in Metropolitan remains wide open
Enormous game on Tuesday night as the Rangers and Hurricanes face off with first place in the division still very much on the line. Both teams have nine games remaining, Carolina holds a two-point advantage and the tiebreaker. But, the Rangers will get another shot at the Canes in the final week of the season as well, and a win Tuesday, which would extend their winning streak to four games, could do a lot for their momentum. Could it come down to the goalies? Igor Shesterkin had a brief rough patch that probably ended his Hart Trophy hopes, but he has put together a couple of strong starts in a row. Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, has an .874 save percentage in four April starts. These aren't red alerts yet or anything (Andersen had a strong March), but there is no margin for error anymore and the goalies will have to come through. The difference between first and second in the Metro may not improve your first-round matchup to a considerable degree, but locking in home-ice advantage for at least two rounds would be preferred.
After Tuesday's game, the Rangers close the week with games against Philadelphia and Detroit; the Canes close against Detroit and Colorado.
If the playoffs started today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:
(C1) Avalanche vs. (WC2) Stars
(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Blues
(P1) Flames vs. (WC1) Predators
(P2) Oilers vs. (P3) Kings
Why Vegas is the team to watch now:
The odds may still be against the Vegas Golden Knights, but things are starting to trend in the right direction. Entering Tuesday with a 42.8 per cent chance of reaching the post-season (via Money Puck), Vegas is helping itself with a 7-3-0 run in its past 10 and also getting help from those around them: Los Angeles, third in the Pacific, has lost three in a row and its grip on second in the division, while the Dallas Stars aren't using their games in hand all that efficiently. Vegas enters the week trailing both by two points.
The Kings may be the team Vegas has a better shot of tracking down. Injuries have accumulated there and instead of getting a hopeful impact player back for the stretch run, the Kings announced on Monday that defenceman Drew Doughty will miss the rest of the season. The main thing Los Angeles has going for it, though, is that it doesn't have the toughest schedule the rest of the way – Colorado is the only playoff team the Kings will face in their last eight games.
Meanwhile, help could be on the way for the Golden Knights. Don't look now, but Mark Stone is skating and there's optimism he could return in time to give them a boost in the race. There are some cap gymnastics to be done if they're to fit him under, but the Golden Knights still have a number of injured players they could potentially slide to LTIR. The Athletic's Jesse Granger put together a nice explainer of the options Vegas has to fit Stone back in.
And if Vegas sneaks into the playoffs? It could be the most dangerous team, or certainly one capable of punching way above its seeding. With no cap in the post-season, the Golden Knights could get all sorts of players back and suddenly look like the team that was initially put together.
If the Knights track down Los Angeles, then Edmonton would become Vegas' likely first-round opponent. Would a fully healthy Vegas be the team to beat in the Pacific? Or will it take some time to put Humpy back together again?
Keep an eye on what goes on with Stone this week. The Golden Knights play three road games in Western Canada, starting Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks. A win there all but buries Vancouver. A loss, and Vegas is suddenly teetering again.
Don't look now, but here come the St. Louis Blues
The Blues seemed to be in a good spot at the trade deadline as the rival Minnesota Wild were struggling. St. Louis was trending the right way, found a new starter and seemed in line to pull away. Then the Wild made some aggressive additions, went on a post-deadline spree, and they looked to have the advantage. Now St. Louis is putting up a fight again.
Winners of five straight, the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Minnesota in points, though with one more game played. St. Louis has six more regulation wins than Minnesota, so they have a firm hold on the tie-breaker scenario.
In their past 11 games, five Blues players have posted a point per game or more, lead by Robert Thomas' six goals and 17 points as he finishes strong in his breakout season. The Blues, the 2019 Cup winners, are one of those teams you look to rise to the occasion when the stakes are the highest, and that seems to be happening right now. They'll play Boston, Buffalo, Minnesota and Nashville this week, and will have to go on the road for seven of their final 10 games.
Can the Oilers pull away in a tough stretch of games?
So the Oilers, 7-2-1 in their past 10, are now the most likely team to finish second in the Pacific. What a rollercoaster of a season it's been to wind up there.
The race for second isn't over yet, though, not as long as the Kings are close and the Golden Knights seem to be returning to form. And this next stretch of games will be a challenge for the Oilers: They get Minnesota, Nashville and Vegas this week, and then Dallas and Colorado next. A strong run could give a lot of hope for them going into the post-season and heighten confidence in the room if they show well against this collection of opponents. A bad run, though, and they could run into the post-season on a low and perhaps fall out of home-ice advantage territory. These next two weeks is a real opportunity for the Oilers to show they have levelled up, and to pull away from the rest of the pack.