When one looks at the bunched up Eastern Conference standings, there are 13 teams vying for the eight playoff spots as of January 15, 2020. The only team with any kind of comfortable lead is the Washington Capitals who own a four-point lead over the approaching Pittsburgh Penguins. The Eastern Conference playoff race is tightening up as teams scramble for a position as if it were a horse or car race.
The Western Conference is also very tight, and was covered in another article. Be sure to give it a read.
Eastern Conference Playoff Race Is Really Tight
As of this writing, the Carolina Hurricanes with 56 points hold a slight wild-card lead over the Philadelphia Flyers with 54 points. Following them is a large group of teams who still have a shot at playing in the postseason. The Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, and Montreal Canadiens are all still in the running… at least mathematically.
Many factors including injuries, trades, players in slumps or hot streaks will factor into which team finishes where. One thing is certain… the race is really getting interesting! As an NHL fan nothing can be more exciting than to follow your team at or near playoff time to see where they end up.
Another factor to consider is games played at this point of the season. Both the Panthers and Rangers hold games in hand to get a wild-card spot with virtue of having only played 45 games thus far. That gives them anywhere from a one to two games in hand situation… which can be critical as the season progresses.
Washington Capitals (31-11-5, 67 points)
The Washington Capitals have been cruising right along in first place but all of a sudden have teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders breathing down their neck. The Pens are just four points back with one game-in-hand. The Islanders are seven points behind but have three valuable games-in-hand. The Caps have slowed down of late going just 5-5 in their last 10 games. They still have Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson who are tearing it up on the score sheet.
Pittsburgh Penguins (29-12-5, 63 points)
The Pens have survived and survived very well without Sidney Crosby and most recently Jake Guentzel both being injured. It just displays the terrific depth this team possesses. So, when Sid returns against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, will the team continue to win? That was answered with a resounding… YES. He tallied one goal, three assists in his debut since his injury. They have won four straight and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. They seem to thrive on disparity and show it every game they’ve won without key players in the lineup. Look for them to challenge the Capitals for the top spot in the Metro Division.
New York Islanders (28-13-4, 60 points)
The Isles have regressed recently going just 5-4-1 in their last 10 games. This team is superb with the second best defence in the NHL. The issue is their scoring is deficient ranking 22nd in the league. If they could score more with their stingy defence they’d be really difficult to stop. They can make some ground on the Penguins and Capitals with their three games-in-hand in the bank. The Hurricanes are only four points behind the Isles, so it’s getting very close.
Boston Bruins (27-9-12, 66 points)
The Boston Bruins are trailing the Capitals by just a single point. While they have the most regulation wins with 24, they also retain the most overtime losses with 12. They are not adept at shootouts too without one single shootout victory to their credit. All of that doesn’t seem to matter since the Bruins will be a Stanley Cup contender this season. Opposing teams have a struggle being able to stop David Pastrnak who has an amazing 36 goals, 30 assists in 48 games. Add in Brad Marchand with 20 goals, 43 assists and you have a scoring machine capable of dominating most teams.
Tampa Bay Lightning (28-14-4, 60 points)
Everyone was expecting the Tampa Bay Lightning to go on a run, and they have done exactly that with 10 of 11 wins lately. They’re back in the race again to be a top Eastern team. Some of their resurgence must be credited to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. He now has a 23-9-2 record with a 2.58 goals-against-average while carrying a .916 save percentage. They have two games-in-hand on the Bruins so they can catch up further with some luck. But this team doesn’t need luck, it has talent and that will carry them forward.
Toronto Maple Leafs (25-16-6, 56 points)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have done much better with Sheldon Keefe at the helm as evidenced by the Leafs 16-6-2 record since he took over. With Auston Matthews showing he is a premier player in the league with 34 goals, 23 assists in 47 games. That doesn’t mean they will not fall from the guaranteed position of being third in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers are three points behind the Leafs with a handy two games-in-hand to help them. It seems that the Leafs need to get some breathing room to lock themselves in a playoff spot and they have yet to do that.
Carolina Hurricanes (27-17-2, 56 points)
The Hurricanes have not taken charge of gaining any ground with just a 5-5 record in their last 10 games. The Flyers are only two points back of the Canes and things are getting very tight and urgent for them to stay ahead of the pack. Carolina has proven to be a resilient team and they will be in the hunt for a playoff spot even if it is a wild-card spot. They have two excellent goalies and with a .910 save percentage and a 2.62 goals-against-average. They have a balanced attack with a good offence and an even better defence. They also just signed Justin Williams, so we’ll see what he can add to the team’s success.
Philadelphia Flyers (24-16-6, 54 points)
The Flyers are showing they don’t plan on falling from grace in the Metro Division. They recently lost defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere to knee surgery and he will be missed for several weeks. That could affect the Flyers chances to stay in the playoff picture. The Flyers won a tough game against the Bruins in a 6-5 shootout win on Monday night and need to keep in the winning column to stay in the playoff picture.
Columbus Blue Jackets (23-16-8, 54 points)
The Blue Jackets have been hanging around and still have a legitimate shot to be playing in the playoffs. They’ve been decimated with injuries and expect Cam Atkinson back soon as he is listed as day-to-day. The Blue Jackets have the third best defence in the NHL, and need to score more to really be able to make ground and stay in playoff consideration. They rallied of late with a 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games. If they can keep it up they could cause some headaches for teams trying to pass them.
Florida Panthers (24-16-5, 53 points)
The Panthers can be in the playoffs. It would be an advancement they’ve been striving for and a return to the postseason for the first time since the 2015-16 season. That season they accumulated a stellar 47-26-9 record good for 103 points. While they may not get to that total this season, they remain a quality team who can really be a tough playoff team to beat. Now if they can get Sergei Bobrovsky going in net, they will be much better off.
Buffalo Sabres (21-19-7, 49 points)
The Sabres must live with the fact that over the last two seasons they have started like gangbusters only to fall apart. They are still in the hunt, but need to show some consistency to be to finish in the top eight teams. With stars like Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin they would do well by allowing those two players to do what they do best… score and defend. The Sabres fans will be very frustrated if they don’t get to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Patience is a word the Sabres fans know well.
New York Rangers (22-19-4, 48 points)
The Rangers are riding the wave of one Artemi Panarin who has 26 goals, 41 assists to lead the team’s offence. But he has some help in Anthony DeAngelo who has really rallied to show his offensive skills with 11 goals, 25 assists. While they remain six points out of a wild-card spot, they can get back into the playoff realm of teams by putting some wins together.
Montreal Canadiens (20-20-7, 47 points)
The Canadiens are hanging on even though they have not been playing well at all lately. They survived an eight-game losing streak and have won two straight to get back on track a bit. They were very close to making the postseason last year just missing it at the very end. This season they have tried to get to that point again but have been inconsistent. General manager Marc Bergevin has tried to fortify the team by adding Marco Scandella and Ilya Kovalchuk to his forward lines. We’ll see if that helps him or not.
Now, this is a playoff race. Even though there are still 34-37 games left to be played by the above-mentioned teams, the race remains close. Any set of factors can change that. Who will come out of the pack of 13 in the Eastern Conference playoff race to be able to go for the coveted Stanley Cup hardware?
Follow it all here. We will cover all the action and if your team doesn’t make it… there’s always next season.