Who’s In and Who’s Out in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Playoff Race?

Ryan Miller Sabres
(Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

By Bob Mand, Contributing Editor

The NHL regular season ends on April 7, less than a month away. With three postseason spots up for grabs in the East, who will make it in?

There are five teams in the Eastern Conference who are, for all intents and purposes, locks to make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Rangers, Bruins, Penguins, Flyers and Devils. Each of these teams has at least a nine-point edge on the teams in ninth and below and (barring some cataclysmic Mayan apocalypse) should see postseason hockey.

Likewise there are three squads with virtually no chance of qualification: The Islanders, Hurricanes and Canadiens. While not mathematically eliminated, these three would have to run the table or be the recipients of outstanding fortune to even have a shot at late-April hockey.

That leaves seven teams who currently sit ‘on the bubble’ for the final three postseason berths in the East. Going by the current point totals, it’s time to break down the playoff chances of the East’s postseason contenders:

Ottawa Senators:

35-25-8, 78 points (68 games) – Currently Seventh

The Sens are all but locks. With an eight-point edge on the ninth-seeded Caps, Ottawa has the inside track on one of the final three spots. The next weeks will be critical for the Sens, who’ll play the Conference-worst Habs three times – which could be a great opportunity to solidify their position.

The fact that every team has at least one game-in-hand on them gives pause and prevents them from treading into absolute ‘lock’ status. Ottawa also has the second-worst defense among playoff hopefuls. Additionally, Craig Anderson’s Home Ec. foul-up has forced the Sens to count on the young Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop to netmind their drive to the spring.

When it comes down to it, the Sens will be among the sixteen who’ll vie for Lord Stanley’s hardware one month from now. They have a solid edge in points and a truly dynamic offense that will be enough to secure the seventh seed for Ottawa.

My Postseason Verdict: IN

Estimated Postseason Odds: 10-1 in Favor

Florida Panthers:

31-22-12, 74 points (65 games) – Currently Third (Southeast Div. Leader)

Don’t be fooled by the Panther’s ‘third’ position – it’s only because of their status as leaders of the Southeast Division that they currently are lined up for home ice in the first round. Still, the Cats should see their first postseason hockey in over a decade because of a significant four-point edge over the current also-rans and games-in-hand over every one of their rivals.

In their next seven games, the Panthers will face the Flyers (twice), the Bruins and the Penguins – along with two games against playoff hopefuls Toronto and Buffalo. It’s critical that they come out of that stretch neck-and-neck or better than their rivals because their next six games (all against teams who will not make the playoffs) will give them the opportunity to re-open or extend their advantage. Their minimal regulation plus overtime win total (ROW) is alarming and could prove costly if they end the season tied with a rival.

For a franchise that hasn’t seen late-April action since the spring of 2000 (and hasn’t earned a postseason victory since 1997), the Panthers should find themselves ending both of those streaks come the end of the regular season.

Verdict: IN

Postseason Odds: 3-1 in Favor

Winnipeg Jets

32-27-8, 72 points (67 games) – Currently Eighth

The Jets currently sit in the East’s final playoff spot in their first year of (re-) existence. The ‘Peg holds a two-point advantage on both Buffalo and Washington and trails the division-leading Panthers by two. Because they don’t have games-in-hand on any of their rivals (and are giving up games to Tampa, Florida and the Caps) their situation is more than a little tenuous. The fact that they trail both D.C. and T.B. in ROW’s is troubling.

Blake Wheeler Jets
Blake Wheeler (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

However, with only one regulation loss in their last nine, the Jets look to be clicking on all cylinders with their playoff hopes on the line. Blake Wheeler’s emergence as a first-line offensive talent (54 points in 65 games) has highlighted their recent push.

Still, while it would make for a great story (and trouble for any team headed into the eternally-raucous MTS Centre), the Jets play nine of their next fourteen on the road – where they’re one of the worst teams in the League. Only three of those games are against teams out of the playoff hunt, and they play several against some of the League’s best. Jets fans will have to wait ‘til next year.

Verdict: OUT

Postseason Odds: 2-1 Against

Washington Capitals

32-28-6, 70 points (66 games) – Currently Ninth

Even without their top center, Nicklas Backstrom – sidelined indefinitely due to a concussion, the Capitals were supposed to have the firepower to contend with the best of the East. Without their customarily-robust offense and a minus-thirteen goal differential, the four-time defending Southeast Division Champions are on the outside looking in and could very easily fail to qualify for the postseason.

Despite their struggles, the Caps have the opportunity to get themselves into the playoffs. With a game-in-hand on the Jets, Washington will play the northwestern-most Southeast Division squad twice more before the year is up. However, they play the majority of their remaining games on the road and are one of the few teams in the East with a worse away record than Winnipeg.

There’s no doubt that the Caps have a very good shot to put themselves into the postseason at this juncture. However – one could have said that at any point in the second half. They haven’t been able to put together an emphatic run yet – and it’s hard to imagine them doing so now.

Verdict: OUT

Postseason Odds: 3-2 Against

Buffalo Sabres

31-28-8, 70 points (67 games) – Currently Tenth

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve personally counted the Sabres out. Five games under .500 in late January and frequently lifeless performances warranted that kind of assessment. Before the All-Star break, Ryan Miller looked pedestrian – since then he’s been outstanding: 11-3-3 with a 1.84 GAA, a .939 Sv% and four shutouts. With sixteen points in their last ten games, the Sabres have capitalized on the recent inconsistent play of many of the contenders and sit just a scant two points beneath eighth-place Winnipeg.

The Sabres are a team with many flaws, no doubt. They own a bottom-five offense and a defense that rates well into the bottom-half of the League. Buffalo has a mediocre penalty-kill and a worse man-advantage. Their secondary scoring is forgettable and occasionally non-existent. With nine of their fifteen remaining games on the road, they will be put to the test.

Still, there’s a reason so many picked this squad to challenge the Bruins in the Northeast. With a defense anchored by Regehr and Meyers (and Miller) and a talented group of forwards, the Sabres are better than their record (or stats) indicate. They appear to have put it all together (finally) and while the odds are still against them – look for the Sabres to continue their impressive run into April.

Verdict: IN

Postseason Odds: 6-1 Against

Tampa Bay Lightning

31-29-6, 68 points (66 games) – Currently Eleventh

Steven Stamkos (Icon SMI)

The Bolts, like the Sabres, have benefited from an outstanding recent run to push themselves back into postseason contention. Winners of seven of ten (and 14-6-2 in their last 22) the Lightning sit four back of Winnipeg for the final spot. Lead by a recent otherworldly performance by Steven Stamkos (16 goals and 29 points in 18 post-All-Star games) as well as Martin St. Louis’ continued excellence (12-12-24 in 21 games), the Lightning are charging hard for a shot at the postseason.

Unfortunately for Tampa, their squad rates as the worst defense in hockey, allowing 3.38 goals per game. They’ll also be without several key players for the remainder of the regular season, including captain Vinny Lecavalier. They get to play the Jets twice more this year but will also have to face the Bruins twice, the Blues, the Devils and the Flyers – it won’t be an easy row to hoe.

The Bolts simply don’t have the goaltending or defense to get them over the hump. Unless Stamkos and St. Louis continue to put up beyond-Hart-worthy numbers, Tampa won’t see any action past April 7.

Verdict: OUT

Postseason Odds: 8-1 Against

Toronto Maple Leafs

30-30-7, 67 points (67 games) – Currently Twelfth

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Leafs were as high as seventh in the East as recently as the first of February, and days later they sat eight games over .500 with a 27-19-6 mark. A little over four weeks later and a 2-11-1 stretch that followed has them clinging – just barely – to their playoff lives. Both their defense and offense failed them during this run – averaging 3.86 goals against and 2.36 for in the fourteen-game stretch.

While the door might be closing on the Leafs, it hasn’t slammed shut yet. The firing of Ron Wilson and hiring of Randy Carlyle may have come too late, but the Leafs have games against every one of their major rivals for the eighth spot (save Winnipeg) including two against Buffalo and Tampa.

The loss of Joffrey Lupul for the rest of the regular season is a devastating blow. The Leafs were heavily reliant on their offense (in particular the Lupul-Phil Kessel combo) to drive their success. They remain one of the worst defensive teams in hockey and have to climb over too many competitors to reach the postseason in the era of the three-point game. Leaf fans will be disappointed for yet another season.

Verdict: OUT

Postseason Odds: 15-1 Against