The Eastern Conference playoff race – which some of us a couple months ago thought wouldn't be much of a race at all – got a lot tighter after the events of Thursday night. (The Western Conference playoff race did, too. But that's another story for another deadline.) The Washington Capitals pulled out a crucial 5-4 shootout win over Montreal that pushed them out of the first wild card berth and into second place in the Metropolitan Division; the Caps were able to vault that high because the New York Islanders only got one of two points out of a 4-3 shootout loss to Columbus; the Boston Bruins won their fourth straight and pulled even in points with Detroit by beating the Red Wings 3-2 in Joe Louis Arena (Detroit, who has a game in hand, remains in third place in the Atlantic Division); and the Ottawa Senators clawed their way to a 2-1 overtime win over Tampa Bay to remain three points behind the Bruins (and now the Wings) with five games left to play.
At the end of the evening, only three teams in the East (Montreal, Tampa Bay and the Rangers) had locked up a playoff berth. Otherwise, the post-season picture is muddier than ever, with six teams within six points or fewer of one another. There's still a possibility the Pens or Red Wings miss the playoffs, which would've seemed nearly unthinkable a few weeks back. And that's why the schedule each team has left to play is so important: a handful of games against soft-touch teams would seemingly be a blessing, but not every team still in the playoff hunt is blessed in that regard. Let's look at the schedules of the six teams (sorry, Florida) still aiming to lock up one of the five open playoff spots and see who has the toughest road ahead:
Washington Capitals (96 points, 43-25-10) – The Caps have four games left on their schedule, and none are easy. They host Ottawa and Detroit for back-to-back games this Saturday and Sunday, then finish the year on the road with games next Wednesday against Boston and Saturday against the Rangers. Three of those four teams are battling with them for a playoff spot, and considering that all three Metro Division teams that haven't locked up a playoff spot all have the same number of regulation or overtime wins (38), Washington will want to avoid shootout wins whenever possible.
New York Islanders (96 points, 45-27-6) – Compared to the Capitals, the Isles have a relatively easy go of their final four regular-season games – at least, at first glance. They host the Buffalo Sabres this Saturday, head out for road games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh next Tuesday and Friday, and conclude the year with a Saturday game against Columbus. Three of those four opponents aren't playoff contenders, but the Sabres have won two in a row, the Blue Jackets have won eight straight, and they've also got to play the increasingly desperate Penguins. This could get more uncomfortable than Isles fans would prefer.
Pittsburgh Penguins (95 points, 42-24-11) – The banged-up Penguins have five games left, and unfortunately for them, the first one comes on the road (where they're just 19-11-7 this year) against that Blue Jackets buzz saw Saturday. Pittsburgh then: travels to Philadelphia to play the Flyers the next day; takes on the hungry Senators in Ottawa Tuesday; hosts the Islanders Friday; and finishes the year in Buffalo Saturday. If they had already qualified for the playoffs, the Pens might be shutting down Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin the rest of the season. As it stands, they can't afford to.
Detroit Red Wings (93 points, 40-24-13) – The Wings have overachieved in the eyes of some this season, but a 3-5-2 record in their past 10 games has put them in danger of being passed by the Bruins and slipping into a wild card spot, if not out of the playoffs altogether. Two of their five remaining games are against the lowly Hurricanes (at home next Tuesday and in Carolina next Saturday), and they'll need to take advantage of them, because the other three games are against the Wild (in Minnesota this Saturday), the Caps (in Detroit on Sunday) and the Canadiens (in Montreal Thursday). Hurry back, Pavel Datsyuk.
Boston Bruins (93 points, 40-25-13) – – Boston has been able to stave off the charging Sens by beating the Rangers, Canes, Panthers and Wings in their past four games, but they've still got work to do to avoid the ignominy of winning the President's Trophy one year and missing the playoffs the following season. They have just four games left, and only the first one – when they host moribund Toronto this Saturday – seems to be a sure thing. The rest are all road games – Wednesday and Thursday against Washington and Florida, and Saturday against the Lightning – and did we mention Boston's road record this year is just 17-15-6? Don't start chicken-counting quite yet, Bruins fans.
Ottawa Senators (90 points, 39-26-12) – The Sens have five games remaining, and they may need to win at least four of them to grab a playoff spot. They host the Capitals Saturday and travel to Toronto to play Sunday, then host Pittsburgh Tuesday before playing their final two games on the road (Thursday against the Blueshirts and Saturday against the Flyers). Two of those teams need wins in the worst way, a third is arguably the best squad in the league, and the Leafs took Ottawa to overtime last Saturday and no doubt would love to spoil their playoff plans. Here's hoping Sens fans have their antacids handy.