Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Race to the NHL Playoffs Begins Now

By Martin Banks

Now that the All-Star Game is over, NHL teams and fans are looking ahead to the playoffs. We now know which teams are a sure thing and which don't have much of a chance. There are still also a lot of "middle of the pack" teams whose seasons could go either way.

The wild race to the playoffs is underway. Here's a look at how things are shaping up.

How Many Teams Will Make It?

Sixteen teams will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first 12 teams that make it will be the top three in each division. Based on regular-season record and regardless of division, the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference will take the remaining four spots. It's possible for the wild cards to come from the same division, so if you're a team in the middle of the road, you're just focused on points as much as possible.

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay, with their 37-11-2 record and 76 points, has a massive lead in the Atlantic. The Lightning making it is about the only sure thing in the Atlantic, though. Toronto is next in the standings with 62 points, Montreal is just 1 point behind them and Boston has 59 points. Any of the three could take second place. The Buffalo Sabres have 54 points and are a bit of an underdog, but a wild card spot could be in their future if some of the other teams falter.

Metropolitan Division

The Metro has been wild all year. The Capitals had a strong start to the year, erasing any thoughts of a cup hangover, and the Penguins looked lost. Now those roles are reversed. The New York Islanders are, unexpectedly, leading the Metropolitan division with a 29-15-5 record and 63 points. This is their first year with Barry Trotz, who led Washington to the Stanley Cup last year as their head coach. They also added goaltender Robin Lehner, who leads the league in save percentage, this year.

Pittsburgh and Washington are currently in the next two spots, both with 27-17-6 records and 60 points. Columbus follows closely behind with a 28-19-3 record and 59 points.

Eastern Conference Wild Cards

Outside of the top three teams in the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, Montreal is in the top spot with a 28-18-5 record and 61 points. Columbus follows closely behind. If Toronto, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Washington don't get a top-three spot, they're the next contenders. Carolina has a shot at a wild card spot, but likely won't be in the top three in their division.

Central Division

Winnipeg and Nashville are well ahead of their competitors in the Central division. Winnipeg has a 33-16-2 record and 68 points, and Nashville has a 30-18-4 record with 64 points. Whoever finishes first could get home-ice advantage in a Jets/Predators division final. In the next spots are Minnesota, Dallas, and Colorado. Any one of the three could foreseeably win one of the top three spots. The Aves are dropping fast after a surprising start, and need to regain their early season magic if they want a chance.

Pacific Division

The Pacific division is more or less decided, with Calgary, San Jose and Vegas poised to take the top three spots in an uncertain order. Calgary is currently in first place with a 33-13-5 record and 71 points. San Jose has a 29-16-7 record with 65 points, and Vegas has a 29-19-4 record with 62 points. Vancouver, which is in fourth place, is 10 points back. The top brass at the Oilers predicated a late season comeback, but since they've lost 5 in a row since, that seems unlikely.

Western Conference Wild Cards

Minnesota, Dallas, and Colorado could all end up in a wild card spot if they don't take No. 3 in the Central division. Vancouver is tied with Dallas and Colorado with 52 points. Anaheim is just a point back with 51, followed closely by Arizona, St. Louis, and Edmonton. It's hard to imagine any of these teams getting very far in the playoffs, though, once they make it.

It's an exciting time for the NHL. The sport seems to be getting more popular, especially with young fans. It's also safer to play and witch with added safety measures such as netting in the rinks, new helmet and visor rules, and more. And with a dud of a Super Bowl for the NFL, football fans may look to the NHL to get some excitement.

The race to the playoffs is on. There are a few teams that are all-but-guaranteed to make it, but much of the standings are still waiting to be decided. It's going to be a wild ride.

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