The trade deadline has now past, what little dust was kicked into the air has now settled, and we have officially entered the stretch run of the regular season. With fewer than 20 games remaining for the majority of the teams, fewer than 10 points separate the sixth-place Chicago Blackhawks and the 13th-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference. No team is really out of the Eastern Conference, officially anyway, as the last-place Montreal Canadiens are only 10 points back of the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets. The Washington Capitals are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing their best to enter the postseason for the first time since 2004.
But perhaps one of the more intriguing races to watch in the final quater of the season is the battle between three Atlantic Division teams, the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, for the fourth, fifth and sixth seeds in the East. Entering Monday night’s games, the Penguins occupy the fourth spot with 77 points, two more than the Flyers and three over the Devils. Neither team can be counted out to win the division, but barring a major collapse from the New York Rangers in the final month, they should remain safely on top. The Ottawa Senators are also tied with the Devils in points, but that three rivals are so close in the standing and flip slop in the standings seemingly after every game will make the remainder of the season very exciting for the fans of those teams.
The remainder of the schedule makes for a close finish. The Devils will play the Flyers and Penguins twice each, with one game at home and one on the road against both. The two Pennsylvania teams have three remaining however, two of which will be played in Pittsburgh including the tilt on the final day of the regular season. The Devils and Penguins are currently playing well, each have 6-3-1 records in their past 10 games, but the Flyers have been struggling with porous defense and inconsistent goaltending and are only 4-5-1 in that span. The Ottawa Senators may be tied with the Devils, but the fact those three teams have such a disdain for each other will keep fans interested in that storyline.
While all three teams are going to do their best to secure the fourth seed and claim home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, it may just be the team that finishes sixth that has the advantage. That team will face the winner of the Southeast Division that, whether it be the Florida Panthers or Washington Capitals, will have earned fewer points in the standings by season’s end and will only hold home-ice advantage by virtue of winning the division. The Capitals struggle in the playoff in the best of years and the Panthers haven’t won a playoff game since 1997, so that series shouldn’t prove to be too difficult.
Meanwhile the first round will be a battle between the teams that get the fourth and fifth seeds. Two rivals going at it in the first round is likely to take a major toll, leaving whichever team that is able to scrape by tired and beat up headed into the second round. Familiarity breeds contempt and not only are these teams close in proximity to one-another, fewer than 400 miles separate the three teams, but they have seen a lot of each other in the playoffs since 2000. The Devils and Penguins have faced off once, in the 2003 Eastern Conference final, but the Flyers have played the Penguins and Devils three times each in that span.
Regardless of which team finishes finishes in each position, the first round is going to be a battle between the fourth and fifth seeds. This is one race where the team that finishes lowest just may come out to be the winner, not only avoiding going through a rival in the first round, but facing a team that may just make the playoffs by default.