2020-21 NHL Playoffs: Down the Final Stretch

Teams in contention for the four playoff spots in each of the four NHL divisions have between eight and 13 games left to play. The final push for not only the playoffs but also playoff positioning is in full swing. Only one of the divisions seems to be pretty well set for the postseason, but even that group might see some turmoil down the stretch.

2020-21 NHL Playoffs: Divisional battles for 1st and 4th playoff spots.

As a refresher, this unique (we hope) 2020-21 season consists entirely of intra-divisional play: each game is between teams in the same division. In effect, that means that each game is a “four-point” game – every game your team wins puts it that much closer to the top while at the same time keeping the losing team farther away. This season also magnifies the importance of the “loser point,” that point awarded to a team for losing in overtime or in a shootout. Those four-point games that don’t end in regulation time become five-point games, and the victor only pulls one point ahead of the vanquished rather than two.

Related: 2020-21 NHL Playoffs: Paths to the Postseason

Remember, too, that the first two rounds of the playoffs will be within each division: The no. 1 team plays the no. 4 team, and the second and third-place teams face each other. With the stark difference in each division between the top three teams and the teams trying to earn that fourth spot, finishing first offers a much better opening-round matchup. (Well, at least on paper – remember that in the 2018-19 playoffs, the regular season record-tying Tampa Bay Lightning were ousted in a four-game sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who barely made it into the playoff pool).

The Scotia North Division

Let’s start with what looks like the most settled division, with apparent jockeying for home ice between the second and third-place teams. (But appearances can be deceiving.)

First Place Faceoff

The Toronto Maple Leafs have 10 games left and a four-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets (who have 11 games left) and are up five points on the Edmonton Oilers (11 games remaining). The Maple Leafs have only three games against the other top teams (three vs. Winnipeg), but also four games with the Montreal Canadiens, who are currently fourth in the division. The Jets have those three games with Toronto but also have a pair against Edmonton and one with Montreal. The Oilers may have the easiest schedule remaining, with five games against the Vancouver Canucks, two vs. the Calgary Flames, and two at the Canadiens.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs’ leading goal scorer, Auston Matthews. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That leaves the Oilers with seven games (and a possible 14 points) against teams not currently in playoff positions. Montreal has five games against teams not now in playoff positions, and Winnipeg has four. If Edmonton and their superstar pair of Connor McDavid and Leon Draistaitl continue to roll, Toronto’s five-point cushion could flatten.

Fighting for Fourth Place

A glance at the North Division standings seems to show the Canadiens solidly in the fourth and final divisional playoff spot. But a closer look shows that it’s not a lock. Montreal is six points up on the Flames and a seemingly huge eight points ahead of the Canucks. But the Canadiens have won only four of their past ten games and have played five more games than the Canucks (6–3–1 in the past 10 games).

Bo Horvat Vancouver Canucks
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks’ captain. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Of Montreal’s 12 remaining games, seven are against the top three teams in the division. Seven of Vancouver’s 17 games (remember that the team had to pause due to positive COVID tests) are against the top three. Calgary’s schedule may actually determine the fate of the fourth playoff spot in the North Division: three games in Montreal starting Friday and a season-ending four-game matchup with Vancouver.

The MassMutual® East Division

Right now, the East Division is tight at the top and seemingly set at the bottom. Three teams are jockeying for first place, and the gap between fourth (the Boston Bruins) and fifth (the New York Rangers) seems insurmountable.

First Place Faceoff

The Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins all have 10 games remaining. Washington and New York have 62 points, and Pittsburgh is only one point behind. Take another look at the East Division standings on the morning of May 2, and you might find some clarity. The Capitals play three games against the Islanders, followed by a pair against Pittsburgh between now and then. The results of those five games may make or break Washington’s hopes for first place.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Superstar Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders have a three-game matchup with the Capitals, six games against teams not in playoff position, and they end the regular season with a game against the Boston Bruins (as do the Capitals, just not on the same night). (from ‘Let the NHL playoff seeding push begin: Isles begin three-game series with Capitals,’ Newsday, 04/21/2021) The Penguins have two more games in their current three-game set with the New Jersey Devils. (The first of the three was record-setting, with the Penguins being the first team in NHL history to win while surrendering six goals in the third period.) They then have a pair of games against the Bruins, then two with the Capitals. After that, the season winds down with four games against non-playoff teams.

All three teams are playing reasonably well over their past ten games: Washington is 6–4–0, the Islanders are 7–3–0, and Pittsburgh is 6–3–1. This is also a good place to refresh your memory on tie-breakers. Since all three teams will have played the same number of games at the end of the regular season, points percentage is moot. The next tie-breaker is regulation wins. Washington has 24 to Pittsburgh’s 22 and New York’s 21. The third tie-breaker, regulation and overtime wins, also have the Capitals one game up on the Penguins and two on the Islanders.

(Not) Fighting for Fourth Place

The Bruins have a six-point lead on the Rangers and have played two fewer games. With a record of 26–12–6, their winning percentage is .659, while the Rangers’ 23–17–6 record gives the team a .565 winning percentage. (The Philadelphia Flyers are a distant sixth, 11 points behind the Bruins, with a .522 points percentage and a record of 3–4–3 in their most recent 10 games.) Both teams have four games remaining against the division’s top three teams, but it would be very exciting if the fourth playoff spot came down the final two games of the season when the Bruins and Rangers meet head-to-head.

The Honda® West Division

It looks like a two-horse race for the top spot in the Honda West Division, with the fourth-place spot going to whichever of two teams can avoid shooting itself in the foot too many times. One bit of trivia about the West Division: right now, it’s the only division with more than two teams with points percentages below .500 – it has four.

First Place Faceoff

In The Hockey Writers 10 weekly Power Rankings of the top 13 teams in the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights have polled as high as first and never lower than seventh. The Colorado Avalanche started this season’s rankings, bouncing from sixth to not-ranked and back to sixth. Until recently. Over the past three weeks, Colorado has finished third, first, and first again. (Over that stretch, Vegas dropped from first to seventh, then back up to fourth.) The Minnesota Wild are not out of the race yet but are far enough behind to make reaching the division’s top a bit of a dream. That’s especially true with Vegas (9–1–0 in their last 10 games with an eight-game winning streak) and Colorado (9–1–0) both scorching hot right now.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon currently leads Colorado Avalanche in points. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Vegas has played 46 games, has 68 points, and a winning percentage of .739. Colorado has played 43 games, has 64 points, and a winning percentage of .744. The Avalanche also have one more regulation win. (Minnesota has 61 points in 45 games and a winning percentage of .678). Expect this to be a two-team battle for first in the division. The Golden Knights and the Avalanche go head-to-head for a pair of games next week. (That should be more exciting than this year’s outdoor game at Lake Tahoe.) Both teams also have three games remaining against the teams duking it out for the fourth playoff spot in the division, the St. Louis Blues and the Arizona Coyotes.

Fighting for Fourth Place

The Coyotes currently sit in fourth place in the division, having played 46 games and earned 45 points. The Blues have played 43 games and earned 44 points. But neither team is looking good right now. Arizona’s points percentage has fallen to .479 after going 3–7–0 in its last 10 games. Meanwhile, St. Louis has a 10-game record of 3–6–1, but a points percentage of .512.

Ryan O'Reilly St. Louis Blues
Ryan O’Reilly, since promoted to captain of the St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Schedule-wise, the Coyotes are in the catbird’s seat, with one game against Minnesota and a pair versus Vegas remaining. St. Louis’ remaining schedule is much tougher: The Blues start a two-game series against the Avalanche this evening (with one additional game to be rescheduled), followed by four against the Wild. Their schedule also includes two games against the Golden Knights and one more with the Wild. That’s 10 of their remaining 13 games against the top three teams in the division. And did I mention that the Blues record over the past 10 games is pretty lousy? Yup, I did.

The Discover® Central Division

With three teams vying for the first playoff position and three going for the fourth, the Central Division might be the fun one to watch down the stretch. For several weeks, the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and the Tampa Bay Lightning have been juggling for position at the top. In the middle of the division, the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and Chicago Blackhawks all have legitimate shots at the final playoff slot. (The Blue Jackets were also in the mix a month ago, but since then have a record of 2–12–2, dropping them to dead last in the division.)

First Place Faceoff

Let’s look at the numbers:

  • Carolina Hurricanes: 45 games played, 65 points, .722 points percentage, 6–2–2 in the past 10 games.
  • Florida Panthers: 47 games played, 65 points, .691 points percentage, 6–3–1 in the past 10 games.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning: 46 games played, 62 points, .674 points percentage, 5–5–0 in the past 10 games.

Now let’s take a look at the remaining schedules. Carolina has a pair of games at Florida and seven of their remaining nine against teams fighting for the fourth spot. Florida hosts the Hurricanes for two games, has five games against teams vying for fourth in the division, then ends the season hosting the Lightning for a pair of games. (The Panthers have no games remaining against division doormats Detroit and Columbus). Tampa Bay has two games with Columbus, two with Detroit, three with Dallas, one with Chicago, and then that season-ending pair at Florida. If not for first place in the division, that Lightning-Panthers matchup could be for opening-round home ice.

Fighting for Fourth Place

With 48 games played, Nashville has 52 points and a .542 points percentage. Dallas is two points behind and has played three fewer games, with a .556 points percentage. Chicago has played 47 games, earned 49 points, and has a points percentage of .521.

Filip Forsberg Nashville Predators
Rookie Filip Forsberg leads the Nashville Predators in scoring. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The over-achieving Blackhawks trail in points and have a tough schedule ahead, but don’t count them out. Six of the remaining nine games are against the top three teams in the division, and the remaining three are against Nashville (one) and Dallas (two, to end the regular season). The Stars also play six more against the top teams and four with their competitors for the final playoff spot, but also have two games with Detroit. Nashville not only has the lead right now among the three teams, but it also has the easiest schedule: four games against top teams, one more at Chicago, one with the Stars, and a pair against the lowly Blue Jackets. It looks like fourth place is Nashville’s to lose, but stay tuned!

Watching Those First Place Pushes

Remember that in the first round of the playoffs, the top seed in each division plays the fourth seed. With each of the divisions top-heavy with three teams playing substantially better than the others, that top spot means a matchup with a team owning a much worse record. The second and third-place teams in each division likely will be pretty evenly matched in terms of regular-season records. The no. 2 vs. no. 3 first-round series may be dogfights, and I would not be surprised to see any of them go a full seven games.

The survivor of that first-round matchup then likely faces what a top-ranked team that probably had a much easier (and perhaps much shorter) opening round. Winning the top spot in each division could be the difference between being well-rested and exhausted for the second playoff round. And a victory in that second round moves that team into the Stanley Cup semifinals.

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