Everyone loves a race with a good photo finish.
It’s because of the thrilling sensation of tight races that go down to the wire that the time between February and April is usually one of the most exciting periods of an NHL season.
Fans of most teams will vividly remember at least one season where their squad was caught up in a tight playoff race. Whether narrowly on the inside or the outside of a playoff spot, or fluctuating back and forth between the two, suddenly you find yourself closely watching conference games that you normally wouldn’t, checking the NHL standings online on a daily basis, and deciding whether a 13.4% mathematical chance of making the postseason is worth holding out hope for.
For fans of many teams in the Eastern Conference, however, this year’s playoff race is going to be a lot less eventful than usual. As of February 8th, the top eight teams in the conference are firmly holding onto playoff positions, without many challengers behind them and in a spot to uproot someone. In other words, the eight playoff teams in that conference are practically set already.
The likely playoffs teams in the East are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, currently in that order. The Bruins are holding the 8th and final postseason spot with 63 points, while the closest teams behind them are the Florida Panthers with 57 points and then the Philadelphia Flyers with 54.
To be fair, the Panthers and the Flyers aren’t technically, mathematically, eliminated from the playoffs yet. That being said, though, the numbers don’t paint a pretty picture. According to this handy chart from the website Sports Club Stats, the Bruins have an 87.9% chance of making the postseason, while the Panthers are at 11.2% and the Flyers at 5.1%
But, if we’re to be totally honest about the situation, the Panthers and Flyers’ chances are a lot worse than that.
The Bruins struggled to start the season, compounded largely by a knee injury to captain and defensive wall Zdeno Chara and some unusually lackluster play from Tuukka Rask, one of the best goalies in the league. Those two situations have recently changed, however, with Chara returning to the lineup and Rask once again regularly sporting save percentages north of .930.
It’s no surprise, given those circumstances, than the Bruins have looked great lately and have gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. If anything, the Bruins are only starting to speed up, not slow down.
With all due respect to the Panthers, this year is not their year. The team has a bright future ahead of them thanks to budding young stars like Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Barkov, but their roster as a whole is significantly lacking in both talent and depth. Florida is only in the race at all, really, thanks to some heroic goaltending from Roberto Luongo. It’s within the vague realm of possibility that Luongo plays the best stretch of hockey of his entire career and steals the Panthers enough points to pass Boston, exacting some personal revenge for the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals (seriously, imagine that happening), but anything less than that and they don’t get in.
The Flyers have a handful of fantastic pieces, including two of the league’s top forwards this year with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, but their roster has too many holes right now to put it all together and make a historic run to the playoffs. They’ve been a discombobulated team for most of the year, and if they haven’t really “clicked” by this point they’re probably not going to at all this season.
It wasn’t always expected to be this way, as there were many other teams that had realistic postseason aspirations heading into the season. But the Columbus Blue Jackets became an infirmary ward, the New Jersey Devils’ forwards were too old and their defense was too young, the Ottawa Senators couldn’t scrape together enough pennies, and the Toronto Maple Leafs…well, where do you even begin with that mess?
Now, all of this isn’t to say that things are totally wrapped up in the East. The eight teams may be decided, but how those slots from 1-8 get filled is still up in the air. Who will finish 1st in the conference? Will we see another classic bout between the rival Canadiens and Bruins in the opening round? Will the Islanders’ Cinderella season continue long enough for them to maintain home ice advantage? For fans of these teams things are still very much heating up.
For fans of the others, though, it’s going to be a long, boring march towards the summer.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL