NHL Playoff Push: Who is still really alive (and who is barely) in the race?

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) celebrates his overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets with left wing Jason Zucker (16) and center Evgeni Malkin (71) during an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won 5-4. (Philip G. Pavely/AP)

With three weeks to go in the NHL’s regular season, who is really still in the hunt and who is really hoping on a prayer and not as close as they seem?

The Florida Panthers are still in it, one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into the weekend. Every other playoff chaser is at least four points out of it, with between nine and 12 games remaining.

With a win Thursday night, the Ottawa Senators kept hope alive and are five points behind the Penguins for the East’s second wild-card spot, with 10 games remaining.

In the West, Calgary dropped another game in which they outshot their opponent by more than 10 — the 22nd time that’s happened this season. The mood around that team is decidedly more negative, as they sit six points behind the West’s second wild card (Winnipeg) with nine games remaining. Nashville is five points back, but have three games in hand. Both the Preds and Flames need to actually leap over the Jets to get in, too, with Winnipeg in firm control of the tiebreaker.

In the era of the loser point, where playoff races perhaps aren’t always as close as they appear, it can be hard to make up ground in a short window. A really strong finish guarantees nothing and the chasing teams require help from those ahead of them. Teams like Ottawa and Calgary can play their hearts out, but are in no way in control of their destinies.

Long shot playoff hopefuls? Absolutely. Impossible comeback stories? Not so fast.

If we go back to 2018-19 before the world and the NHL was thrown into chaos, the Colorado Avalanche sat last in the Central Division and six points behind the second wild-card spot with three weeks left in the season. The Avs finished up the year 8-1-1, while Arizona, who was sitting in the second wild-card spot in mid-March, struggled to a 3-5-2 conclusion. The Avs also had to leap over Chicago (4-4-3) and Minnesota (3-6-1) in their own division, but did it and wound up clinching the second wild-card spot with a four-point margin.

In the realigned divisions of 2020-21, the St. Louis Blues were one point behind Arizona for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West Division with three weeks remaining. St. Louis finished 7-1-3 while Arizona went 3-4-1 and finished a distant nine points back. The Blues only needed to make up a single point, but quickly pulled off a 10-point swing.

And in 2017-18 the Los Angeles Kings were one point out of the second wild card and three behind the first wild-card team with three weeks left. Those Kings finished 8-3-3 while Dallas (the WC1 holder at the time) tripped to a 4-7-2 finish and missed the playoffs, winding up six points behind the Kings. In all, that was a nine-point swing in three weeks.

So it can be done, but this is far from the norm.

In 2018-19 the Montreal Canadiens were just three points back of the second wild card and four points behind the first wild-card team with three weeks remaining, then finished 7-2-1. But the teams ahead of them in Columbus (7-3-0) and Carolina (7-4-0) didn’t falter and the Habs missed the cutoff by two points anyway.

In 2016-17 the Winnipeg Jets were 10 points back of the West’s second wild-card spot with three weeks left, finished 8-2-0 and won their last seven games in a row. But Nashville was 6-4-1 to the finish line and stayed well ahead.

In the East in 2016-17, the Flyers were five points behind Toronto for the East’s second wild-card spot with three weeks to go. And though the Flyers did well enough at 6-3-2 down the stretch, Toronto was 8-4-0 and made that gap even larger.

As we head into the weekend, MoneyPuck’s playoff odds have the Panthers with a 47 per cent chance of getting in, and then it falls off precipitously for the other chasers. Nashville and Calgary have just over a 10 per cent chance, and the Senators just over two per cent.

These are must-win games ahead, sure, but also must-lose games for the opponents.

It’s a big weekend of games once again, and here we highlight some of the most consequential ones we’re looking forward to.

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


Tampa Bay at Boston
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT

The Bruins have won five in a row since the surprising back-to-back losses to Detroit and Chicago last week and can clinch the Atlantic’s top seed with a win (or an OTL and the Leafs getting one point or less). The Lightning, meantime, have lost three in a row, the most recent a 7-2 defeat in Ottawa. A chance at home-ice advantage in Round 1 against Toronto is slipping away.

N.Y. Rangers at Florida
Saturday, 5:00 p.m. ET / 2:00 p.m. PT

The Rangers still have a shot to track down second in the Metro and home-ice advantage for Round 1, but this game is mostly about Florida’s ongoing playoff bid. After dropping two in a row to Philly and Toronto this week, Florida is one back of the Penguins for the second wild-card spot and with a decided advantage in the regulation wins tiebreaker (more on Pittsburgh in a minute). They’re also just four back of the Islanders with a game in hand. Since the all-star break, the Panthers have a .605 points percentage and top-10 offence, but are 18th by team save percentage. Sergei Bobrovsky is once again the projected starter.

Ottawa at New Jersey
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET / 4:00 p.m. ET

The Devils are still hoping to track down the Canes for the Metro division crown, but with a win over Ottawa (or a Panthers loss to New York) will at least clinch their playoff ticket. Ottawa has much more on the line. Wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa have kept the door slightly ajar for the Senators to sneak through into the wild card, but there is no room for error now. Jakob Chychrun, who left Thursday’s game, is doubtful for Saturday’s contest. Tonight’s game brings an end to a difficult two-week stretch for Ottawa, where they played against some of the top Stanley Cup contenders. If the Sens can win this to remain afloat, they’ll get a head-to-head with Florida on Monday and meet Philadelphia Thursday. If all goes well and they get help from others ahead of them, there is a path here…

Toronto at Carolina
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET / 4:00 p.m. PT

The Hurricanes were the second Eastern team to clinch a playoff spot this week, but still have work to do to lock down the Metro Division. The Canes are 7-4-0 since the trade deadline passed without them being too active, which has outpaced the Devils but trails the Rangers. The Maple Leafs, meantime, are still fiddling with their lineup and finding rest for some players — they healthy scratched Morgan Rielly for this reason on Thursday. As Justin Bourne writes, these Leafs now have to find balance between rest and ramping up for the playoffs.

Washington at Pittsburgh
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT

In the 65th all-time regular season meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, there are playoffs on the line. The Capitals, after selling at the trade deadline, are still hanging around, though have just a 1.3 per cent chance of getting in, per MoneyPuck. Still, they got John Carlson back this week for the first time in three months and he promptly scored a goal and an assist against Chicago. In Pittsburgh, the story is goaltending. Tristan Jarry is expected to return to the net, where he’s struggled for the past month, but did muster a strong 28-save effort in a win over Colorado this week.

Toronto at Nashville
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. ET / 3:00 p.m. PT

With back-to-back games this weekend, the Maple Leafs can officially clinch their playoff ticket if they win both and the Panthers lose in any fashion to the Rangers on Saturday. And, again, the Leafs have to face a team playing for its life in a desperate playoff push. Nashville hosts the Leafs after they play Seattle on Saturday night and need to stay hot to keep post-season hopes alive. While they do have three games in hand of the Jets coming into the weekend (five points behind them), Winnipeg is way ahead in the tie breaker, so Nashville is really facing a six-point deficit.

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


Seattle at Nashville
Saturday, 2:00 p.m. ET / 11:00 a.m. PT

Just mentioned Nashville’s playoff outlook above and Saturday’s matchup is the first big test, coming against the first wild-card team. The Kraken are a ways from officially clinching yet, but are a step ahead of the second wild-card Jets in this race. Less concerned about the wild card, the Kraken are trying to stay in the mix for one of the Pacific’s top three spots. Since Feb. 1 the Kraken are 10-9-3, 19th in the league by points percentage and have fallen from first to fourth in the division.

Winnipeg at Los Angeles
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET / 1:00 p.m. PT

The Kings have won eight of their past 10 games and have at least a point in all of them. All of the Pacific’s top three teams are surging right now as they go full throttle towards a division crown — the reward for whoever comes out on top is a wild-card draw. That first-round opponent could be the Jets if Winnipeg can maintain control of the second wild card. There has been quite a bit of turbulence for the Jets recently, as their .476 points percentage since Feb. 1 is worst among all teams holding a playoff spot right now. But at least they come into the weekend winners of two in a row.

San Jose at Calgary
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET / 1:00 p.m. PT

This might be it for the Flames in our playoff pushes if they lose this game to San Jose and others around them reel off some wins. Every game from here on out is must-win for the Flames, who could be facing a summer of immense top-down change if they stay on this track.

[brightcove videoID=6323191332112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Vegas at Edmonton
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. PT

Despite some potentially concerning underlying numbers, the Golden Knights have found positive results and at 9-2-0 have the league’s second-best points percentage since the trade deadline (trailing the Kings). The third-best NHL team in that span are, you guessed it, the Edmonton Oilers, who are 8-2-0 since adding Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bjugstad. It’s a heated chase for the division title and this game has huge implications for it. Vegas netminder Logan Thompson returned to the net for Thursday’s win in Calgary, but was injured again and will sit Saturday. Jonathan Quick is expected to make his seventh start since being deal to Vegas. With a .908 save percentage in that span, he’s still allowed three goals or more in five of his six previous starts.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.