NHL Playoff Push: How four teams still have chance at one spot

Detroit Red Wings forward Lucas Raymond joins Kyle Bukauskas after scoring both the game-tying and the game-winning goal in their game against the Montreal Canadiens to keep his team's playoff hopes alive.

We’re coming right down to it folks.

Four teams have already reached 82 games and finished their regular seasons. The Presidents’ Trophy has been clinched, and now the New York Rangers will have to contend with that curse. And two playoff series — Colorado-Winnipeg and Carolina-NY Islanders — have already been locked in.

And soon, we’ll know the rest.

For the most part, it’s playoff seedings and matchups that need to be resolved, but with just three nights left on the regular season schedule the Eastern Conference still has one playoff spot up for grabs. Four teams are in contention for it and we’ll know who comes out the winner either tonight, or possibly not until tomorrow.

And that’s where our focus is in today’s Playoff Push, where we take a closer look at all the variables at play in the turtle race for the East’s final wild-card spot.

Washington Capitals: After everything to get to this point, they have the most direct path in and are the team in control of its own destiny. The formula is simple: Win and get in. Washington travels to Philadelphia where they’ll take on the Flyers Tuesday night and if the Caps are able to walk away with two points, in any fashion, they will wake up on Wednesday with an ‘x’ beside their name in the standings.

Anything less than two points, though, and the Capitals will be opening up the door for the other teams in this race. While it is possible for Washington to clinch tonight, if they lose in regulation or extra time, it’s also possible they’ll wake up on Wednesday eliminated from contention.

Games left: Tuesday at Philadelphia

Detroit Red Wings: No matter what the Wings do in their last game Tuesday night, they’ll be eliminated if Washington defeats Philadelphia. They’ll also be eliminated if they lose in regulation, or if they lose in extra time and the Capitals get at least one point against Philadelphia. The problem the Red Wings have at the moment is that with only 27 regulation wins, they don’t have the tiebreaker advantage on anyone.

They could still clinch on Tuesday, though. If Detroit is able to beat Montreal — after orchestrating a 4-1 comeback Monday night for a 5-4 win — they’ll get the last wild card spot in the East as long as the Capitals come out of their game with one or zero points.

Games left: Tuesday at Montreal

Pittsburgh Penguins: The only team still in the running that does not play on Tuesday night is the Penguins, who could either watch their playoff chances vanish, or still see a sliver of an opening on Wednesday. It’s simple: If Detroit or Washington win on Tuesday, the Penguins are out. Anything less than that, and they’ll be in control of their own destiny.

With 32 regulation wins, the Penguins will hold the tie-breaker advantage over anyone they could be tied with for the final playoff spot. So, if Detroit and Washington both came away with a single point on Tuesday, they’d have 90 points to Pittsburgh’s 88, meaning the Penguins would clinch a spot Wednesday with a win. If Detroit and Washington both lose in regulation on Tuesday, the Penguins would only need one point to clinch (and thus break what would be a four-way tie at 89 points).

Games left: Wednesday at NY Islanders

Philadelphia Flyers: A weak finish has put the Flyers on the brink, but winning their past two in a row has at least kept them alive for Game 82. Philadelphia has the most difficult path to a playoff spot, but to even have a shot they first have to beat Washington in regulation on Tuesday night. But even that wouldn’t be enough to outright clinch, as the Penguins could still pass the Flyers with a win or extra time loss on Wednesday, and the Wings would pass them if they could get just a single point on Tuesday.

Basically, the Flyers have one path to the playoffs: Washington, Detroit and Pittsburgh all have to lose their final game in regulation. If that were to happen, the Flyers, Red Wings and Capitals would all be at 89 points, and the Penguins at 88. In that scenario, the Flyers would hold the tie-breaker over Detroit in regulation wins.

They’d also get in over Washington by way of the fifth tiebreaker. If tied at 89 points, the Flyers and Caps would also be tied in regulation wins (first tiebreaker), regulation or overtime wins (second tie-breaker) and total wins (third tiebreaker). The season series is the fourth tie-breaker, but since the two teams will have played an odd number of times, that first game in Philadelphia (a Flyers shootout win) will be dropped and only the last two games in each city would count. So, if Philadelphia beats Washington in regulation on Tuesday, they’d even be tied in the fourth tiebreaker, since the Caps won in the head-to-head game on their ice. That brings us to the fifth tiebreaker, goal differential, which would finally come back to bite the Capitals. The Flyers currently have a goal differential of minus-25, while the Caps are at minus-38.

So, again, the Flyers need all these other teams to lose in regulation to get in. And whoever gets this final wild card spot would draw the New York Rangers in Round 1.

Games left: Tuesday versus Washington

Other clinching considerations in the East:

• Boston will clinch first in the Atlantic if they beat Ottawa on Tuesday, or if they get a point and the Panthers lose to the Maple Leafs. If that happens, we’ll know Boston-Tampa Bay and Florida-Toronto will be first-round series.

• The Panthers could clinch the Atlantic title if they beat the Maple Leafs on Tuesday and the Bruins lose to Ottawa in any fashion. They could also get it with a point against Toronto if Boston loses to Ottawa in regulation. If either of these results occur, Florida would draw Tampa Bay and Boston would meet Toronto in Round 1.

The West’s eight playoff teams are all clinched, so the interesting things left to figure out here are playoff matchups.

We know the Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche will meet in Round 1, and the Jets can clinch home ice advantage if they get at least one point against the Kraken today, or they’ll have another chance to get that point Thursday when they wrap their regular season against Vancouver.

The Canucks, meantime, can officially clinch the Pacific Division if they get a single point against either Calgary on Tuesday night or Winnipeg on Thursday. The Canucks could still even track down the Dallas Stars for first in the West if they win their last two games and Dallas loses in regulation to St. Louis on Wednesday. The Canucks have the regulation wins tiebreaker over the Stars, but anything shy of two wins by Vancouver will hand first in the West to Dallas.

There is still some positional wrestling to do between Vegas and Los Angeles for third in the Pacific, but if the Golden Knights lose in any fashion to Chicago on Tuesday night, at least we’ll know that Nashville will finish in the first wild card spot in the West. Interestingly, though Los Angeles is currently ahead of Vegas in the standings, only the Golden Knights can still catch Nashville — whose regular season is finished — for that first wild card spot. That’s because the Predators would hold the tiebreaker over Los Angeles (they have more ROW, the second tiebreaker). And though the Predators would also hold the first tiebreaker over Vegas, the Golden Knights could pass them in points with two wins in their last two games (vs. Chicago and Anaheim).

So, if the Canucks get one or zero points Tuesday against Calgary, and the Golden Knights lose to Chicago, a Vancouver-Nashville first-round series would be locked in.

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