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Wild-Card Roundup: Blue Jackets, Wild heating up at the right time

A look at the wild-card races in the Eastern and Western Conferences with four weeks remaining in the NHL season.

Roughly four weeks remain in the campaign, but that still leaves plenty of time for movement in the Eastern and Western Conference wild-card races. Who’s sitting pretty in the final month and which teams are falling out of contention?

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

Columbus Blue Jackets
36-28-5 — 77 pts.

This time last week, the Blue Jackets were on the outside looking in, but big results across a five-day stretch did wonders for Columbus. They first defeated the Sharks, then dropped the Golden Knights, continued on with an overtime victory over the Avalanche and then kept their streak alive by defeating the Red Wings on Friday. The four-game mini-tear has propelled Columbus to the top wild-card spot in the East. The added bonus is it seems the offense has found some life as the Blue Jackets have scored 16 goals in four games.

Remaining Schedule: 13 games
Average Opponent: 72.6 points

New Jersey Devils
34-25-8 — 76 pts.

It’s a good thing New Jersey fans had Taylor Hall’s remarkable point streak to distract them from the fact that, while the Devils are currently holding down a playoff berth, they have dropped four of their past five and allowed other wild-card contenders to get back into the race. It’s not as if the Devils’ schedule is about to get any friendlier, either. Beginning Saturday, New Jersey embarks on a six-game road trip that takes them through Nashville, Vegas, all of California and ends with a contest in Pittsburgh. Oof.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent: 80.1 points

OUT:

Florida Panthers
33-25-7 — 73 pts.

Having a few games in hand on other Eastern wild-card contenders gave the Panthers the opportunity to make a move and Florida has made the most of it with seven wins in their past eight games and points in all eight of those contests — the lone blemish was a 5-4 overtime loss to the Presidents’ Trophy-race leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The great news for Cats fans is that Florida hasn’t even eaten up all its runway: the Panthers still have at least three  games in hand on every Eastern team in the wild-card hunt and their opponents have the second-lowest point average. That’s a big deal at this time of year.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games
Average Opponent: 72.6 points

Carolina Hurricanes
30-27-11 — 71 pts.

Much was expected of the Hurricanes this season. All right, maybe they were never pegged to actually challenge the Pittsburghs and Tampa Bays of the East as a true Stanley Cup contender, but the playoffs were supposed to be on the horizon. Now that they’re in question, though, Carolina has gone ahead and — ahem — “promoted” now-former GM Ron Francis to a new post. The thing is this team can still make the post-season: the Hurricanes have the weakest schedule of any wild-card contender based on average points. The problem is they have to make up some ground as they’re five points back of the second spot.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent: 71.9 points

New York Islanders
29-29-10 — 68 pts.

There’s no easy way to put this, so let’s steal a move from the Seinfeld playbook and rip this bandaid right off: the Islanders have bottled this entire thing. Once a Metropolitan contender, New York has almost fallen to the point of no return after one of the most ill-timed losing streaks of the season. Losing a few games in a row wouldn’t have been ideal, either, but their eight-game tailspin has nearly sunken them to the point of no return. They have a game in hand or two on a few opponents, but if they can’t correct their defensive issues in short order, it’s not going to matter much. In all likelihood, the Islanders won’t appear on this list next week.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent: 75.4 points

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

Minnesota Wild
39-22-7 — 85 pts.

Minnesota has been one of the league’s hotter teams in recent weeks, and Eric Staal has had a major hand in the Wild’s success, but keeping it going is going to be difficult given the brutal schedule that lies ahead. Minnesota has two games to go against the Predators, Kings and Stars, not to mention meetings with the Golden Knights, Bruins and Ducks. The Wild have only two contests down the stretch — against the Coyotes and Oiles — where they should be odds-on favorites. Minnesota will be happy they picked up points in bunches where they could, because things could very well get dicey near the end of the campaign.

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Remaining Schedule: 13 games
Average Opponent: 79.6 points

Anaheim Ducks
34-23-12 — 80 pts.

The Ducks have done well to make up ground and they could continue to do so in the coming week, especially with a set of five games against teams — the Blues, Canucks, Red Wings, Devils and Flames — that are no better than wild-card contenders. Then, after a battle against the Jets, coach Randy Carlyle’s club faces two more lottery teams in the Oilers and Canucks (again). That’s a friendly stretch and one that could allow Anaheim to get themselves off this list by moving past the San Jose Sharks for second place in the Pacific Division.

Remaining Schedule: 13 games
Average Opponent: 72.3 points

Dallas Stars
38-24-6 — 82 pts.

The Stars have had some difficulty getting hot and staying hot of late. Since early February, when a five-game winning streak came to a close, Dallas has traded wins and losses fairly consistently. The Stars are still right in the thick of things in both the divisional and wild-card race, though, and if they can find a way to string together a few victories at the right time, it could be just enough to power them into the post-season. Unfortunately, anything Dallas accomplishes from here on out will be without the services of Martin Hanzal, who is set to undergo back surgery and will be sidelined for six-to-seven months.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent:78.4 points

Los Angeles Kings
37-25-5 — 79 pts.

Purely on strength of schedule, the Kings should have the second-best shot at moving into a wild-card spot and that would see Los Angeles secure their first playoff berth in two seasons. The difficulty, however, is that there are several key games against teams who are as desperate for points as the Kings. Eight of their final games come against opponents in one of the wild-card races, and those teams — especially the Avalanche, Ducks and Flames — will pull out all the stops to ensure Los Angeles skates away with nothing.

Remaining Schedule: 16 games
Average Opponent: 73.2 points

OUT:

Colorado Avalanche
35-24-8 — 78 pts.

It’s difficult to find any reason not to pull for the Avalanche as they get closer to a playoff berth. Sure, they might make for some early playoff fodder for a top team such as Nashville, Winnipeg or Vegas, but Colorado’s bounce back after the unmitigated disaster of last season is one of the great stories of the season. That said, it’s not going to be an easy journey for coach Jared Bednar’s squad. Four remaining games are against the Golden Knights and Kings, while the Avalanche will also have to pick up points against the Blues, Ducks, Sharks and Wild. Nathan MacKinnon has made a Hart case all season, but this would be the ideal time for him to really solidify his bid.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent: 77.3 points

Calgary Flames
34-25-10 — 78 pts.

There are two ways to look at the Flames’ remaining schedule. The positive outlook is that Calgary is set to square off against six non-playoff opponents in their final 13 games, and having half the remaining slate against teams outside of playoff contention means entering several contests as the favorite. The glass-half-empty view, though, is that the other seven games include six games against divisional opponents who would love nothing more to ensure Calgary doesn’t see the post-season this campaign. Add in the uncertainty about when No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith will return and it could be tight for the Flames.

Remaining Schedule: 13 games
Average Opponent: 74.5 points

St. Louis Blues
35-27-5 — 75 pts.

Trading away Paul Stastny at the deadline was a sign of the times in St. Louis, but it wasn’t exactly a death knell for the team. The Blues still had an outside shot at making it to the post-season given the talent on the roster. With the loss of Jay Bouwmeester for the remainder of the campaign and the injury to Joel Edmundson, though, St. Louis isn’t in a great situation. Making matters worse is that Carter Hutton, who has been fantastic for the Blues, is out with a neck injury and Jake Allen hasn’t been able to find any consistency this season. The run of six-straight playoff appearances is in jeopardy, and not the Alex Trebek kind.

Remaining Schedule: 14 games
Average Opponent: 79.5 points