Making Sense of the Eastern Conference Wild Card Picture

The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 on Friday to stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff push with just one game left in the regular season.

At least for right now.

With their second victory in as many nights, the Lightning have made things pretty interesting in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as teams enter the final two days of the NHL’s regular season.

But as the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare for a home matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, they still control their own destiny.  Then there’s the New York Islanders — a team that’s still in contention with two games left despite a roller coaster season of their own.

It’s been a wild one for all three of these teams, no doubt.

Whether it was the Lightning’s constant battles against injury after injury, the Islanders opting for a head coaching change midseason or the Maple Leafs’ rookie rebirth — each of these teams has taken quite the path to get to this point with just two days to go.

When the regular season opened on Oct. 12, could anyone have predicted it would be these three teams battling it out down to the wire for the final playoff spot in the East?

Not a chance!

But this is reality on April 8. So with that, let’s take a look at the short road ahead for each of these clubs.

Toronto Maple Leafs — 93 Points (80 Games)

This is the Maple Leafs’ playoff berth to lose — literally.

After falling to the Lightning on Thursday and then watching them beat the Canadiens on Friday, the Lightning have put the pressure on them.

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calder Trophy
Mitch Marner (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

But even with the added stress of knowing the Lightning are on their heels, the Leafs need just two of four possible points in the next two games to clinch.

They have their first chance to do it when they host the Penguins on Saturday. The Pens enter the contest boasting a four-game win streak — a span that has seen them outscore their opponents 18-10 and beat two playoff-bound teams in the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Leafs are unable to grab a point against Sidney Crosby and Co., they have a second bite at the apple when they play the Blue Jackets on Sunday. Despite their dominant regular season, the Blue Jackets have been stone-cold of late. They have dropped five straight and have picked a bad time to stop scoring, having tallied just nine goals in that span.

Both of the Leafs’ opponents have the ability to beat them but at the same time, Toronto has a healthy Frederik Andersen despite the team’s struggles the past two games.

You’d have to think that if the Maple Leafs can’t manage to scrap two points with two chances, that this just isn’t the year for their return to the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning – 92 points (81 Games)

If there’s a team that is heating up right now, it’s the Lightning.

Despite injuries to a handful of key players — including captain Steven Stamkos — the Lightning have buckled down a bit over the past couple of months to put themselves in this position.

Victor Hedman (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Make no mistake, they’ve played some bad games over that stretch but that happens. If they aren’t able to pull this off when the smoke clears, going 0-3 during a three-game homestand in March will be one of the “what if’s” in a season of them. Especially if they fall a point or two behind.

But now isn’t the time for looking back.

The Lightning are getting big time performances from their star players — Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. But it hasn’t stopped there. Rookie Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde — a player who began the season with two career NHL games to his name — have both come through on the score sheet. The Lightning’s call-ups from the Syracuse Crunch have been adding a geat level of depth and helpd pull them through games. And on top of all of this, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing lights out.

Yanni Gourde (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Friday’s game against the Canadiens was a great example of this. Vasilevskiy nabbed back-to-back wins for the first time in seven tries. Kucherov tallied his 40th goal and an added an assist while Hedman logged better than 28 minutes for the second time in as many nights. Palat and Point each registered assists, and Gourde tallied his third and fourth goals in his past six games.

If the Maple Leafs fail to earn at least two points over their next two games, the Penguins on Saturday, the Lightning will host the Buffalo Sabres with a chance to put themselves in a playoff position with a win.

New York Islanders — 90 Points (80 Games)

And then there’s the Islanders.

A team that was considered to be down and out when they fired head coach Jack Capuano earlier this season has quietly made themselves a playoff contender with two games left.

Jaroslav Halak (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But the Islanders are winning when it counts and are entering Saturday’s road contest against the New Jersey Devils with four straight victories.

What’s even more impressive is that the last three have come without captain John Tavares, who has been out with a lower-body injury.

The Islanders are riding the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak who has been beaten just four times in four games.

If the Islanders can get past the Devils with two points on Saturday (and the Leafs lose in regulation too) the Islanders will face the playoff-bound Ottawa Senators with a chance to make some noise. At that point, if (there’s a lot of if’s here) the Leafs lose again in regulation and the Islanders beat the Senators they will pull off what was once unthinkable.

Closing Thoughts

It’s been one heck of a ride in the East this regular season and a playoff race down to the wire is a fitting way to end it.

Brayden Point (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The Maple Leafs play two good teams to close out their regular season, even if the Blue Jackets are struggling. The Lightning play a Sabres team they’ve beaten three times in three meetings this year. Then there’s the Islanders, who have the most favorable opponents, despite being in the worst position at this point.

Talk about a toss-up!

My gut tells me the Islanders will split games over the next two (or more importantly, not take four total points), taking them out of contention. The Lightning will beat the Sabres to end the regular season. They are playing with something to prove right now and with a group of call-ups doing the same — and it’s working. What the eighth place in the East will ultimately come down to, however, is whether or not the Leafs can manage a combined two points in two tries.

Going pointless in those two games would be surprising, but then again, few things haven’t been that way in the East this season!