NHL Playoff Push: Which teams have tie-breaker advantages?

Watch as Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom breaks his stick after Dallas Stars' forward Jason Robertson's overtime-winner isn't overturned for goalie interference.

With four weeks left in the regular season and playoff races tightening, we need to start considering who holds the tie-breaker advantage in all the key races.

First a reminder that the first tie-breaker is regulation wins (RW), which are all the wins you’ve accumulated minus those in overtime or the shootout. If teams have the same number of regulation wins, the second tie-breaker is regulation and overtime wins (ROW), so only the shootout is excluded. If still tied, the total number of all wins is used and, if still tied after that, the edge will go to the team that accumulated more points in the head-to-head matchup against the team they’re tied with.

In the East’s wild-card playoff picture, this means the Florida Panthers have a distinct edge as they make a late charge while the Pittsburgh Penguins hit another speed bump. Both of those teams still have two games in hand of the Islanders, who hold on to the first wild card, but New York has more RW than the Panthers.

In the West — where once we didn’t think there’d be much of a playoff race at all — things have suddenly got interesting. Winnipeg’s big Saturday night OT win over Nashville prevented the Preds from getting any closer. It’s clear that if either the Preds or Flames are going to steal a wild card spot late that they’ll have to outright pass the Jets (or Kraken), who hold a wide RW lead.

It’s another big week in the playoff chase with some key games ahead. Here are the teams we’re focusing in on…

If the playoffs ended 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

TEAMS IN FOCUS

Florida Panthers

With all the subtractions off a Presidents’ Trophy-winning roster, the Panthers were understandably a popular “step back” team coming into this season. But with Montreal holding Florida’s 2023 first-round pick (without any protection) missing out entirely on the playoffs could be utterly disastrous.

Not that the draft incentive is what will drive the players, but the Panthers have been putting on a charge for some time now.

Just 16-17-4 through the 2022 portion of the schedule (23rd in the league by points percentage), Florida has done a 180 into a 19-10-3 team in the New Year, good for 10th in the league by points percentage. They are on par with the Toronto Maple Leafs in that time (though with far inferior special teams).

Last year’s Panthers were comeback kings, with a ridiculous .609 winning percentage when trailing after the first period, and a .393 when trailing after the second. Not only were both of those marks far and away the best in the league last season, they were both also among the best in league history. On Jan. 1 of this season, the Panthers were the only team left without a win when trailing after one period, and were one of three teams without a win when trailing after two (joining Toronto and Calgary). Since the calendar flip, the Panthers are top 10 in the league in both comeback categories.

The other key to watch here is in net, where everything falls to Sergei Bobrovsky. Much better since his slow start, Bobrovsky has started all nine games since Spencer Knight entered the NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance Program and has a 6-2-1 record with a .910 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average. Florida has the league’s third-highest goals per game since Jan. 1, but are 22nd in goals-against. The only playoff team with a worse GAA in that time are the Penguins team ahead of them.

If Bobrovsky (and Alex Lyon, expected to play a couple of games the rest of the way), can lock it down enough, Florida’s offence is back to a level that will invite chaos into a playoff round.

And just like their Jekyll and Hyde season, this week brings a wide brush of opponents. The Panthers start with a back-to-back road trip in Detroit and Philadelphia Monday and Tuesday, but follow with home games against Toronto and the NY Rangers Thursday and Saturday.

Pittsburgh Penguins

After finding a way to beat the Rangers on March 12 in OT, the Penguins got spanked by their rivals by a combined 10-2 score in two road games at the end of last week. Pull that back to the Montreal loss and the Penguins have now allowed 16 goals in their past three games.

Goaltending is in focus again now after it was largely blamed as the shortfall that cost them last year’s series against the Rangers. At that time the Penguins had turned to third-stringer Louis Domingue for most of the work with their other two netminders injured, though Tristan Jarry returned for Game 7 and allowed four goals on 30 shots in an OT loss.

The Penguins elected to run it back with Jarry and Casey DeSmith and then not address the position further at the trade deadline. Now, we have a situation where Jarry has been cold since returning from a month-long injury in February — 4-4-1 in 11 starts, an .863 save percentage and four pulls since coming back into the lineup. He’ll start again Monday at home to Ottawa and will surely play in one of the back-to-backs in Colorado and Dallas this week.

The question facing the Pens in their playoff push is: can Jarry (who had a .921 save percentage before his injury) get back up to speed in time?

“We feel as though he’s a guy we’re going to need here down the stretch,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Case (DeSmith) is a solid goalie as well and has given us good minutes. We believe we have two capable guys, but we believe Jars is a guy that is important to us.”

If the playoffs ended today, these would be our Western Conference first-round matchups:

(P1) Golden Knights vs. (WC2) Jets

(P2) Kings vs. (P3) Oilers

(C1) Stars vs. (WC1) Kraken

(C2) Wild vs. (C3) Avalanche

TEAMS IN FOCUS

Nashville Predators

The Predators had a great chance to make up ground Saturday, but an OT loss to Winnipeg has kept them behind the Jets by points percentage. This week, the Preds start with what’s pretty close to a must-win game in Buffalo Tuesday and then face another team they’re trying to track down, with the Seattle Kraken on tap Thursday and Saturday night. With a couple of big wins there — especially if in regulation — the Predators would really light up the Western playoff picture for two reasons: 1. they’d be getting closer themselves and 2. they’d be pulling the first wild card Kraken back on to the bubble.

Since selling at the trade deadline, the Predators are averaging an NHL-worst two goals per game as Juuse Saros does his best to pull them in.

And they still will get one more crack at Winnipeg, too, just ahead of the final week of the regular season.

Calgary Flames

A schedule quirk saw the Flames play in Arizona and Vegas last week, fly home to play Dallas Saturday night, and then head back south to California, where they’ll play Los Angeles and Anaheim on back-to-back nights Monday and Tuesday.

Yes the Flames are still hanging on to the playoff picture and have gotten at least a point in six of their past seven games. The Kings will provide the stiffest test, up first on Monday night, and Tuesday’s matchup is good news for a couple reasons. Firstly, the opponent is the Anaheim Ducks, a team racing to the bottom with the league’s worst season-long goal differential (minus-100). Secondly, the Flames have fared pretty well in back-to-back situations since December, running a 4-0-2 record in the back end of those situations.

Vegas then awaits the Flames’ return home on Thursday, one week after Calgary burned the Golden Knights 7-2. It’s a matchup Calgary has owned all year, too, with a 2-0-1 record against the divisional foe.

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