As we begin the third-last week of the regular season, the top of the bracket is becoming more and more clear. In the Metro Division, the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils have already clinched, and the Canes still have a three-point edge (with one game in hand) for home-ice advantage through at least two rounds.
The New York Rangers are likely to follow and clinch their own spot sometime this week. They are idle Monday but could wake up Tuesday morning with an “x” next to their name in the standings anyway if the Buffalo Sabres lose to the Montreal Canadiens in any fashion and the Florida Panthers lose to the Ottawa Senators in regulation.
In the Atlantic, the Boston Bruins have been running away from the pack all year and clinched their spot a while ago, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning have been locked into a first-round playoff series for weeks. The Maple Leafs will probably clinch their berth this week, and can even do so on an idle Monday if Florida loses to Ottawa.
In the West, we still have two heated division titles up for grabs, with five (or six) teams all still in the mix. It’s so tight out there that no one has officially clinched a playoff spot yet, and though no one can do it Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings could do it later this week.
Those top-of-the-table seedings will be discussed deeper in the later stages of our playoff pushes but for now, our focus remains on those in the hunt just to get in at the bottom of the table. What are the key questions facing those teams and what are their matchups this week? Here’s our look at the week ahead …
If the playoffs started today, these would be our Eastern Conference first-round matchups:
(A1) Bruins vs. (WC2) Penguins
(A2) Maple Leafs vs. (A3) Lightning
(M1) Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Islanders
(M2) Devils vs. (M3) Rangers
NY Islanders: Can they withstand a difficult stretch of opponents upcoming?
New York had been better of late. From the all-star break until last Thursday, the Islanders were 12-5-3 (ninth in the NHL by points percentage) and, crucially, had an improving offence. The team ranks 22nd on the season on goals per game (2.96), but since all-star has been 14th (3.35). But the last weekend saw the Islanders drop two games (one in OT) to Columbus and Buffalo and start this week just four points clear of ninth in the conference. Now they’re about to face two weeks’ worth of tough opponents: can they get back on track and win enough to stay ahead?
Islanders games this week: vs. NJD Monday, at Washington Wednesday, at Tampa Saturday, at Carolina Sunday
Pittsburgh Penguins: Can they get enough goals down the stretch to outlast the competition?
In our piece last week pointing out some “notable stats and trends since the trade deadline,” we showed some of the wonky weirdness around the Pittsburgh Penguins. Draw that window back even more and you’ll see while the Penguins have generated tons of shots and great opportunities since Feb. 1, they have a bottom-third offence in the league. Compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference’s wild-card contenders, the Penguins’ offence trails with some horrible shooting percentages since Feb. 1 (league rank in parenthesis).
Yes, goaltending is also a story there, but this stalled offence is a concern. In the past 10 games Pittsburgh has scored at least three goals, they are 8-1-1.
Penguins games this week: at Detroit Tuesday, vs. Nashville Thursday, vs. Boston Saturday, vs. Philadelphia Sunday
Florida Panthers: Can Sergei Bobrovsky back up a hot offence, or steal a game or two?
The load falls on Bobrovsky from here on out. Save for a likely start from Alex Lyon on the back-to-back this week (we’re thinking against Montreal), the $10-million Bobrovsky will probably play every other game remaining. This month, as Florida’s offence has recaptured some of last season’s insanity, Bobrovsky has put up a few good starts but overall has come out of it with an .894 save percentage and 2.99 GAA so far. In 10 starts he’s allowed at least four goals on four occasions. Can he do enough to just get them across the line or maybe even step up and steal a win or two down the stretch?
Panthers games this week: at Ottawa Monday, at Toronto Wednesday, at Montreal Thursday, at Columbus Saturday
Buffalo Sabres: When will Devon Levi get a start?
With a couple of wins Friday and Saturday night, the Sabres start the week six points back of the wild card but with more games left on the schedule than any other bubble team. Waiting for his first start is 21-year-old sensational goalie prospect Devon Levi, who just signed out of NCAA Northeastern last week. After an incredible college career, Sabres fans are hoping Levi becomes The Guy, but when do you feel comfortable putting him in? Do you wait to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs to take that pressure off or do you want a whiff of that action? If this is the week, will he get to play in his hometown of Montreal on Monday? Or do you wait for perhaps a softer landing at home against the Flyers on Saturday?
Sabres games this week: vs. Montreal Monday, vs. NY Rangers Friday, at Philadelphia Saturday
Washington Capitals: Are these Peter Laviolette’s last games?
Speculation is beginning to creep in about the future of the head coach, who is on an expiring contract and is set to miss the playoffs after being eliminated in the first round two years in a row. The Capitals dropped Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh, which may have been their last shot at pulling back into the picture — though keep in mind there are still two games against the Islanders on the schedule.
Capitals games this week: vs. NY Islanders Wednesday, at Tampa Bay Thursday, vs. NY Rangers Sunday
Ottawa Senators: Can someone, anyone, have a Hamburglar-lite run?
Since Cam Talbot went down on March 4, goaltending has been a soft spot — their .880 save percentage in that time ranks 24th in the league. Dylan Ferguson flashed in his first start against the Penguins this week, then allowed four goals on 34 shots in Saturday’s loss to New Jersey. Mads Sogaard has been given most of the starts over the past few weeks, and though he allowed at least four goals against in six straight starts earlier this month, his last two outings against Boston (a 2-1 loss) and Tampa Bay (a 7-2 win) have been solid. Can either, or both at once, just find magic and click at precisely the right time?
Senators games this week: vs. Florida Monday, vs. Philadelphia Thursday, vs. Toronto Saturday, at Columbus Sunday
If the playoffs started today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:
(P1) Golden Knights vs. (WC2) Jets
(P2) Kings vs. (P3) Oilers
(C1) Wild vs. (WC1) Kraken
(C2) Avalanche vs. (C3) Stars
Seattle Kraken: Can they take advantage of a “soft” remaining schedule?
There are some potential landmines ahead but, for the most part, Seattle doesn’t have the hardest competition over the final three weeks. Since mid-January, the Kraken have played a team in the top three of its division 13 times and have a 3-8-2 record against those opponents. The rest of the way they’ll face Minnesota and Los Angeles (this week) and then Vegas in their final two games — and those are Seattle’s only playoff opponents. In between the Kraken draw Anaheim, Vancouver, Chicago and Arizona three times, games in which they can get the few points needed to officially clinch. That said, both the Canucks and Coyotes are top 13 NHL teams by points percentage since Feb. 1, so maybe it’ll be a rockier finish than we presume…
Kraken games this week: at Minnesota Monday, vs. Anaheim Thursday, vs. Los Angeles Saturday
Winnipeg Jets: Can they keep control of their destiny?
The Jets have a four- and five-point lead on the teams chasing from behind, but their healthy lead in the regulation wins category used as the first tie-breaker means they’re really ahead by one more point. They draw San Jose and Detroit this week, two winnable games, and then get to take on the Flames and Predators directly next week. But they’re just not pulling away and are leaving Calgary and Nashville with even small hope. Heck, a few bad losses this week may hand the steering wheel back to the Preds before next week’s meeting.
Jets games this week: at San Jose Tuesday, vs. Detroit Friday, vs. New Jersey Sunday
Calgary Flames: When will Matt Coronato play?
This, really, is what most Flames fans are excited about right now. Saturday’s win against San Jose — coupled with Winnipeg’s loss to Los Angeles — kept the dream alive, but the Flames will face the Kings this week after getting dragged 8-2 by them last week, so this feeling may be for a limited time only. There’s much to debate about the future of this team in the summer, but one thing they can count on is Matt Coronato being a part of it. The Harvard signee will join the team this week, but just how — or when — head coach Darryl Sutter uses him is anyone’s guess.
Nashville Predators: Do they have enough games in hand to make up the ground?
Though they trail Winnipeg in the first tie-breaker, the Predators have one advantage themselves: they have the most remaining games in this Western Conference race. Of course, that can sometimes be a curse. Yes, the Preds have the most games left to play, but they have a lot of stiff competition ahead. Consider that, next Sunday morning before the Jets take on New Jersey, Nashville will draw even with Winnipeg in games played, but have to face Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the meantime. After that, it’s Dallas, Vegas and Carolina. And now the Preds add another veteran scorer to the IR, with Matt Duchene joining Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Roman Josi on the sidelines.