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NHL Wild Card Race in the East Likely Down to Final Three

With one week to go in the regular season, the Stanley Cup Playoff picture looks clearer and clearer. In both conferences, teams secured six of the eight postseason berths. The remaining four slots likely belong to teams that will finish the season in the NHL Wild Card positions. These spots wind up squaring off against the league’s division champions. So, though they aren’t the most ideal seeds, for the teams left in the hunt, they mean more than anything. After all, qualifying for the NHL postseason remains a major benchmark between the league’s haves and have-nots in any given season. And with the parity today in the salary cap era, anyone can win it all. “Just get in” is a mantra every hockey fan utters at one point or another.

Eastern Conference Wild Card Race – Two Spots, Three Contenders

In the eastern conference, four teams remain in contention for the last two playoff berths. Unfortunately for Buffalo Sabres fans, their chances faded after a regulation loss to the Florida Panthers. They likely need to win out their final five games, and even then, still need the three they trail to stumble in their final three. More later on why that looks so unlikely to happen.

For the three ahead of Buffalo, the season will come to a disappointing end next week. The Eastern Conference NHL wild card race realistically narrowed down to the Panthers, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins. At the moment, Florida owns the top wild card slot, followed by the Islanders. Those two sit tied in points, but the Panthers own the tiebreaker (regulation wins) by one game.

The Penguins sit on the outside looking in, but only trail the two others by a single point. They need to clear one of the others in points too, as they trail both in the first tiebreaker by a margin too wide to close. All three teams have three games left on their schedules too.

Case #1: Florida Panthers Get In

Florida currently owns all tiebreakers over the Penguins or Islanders, though the Isles could actually gain ground there if Florida winds up needing overtime in some of these final contests. While tiebreakers are great to have in the back pocket, none of the Panthers want to push their luck to that extent. The best part about their position is the fact that they control their own destiny outright. Simply put: win and get in.

One win probably won’t be enough, though. The Islanders and Panthers both own extremely favourable schedules to wrap-up the year. New York hosts the Flyers Saturday, then travels to play the Capitals Monday, and wraps up at home against the Canadiens Wednesday. Those three all have nothing left to play for as non-playoff teams.

The Penguins, too, have to love their final games. Saturday against the Red Wings, Tuesday against the Blackhawks, and Thursday against the Blue Jackets also leaves them with three non-playoff teams to play. If anything, the Hawks and Jackets have reasons to want to lose, as they fight for better odds at the first overall draft pick this summer. While some squads battle for the NHL wild card race, plenty others battle for the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. It’s a unique season.

Florida’s Path to a NHL Wild Card Berth

So while their adversaries play games against teams that might want to tank more than play spoiler, Florida has no such luck. They visit the Capitals Saturday, and then go home to host the Maple Leafs Monday and the Hurricanes Thursday. At least those tougher games both come on home ice, and perhaps the Leafs will be resting players since they’re locked in as the second seed in the Atlantic Division already. The Hurricanes remain in a battle for the Metropolitan Division though, so surely Florida will hope that race wraps up before their season finale matchup with Carolina.

Regardless of the motivations of all these opponents, Florida needs to maintain that “win and get in” mantra. If they take care of business, then nothing the Isles or Pens accomplish will matter. Thankfully for them, they’re playing their best hockey of the season right now too.

Entering play Saturday, Florida rides a season-long five-game winning streak. Alex Lyon became a surprise story in net, after taking over for an ill Sergei Bobrovsky. If he and the guys in front of him all maintain their play, this team could do plenty more damage than just squeaking in to the postseason. Florida is exactly the type of team no one wants to draw as their NHL wild card matchup in round one.

Case #2: New York Islanders Get In

So, in fairness, both NHL Wild Card Case #1 and #2 can occur together. The same will be true for #3. Two of the three must happen, and one must not. That’s math, baby.

Anyhow, the Islanders control their own destiny in the same way Florida does, just with a fraction less certainty. Instead of holding control over both wild card spots, they only have Pittsburgh’s number across the board. They could still catch Florida too. The Isles rely more heavily on their goaltending than either the Pens or Cats do, making for an altogether different matchup.

Islanders Recipe for Success

Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov remain arguably the best tandem in the NHL, while Sorokin looks set for a Vezina nomination himself.  They don’t possess anyone like Matthew Tkachuk in Florida, or Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Instead, they deploy a “win by committee” group, supported by elite goaltending. That bodes well against weaker opponents, too. The scoring should come easier, and the opportunities against should be fewer and farther between.

But, how it will play out remains to be seen. Some goalies perform better when their workload stays consistent throughout a game. Maybe their recipe works against them in these final contests.

Case #3: Pittsburgh Penguins Get In

Despite sitting in the “worst” position of these clubs, the outlook truly isn’t that bad. They play the easiest set of three teams out of the group. They still boast superstars in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang with all the experience in the world. Heck, they ride the longest playoff qualification streak in the NHL too, so a wild card berth shouldn’t be so daunting.

Yet, here we are. Maybe this finally marks the end of an era. Their long-time arch nemeses, the Washington Capitals, already fell from grace with their mathematical elimination from the race a few games ago. Could both Crosby and Ovechkin be entirely absent from the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2005-06?

Penguins Need Some Help to Reach NHL Wild Card

The clearest path to keep their playoff streak alive requires some help. Though Florida sits in the top NHL wild card seat, they may be the team to catch. Their matchups against the Leafs and Hurricanes, out of all the three team’s combined nine contests, rank as the toughest. None of the other seven come against playoff teams.

While Pittsburgh cheers for anyone playing against both Florida and New York, they also must handle their own business. Unfortunately, they aren’t really on their game at the moment, floundering back and forth between the win and loss columns. The opportunity remains in their hands, but between their own inconsistency and already needing some help to boot, they have an uphill battle.

NHL Wild Card Prediction

Anything can happen. After Saturday, when all three teams play their 80th contest, the ranking could be completely different. Pittsburgh might be the top wild card team with a win and some help. The Islanders might fall out, or even the Panthers could go from the driver seat to the back of the bus.

All that aside, based on recent performance its hard to bet against Florida. Sure, they have some tough games left to play. But, they also went 11-4-1 in their past 16 games. Their five game winning streak has them outscoring teams 24-7, and it started with a victory over the Leafs too.

Between the Isles and Pens, it can go either way. Again, recency bias gives the Islanders the edge. Pittsburgh simply isn’t playing their best hockey right now, so even getting in likely just means an easy out for their opponents in round one. Surely, the top seeds would rather face a struggling Penguins team than a Panthers team that had to surge for the last month just to have a shot to squeak in.

Main Photo: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports


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