Stanley Cup Playoff Push: Can Canadiens catch struggling Jets?

canadiens-suzuki-petry

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki, left, celebrates his goal against the Winnipeg Jets with teammate Jeff Petry during third period in Montreal on Friday, April 30, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

It’ll be as busy as it can get on the NHL schedule Saturday, with 15 games on the docket. Since every team in the NHL (except Vancouver) has eight games or less left in their regular seasons, each game now is like a playoff game for those still without an “x” beside their name, or jockeying for position and, maybe, a better Round 1 matchup.

To help give you the full picture of what can be accomplished this weekend and which games specifically have the most meaning, here’s our latest look at the playoff picture.

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NORTH DIVISION

If the season ended today…

(1) x-Toronto vs. (4) Montreal
(2) Edmonton vs. (3) Winnipeg

What the playoff race looks like…

Are we going to get Leafs-Habs or not?

The talking point at the bottom of the playoff picture is shifting again, but now it’s about what’s going on inside of it.

Two weeks ago we wondered if the Flames, clinging to hope, still had a shot. They had a lot of ground to make up but also had five head-to-head games against Montreal, the team they were chasing. Well, even though Calgary went 3-2 in those games, it wasn’t enough and making up six points in seven games the rest of the way now is a near-impossibility.

Any combination of eight points gained by Montreal or lost by the Flames in this remaining stretch will mathematically eliminate Calgary.

Instead, the Canadiens are now looking up.

With the Winnipeg Jets sliding on a three-game losing skid, the Canadiens have third place within their sights. The two met on Friday, a 5-3 Canadiens win, bringing Montreal within four points of the Jets with a game in hand. Winnipeg is off until Monday, but the Canadiens get Ottawa at home Saturday night. Montreal is 3-3-2 against Ottawa this season, so it’s not as though this is going to be an easy game, especially on the second half of a back-to-back with Cayden Primeau starting.

After Saturday night, the Habs will finish with three games against Toronto, two against Edmonton and one more against Ottawa over the next week and a half to wrap their season. Winnipeg gets two against Ottawa, two against Vancouver and one each against Calgary and Toronto. We’ve been tracking toward our first Leafs-Habs playoff series since 1979, but now we could get another standings shift.

Other important upcoming games…

• The Canucks actually have better playoff odds than Calgary even though they’re technically at the bottom of the table right now. But those are fading as the expected effects of fatigue could be seen on this week’s three-game losing skid. The Canucks’ narrow path back into fourth place will depend on Montreal finishing cold and how they do against the Oilers. That’s who Vancouver will play four times next week. But first up are the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, a team that has already clinched and is taking the opportunity to rest some players.

CENTRAL DIVISION

If the season ended today…

(1) x-Carolina vs. (4) Nashville
(2) x-Florida vs. (3) x-Tampa Bay

What the playoff race looks like…

Why Saturday brings Dallas’s biggest game of the season

Lurking in the weeds with games in hand all season long, the Dallas Stars now have a similar schedule to all those around them the rest of the way. They only have one game in hand of Nashville, the team they’re chasing and playing against Saturday night.

It’s the last time Dallas will go head-to-head against the Preds, who they are 3-0-4 against this season. Two of those wins came in the first two games of the season and, really, it’s been a nail-biter of a series ever since.

As you can tell by the record, there’s been a lot of extra time played between these two. Four of their past five meetings have gone to overtime or a shootout. Five of the seven games they’ve played all season have been decided by a goal.

The result of Saturday’s game could wildly swing the playoff race in either direction. If the Stars lose in regulation, they’d be left with a “tragic number” of six, meaning any combination of six points gained by Nashville or lost by Dallas would end the Stars. A Stars win in regulation would leave the two tied in points, with Dallas having one game in hand.

The Stars do not play another game at home and will be spending the next two weeks on the road against Florida, Tampa and Chicago. Nashville will set off to Columbus for two games against the listless Blue Jackets this week and then wrap up at home against top seed Carolina.

Other important upcoming games…

• Although Nashville or Dallas (whoever finishes fourth) may hit the playoffs on a high note, that would still be a preferred first-round series instead of having to play Tampa, or Florida for that matter. Carolina put themselves in great position to claim the top seed (and thus avoid those two in Round 1) when a recent eight-game run against Florida, Tampa, Dallas and Nashville resulted in a 5-0-3 record. They haven’t lost in regulation since April 12 against Detroit.

But there is still work to be done. The Canes face Columbus (1-7-2 in their past 10) on Saturday and, while Florida and Tampa both have to face Dallas and then each other down the stretch, the Canes will get three home games against Chicago (4-5-1 in their past 10) this week. That’s where they could pull away and clinch top spot.

• Tampa has the best shot to catch the Canes, but there’s not much room for error so the back-to-back games they have against Detroit this weekend will set the tone for the coming week. The Lightning will then have two games against Dallas this week, which will be hugely important in deciding that last playoff spot in the division, and could also influence the top of the table.

EAST DIVISION

If the season ended today…

(1) x-Washington vs. (4) Boston
(2) x-Penguins vs. (3) NY Islanders

What the playoff race looks like…

Can the Islanders break their slump and bury rival Rangers?

For most of the season, the N.Y. Islanders have firmly been in the contender conversation. And they’re probably still there because “defence wins championships” and that’s their biggest strength. Still, you’d like to go into the playoffs on a high note, and the Islanders have been heading in the opposite direction for some time.

Since captain Anders Lee was lost for the season to injury, the Islanders are 27th in 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage, 21st in 5-on-5 shots for percentage and 21st in offence. They dropped three in a row to Washington and two in a row to Boston over the past two weeks.

At the same time, they’ve still managed a very low 2.33 GAA over this stretch, the third-best mark in the league. And they’ve handled the Rangers with two wins against them in the past week and a half by an aggregate 10-1 score and get them again on Saturday night.

Another win and, maybe, it’ll help the Islanders gain some momentum as they face a relatively soft schedule the rest of the way. The Islanders will face Buffalo and New Jersey this week, with still a shot at top spot in the division, or at least Round 1 home-ice advantage (whatever that means this season).

An Islanders win would also all but end the Rangers, who have been hanging around the playoff picture with a valiant effort but victimized by Boston’s post-deadline hot streak. The Rangers were 10-4-2 in April but are still six points out of the playoffs. A regulation loss Saturday combined with a Bruins regulation win against Buffalo would leave the Rangers with a “tragic number” of one.

Other important upcoming games…

• Saturday’s Pittsburgh-Washington game has major implications for the race for first in the division. It’s the last time the two will meet in the regular season, and follows Pittsburgh’s 5-4 OT win on Thursday. After Saturday, the Pens wrap with two games each against Philadelphia and Buffalo this week, while the Caps get the Rangers (2), Flyers (2) and Bruins (1) in their final five. Washington has that game in hand, so the Penguins can’t surrender any points. Alex Ovechkin, who missed Thursday’s game and hasn’t played since April 22, returned to practice Friday.

WEST DIVISION

If the season ended today…

(1) x-Vegas vs. (4) St. Louis
(2) x-Colorado vs. (3) x-Minnesota

What the playoff race looks like…

Are the Blues peaking at the right time?

The Blues are 7-3-0 in their past 10 and have created a lot of space between themselves and the Arizona Coyotes for that fourth spot. They’re up by just three points, but have three games in hand. The race isn’t officially over, but we can start thinking about how the Blues will match up against Vegas or Colorado in Round 1.

You want to hit the playoffs on a high note (and the last time the Blues did that they went on to win the Cup), but is this hot run a result of some vastly improved play? Nine of those 10 games came against Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota, with the other against Arizona. No soft touches. But what do the numbers say?

Just in their past 10, the Blues are 20th in 5-on-5 shots for percentage and 29th in expected goals for percentage but have outscored their opponents by six in that situation. The team’s shooting percentage has been 10.09 (third-best) and save percentage .931 (ninth-best). Both are well above where they rank in those stats on the season.

Jordan Binnington is having his best month and, really, if he carries that into the post-season he’ll be the X-Factor that could help the Blues overcome some of their underlying number indications. The Blues haven’t suddenly regained some lost magic but are finding ways to win against their top opponents, and that means something this time of year when every post-season sample size (max of seven games) is small.

Other important upcoming games…

• The Coyotes are more or less going to have to run the table. Since standing pat at the trade deadline because they were in control of the race, Arizona is 3-6-0 and the two games dropped to San Jose this week were devastating to their hopes. The Coyotes got an Adin Hill shutout against Vegas on Friday and will face the Golden Knights again Saturday with Darcy Kuemper likely in net. Then they get two at home against Los Angeles and two more back on the road in San Jose to wrap their regular season at the end of next week. Going perfect the rest of the way is doable, but a tall, tall ask. And even that won’t guarantee anything.

• The Avs snapped a three-game losing streak Friday when Philipp Grubauer thankfully returned to the net and immediately posted a shutout. But if they’re going to come back on Vegas and pass them for first in the division, Devan Dubnyk ultimately has to do more. He’s the likely starter Saturday against his former San Jose Sharks team but has an .887 save percentage since the trade. The Avs also have back-to-backs against the Kings next week and then again the week after to end their regular season, so Dubnyk has a few more projected starts ahead. If he doesn’t improve, not only will the Avs miss out on the top seed, they may end up behind the Wild in third.

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