The NHL’s current regular season has approximately two months left to go, and there are many teams that, absent some calamitously unfortunate event, are all but assured of making the playoffs.
In all four of the league’s divisions, powerhouses like Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers, Calgary, Carolina and Toronto all have played well enough in the first two-thirds of the season to be confident they’ll be part of the league’s 2022 post-season. The NHL’s current regular season has approximately two months left to go, and there are many teams that, absent some calamitously unfortunate event, are all but assured of making the playoffs. In all four of the league’s divisions, powerhouses like Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers, Calgary, Carolina and Toronto all have played well enough in the first two-thirds of the season to be confident they’ll be part of the league’s 2022 post-season.
However, that’s less than one-quarter of the 32-team NHL that has some degree of certainty in their status as a playoff team. There are other teams at the opposite end of the win/loss spectrum: sad-sacks in Arizona, Montreal, Chicago, expansion Seattle, San Jose, Ottawa, Buffalo, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New Jersey are going to be on the outside of the playoff race looking in when all is said and done. That’s another 10 teams whose destiny is apparent at this stage. That leaves a little less than half of the league’s franchises whose play in the next eight weeks will determine their standings place by April’s end.
If you’re wondering what those 10 non-playoff teams are going to be playing for in the final third of the schedule, the answer is simple: they have the chance to play spoiler, in some cases determining whether an opponent makes the post-season, in other cases helping to decide whether a playoff team secures home-ice advantage. Teams including the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights, and Edmonton Oilers all are trying to nail down a top spot in their respective divisions, and teams below them in the standings can still hurt their efforts in that regard.
That leaves a few select teams – the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets – who’ll more than likely be finishing in the mushy middle of the league. But all of those teams will have a unique challenge in their remaining games this year: showing their fans there’s a decent talent base on which to build their future starting next season, and doing so by unexpectedly taking down some clearly superior opponents and thwarting their Stanley Cup aspirations this year.
But ultimately, there’s roughly half the league that currently has nothing left to lose. This is why you’ve recently seen sad-sack lineups in Arizona, Montreal and Columbus play looser and more comfortable, and as a result, reel off a string of wins. The Blue Jackets have won seven of their past nine games. Arizona has beaten the Avs, Stars and Golden Knights in the past month. The Canadiens are on a four-game win streak, including victories over the Leafs and Blues. The Devils recently have beaten the Penguins and St. Louis. The Sens have beaten the Wild and Capitals in the past two weeks.
Teams that shouldn't beat anyone other than other bad teams are pulling off small upsets, and by the time the playoff race is over, those one or two losses may be the difference between making and missing the post-season, or between a wild-card berth and a top spot in their division. So, these little losses can add up to something agonizing by the time they’ve played 82 games.
That’s what’s going to bring a little bit of schadenfreude-y joy into the lives of fans of non-playoff teams in the coming months. They won’t have much to cheer for once the post-season begins, but they can be happy knowing that, despite the depressing reality, their favorite team did not lay down and tap out to Cup frontrunners. And they can have some genuine hope for the 2022-23 campaign.
The pill to swallow will be bitter for most non-playoff teams, but their woes earlier this season have put them in unenviable, unavoidable positions. The task now for their GMs and head coaches will be to build something resembling positive momentum and make their fans forget about the nightmares that have plagued them this year.