The Blackhawks didn’t have far to go to look like a playoff lock, but their play in February served notice that they’re title contenders again.
Each month is an end and a beginning for each NHL team. String a few good months together and it probably means a playoff berth. A couple bad months though and that’ll cost you.
Every month we like to highlight three teams that are trending up and three teams that are trending down to get a better sense of the landscape of the league. These aren’t your typical trends citing best and worst records in the league because those things can be fickle over a single month of hockey.
Instead we’ll dig a bit deeper towards each team’s underlying numbers. We’ve got a projection model that assesses each player’s value that’s updated daily throughout the season that can estimate point projections and playoff chances. It’s based on the past three seasons of a player’s Game Score and it’s what we used for season previews for each team as well as our brand new playoff chances page. These posts are a way to check in with how teams have progressed, comparing how good they were projected to be at the start of February and how that’s changed since.
Here’s which teams are playing better and worse over the last month, as well as a look at the current projected playoff picture.
Rumors of Chicago’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and they were an absolute juggernaut in the month of February. They had the league’s sixth best expected goal rate at 54.6 and second best Corsi at 55.3 percent and when you combine that with elite netminding you get one scary team. It wasn’t like this all year for the Hawks though as they struggled to control the game territorially like they did in previous years. My model liked them more than most analysts given the talent they had on their team, but their underlying numbers still looked questionable. Not anymore as it seems they’re finally playing up to their ability. They’re top 10 for Corsi now after this terrific month and with their superstars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, heating up big time, it sure looks like Chicago just might contend for another Cup this season.
What a month for the Flames. They won eight of 11 and catapulted themselves into a near lock for a playoff spot after hovering around the bubble all year. They jumped up 60 percent this month alone to 90.9 percent and look almost certain to make it to the dance. It’s really been an incredible run for them. They had the eighth best Corsi for the month and are starting to find their way toward the upper half of the league. Game Score thinks they’re an average team at this point in the season and while they’ve been consistently in that range, it’s good to see the results begin to follow. It was also impossible to ignore the monumental leap in playoff likelihood here. Big credit goes to Brian Elliott who has taken the starting reigns and is looking more and more like the goalie he was in St. Louis last year. Since the start of February he’s rocking a .927 save percentage, a big step up from his disastrous start. With the team finally getting capable goaltending it’s no wonder they’re getting wins.
The Predators started the month projected for about 93 points and they end the month projected for about 93 points. But even without much movement in the standings the team looks much scarier lately and it’s mostly thanks to their top end players. Filip Forsberg was a beast in February, as were his linemates Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen. Together, the trio forms one of the league’s best lines and they’re the engine propelling this team forward along with defenders Roman Josi and PK Subban who were also very impressive last month. Four of those guys were among the best players for the month according to Game Score while Subban just barely missed the cut. The Predators appear to be on a crash course for a first round date with the Blackhawks again and while that matchup looks tough with Chicago’s recent great play, they should be able to keep it close. Chicago has always had the edge in starpower, but with the way these five have played, Nashville should be able to match up better than they ever have before.
It’s not often that a team that managed a 10 game winning streak earlier in the season shows up on this side of Three Up/Three Down, but here lie the Flyers. Philadelphia has to be one of the most disappointing teams this season after finishing last year with such promise and limping to the end of this one. Goaltending has killed this team, but they haven’t scored much in 2017 either and they’ve looked awful as a result. They’ve dropped big in my model since the start of the season, but especially this month (though some of that is from trading Mark Streit). Go down the lineup and there’s not one player who’s exceeded expectations, but there’s a lot who’ve disappointed greatly. It’s worse at the top where Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek have been really quiet of late after a torrid start to the season. If those guys can’t get going soon this team doesn’t have much hope of making the playoffs, and their chances already look pretty dire.
It’s probably a bit unfair to put the Canucks here as they’ve mostly exceeded expectations all season and are coming off a back-to-back sweep on the weekend over the Kings and Ducks, but the wins are about to get tougher. They’re a little weaker now after dealing Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen and they weren’t very strong to begin with. For February, the team was the league’s third worst team by expected goals, ahead of only the Red Wings and Coyotes. Not good company to be in. For a while it looked like the team might have a chance to squeak into the playoffs somehow, but that dream is pretty much dead now as they sit with less than a one percent chance of making it. It’s impressive they managed 28 wins this season up to this point, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they don’t manage many more from here on out.
Los Angeles Kings
This is not where a team like the Kings usually ends up for these posts as it’s about the process more than results, but sometimes it’s too hard to ignore. The Kings got Jonathan Quick back and added Ben Bishop to the fold while also acquiring Jarome Iginla to replace Dwight King, so on paper they’re looking a lot better. Their Corsi is as good as it’s ever been and they should be better going forward, but the wins still haven’t been there. That should change soon, but their playoff position has become more precarious by the minute, especially with the Flames surging up the standings. They looked pretty safe going into February with an 80 percent chance, but now they sit at just over 64 percent with the Blues right there ready to fight for what will likely be the final wild card spot. It seems to be the same story every year for the Kings who like making the regular season as interesting as possible, but at some point they have to start putting some wins on the board.
The Playoff Picture
We’re in the final month of the season and it’s pretty much do or die for a lot of teams right now. If a team is in a spot, they’re pretty much set – though there are a couple spots still open. By my count, there’s one spot open in the West and two in the East.
While some teams look like they’re only a few points out (see: the entire Eastern playoff picture), their chances may not be all that great given how talented their team is and the strength of their upcoming schedule. Based on the games that have already been played, and what we think is likely to happen over the next 15 games, here’s how the playoff picture shakes out. (A reminder that you can now find these updated daily at THN.com/playoffs).
Please note: 100% doesn’t mean clinched and 0% doesn’t mean eliminated. They mean the teams made it into the playoffs in almost every simulation except in less than 0.5 percent of cases.
The West appears like it’ll come down to Los Angeles or St. Louis, with both Calgary and Nashville looking relatively safe, barring a monumental collapse. The Blues currently hold down the final spot by one point, with a game-in-hand to boot, but Los Angeles is more likely to make it here because the model believes they have a stronger team. The Blues’ defense looks much worse after trading Kevin Shattenkirk and their forward group didn’t look too sterling to begin with. The Kings have depth issues, but their high end talent trumps the Blues – they just need them to come around.
The East is much more interesting. With a win over Boston Monday night, the Sens are into virtual lock territory at 90 percent and are extremely likely to make the playoffs now. That’s a big rise from where many thought they’d be at the start of the season. Boston slipped after the game, but they’ve been streaking since the firing of Claude Julien and they are pretty safe, especially considering they’re one of the strongest teams in the East.
Realistically, there’s one spot available and it’s going to come down to the Leafs, Islanders, Panthers, or Lightning. The Flyers could make things interesting, but probably not. The Islanders are in possession of that spot now, but the other three teams are all stronger and should surpass them over the next 15 games. It’ll be extremely close though as three teams sit between 90.3 points to 91.5 points, while the Lightning are just on the outside with 88.4. That’s without an eventual Steven Stamkos return too, so if he gets back quickly, that race is going to be a fight to the very end.
Virtual Locks (90 percent or more): Minnesota, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Columbus, Chicago, Rangers, Montreal, Edmonton, Anaheim, Calgary, Ottawa
Safe Bets (70-90 percent): Nashville, Boston
Squeaking In (50-70 percent): Los Angeles, St. Louis
On The Bubble (30-50 percent): Toronto, Islanders, Florida,
Fighting For Life (10-30 percent): Tampa Bay
Pretty Much Out (10 percent or less): Philadelphia, Winnipeg, Carolina, Dallas, Buffalo, Vancouver, Detroit, New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado.