With only two games remaining in the season for every team save the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets, one would have expected playoff matchups to be set and the post-season-bound teams separated from those who are heading towards early summers.
However, the Western Conference still boasts three teams who have yet to formally lock up their ticket to the dance, with Los Angeles on the brink of elimination. And in the Eastern Conference, there are five teams within three points of each other and it appears that no one’s playoff berth is safe just yet due to the never-say-die attitude of the Ottawa Senators.
The frantic finish of the regular season will include teams scoreboard watching and clinching playoff berths with opposition losses, playoff atmospheres in final-day tilts and a couple of fan bases devastated because they came this close to their shot at playoff glory.
CALGARY FLAMES: 44-29-7, 95 points (40 regulation and overtime wins)
No one expected the Calgary Flames to really hang on to the final spot in the Pacific Division, but as the season continues to wind to a close, it looks more and more like the Red Mile is going to come back to life after a five-year absence.
For the past two weeks, Calgary has controlled their own fate and done everything necessary in order to lock down the best possible shot at the playoffs. With a win Tuesday over the lowly Arizona Coyotes, the Flames are that much closer to playing past mid-April. If there’s one possibility for an incredible Cinderella story, it’s Calgary.
Remaining games: vs. Los Angeles, at Winnipeg
Key players: For all they’ve done this season, Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau deserve all the praise in the hockey world. But with games against two teams who are hungry for the post-season coming up, it’ll be goaltender Jonas Hiller’s time to shine.
How they make it: Simply put, win and they’re in. If Calgary can beat Los Angeles, they’re going to the playoffs. If the Kings win, however, Calgary is going to need to beat Winnipeg and hope for a Los Angeles loss in the Kings’ final game of the season.
How they miss: Back-to-back losses – even if one is in overtime or the shootout – will leave the door wide open for Los Angeles.
WINNIPEG JETS: 42-26-12, 96 points (35 ROW)
The Jets weren’t supposed to compete for the playoffs, let alone actually make it. Yet, here we sit, with Winnipeg three points up on Los Angeles and completely in control of their fate thanks to… Ondrej Pavelec?
That’s right. The much-maligned once-former-now-current starting goaltender Pavelec has posted back-to-back victories, both in shutout fashion, and has put the Jets in the driver’s seat going forward. If they want to make it into the playoffs, all they need to do is pick up two points.
Remaining games: at Colorado, vs. Calgary
Key players: Pavelec’s play over the past two weeks has been outstanding, and he’s going to get the reins the rest of the way, it appears. He doesn’t need to continue his improbable shutout streak, though. Even slightly above-average goaltending should be enough from Pavelec in the final two games.
How they make it: Take your pick: Winnipeg can get into the playoffs by beating Colorado, beating Calgary, losing both games in extra time or winning one game and losing the other. They can even back their way in should Los Angeles lose either of their final two games. Things look good in Manitoba’s capital.
How they miss: Ready? Here goes. If Winnipeg loses both games in regulation, or loses one in regulation and the other in overtime, they’ll need to scoreboard-watch the Kings. Because of ROW, which Los Angeles leads 37-35 as of Tuesday, the Kings would knock the Jets out with two wins (if Winnipeg has 97 points) or a win and an extra-time loss (if Winnipeg has 96 points).
LOS ANGELES KINGS: 39-26-15, 93 points (37 ROW)
Maybe all the extra hockey has finally caught up to the Kings, because at this point it looks like they’re far from making it to the post-season and will become just the third team to miss the post-season the year following a Cup victory since the NHL expanded the playoffs to include 16 teams. Monday’s loss to the Edmonton Oilers put Los Angeles in a dire situation.
However, this is the team that won three consecutive game sevens en route to a Stanley Cup victory last season. This is the team that erased a 3-0 series deficit in the first round against the San Jose Sharks in 2013-14.
Remaining games: at Calgary, vs. San Jose
Key players: What Pavelec just did for the Jets is what Jonathan Quick is going to need to do for the Kings. It doesn’t matter what kind of offense Los Angeles can piece together if Quick is unable to backstop the Kings to two straight wins. There’s a reason why Quick is paid so handsomely – now it’s time for him to prove he’s worth every cent.
How they make it: While there are a few scenarios that could work, the only real way is for Los Angeles to win both games – and beat Calgary in regulation – and pray that other teams can do their dirty work. Teams never want to be in a situation where they can’t control their fate, but that’s exactly where Los Angeles finds themselves.
How they miss: The Kings are through if Winnipeg wins one game or loses both in regulation or if Calgary beats them on Thursday in regulation.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: 46-28-6, 98 points (39 ROW)
The Islanders shocked the league by staying in contention for first place in the Metropolitan Division for as long as they did, but a 3-5-2 record over their last 10 games has them looking like they could actually slip into a wild-card spot before the season ends.
New York’s goaltending has seriously hurt their chances over the past couple of months, and that was even before Jaroslav Halak’s blunder killed the Islanders comeback against the Flyers Tuesday night. With 98 points, they’re the safest bet to make it in the East, but anything can happen.
Remaining games: at Pittsburgh, vs. Columbus
Key players: Halak. There’s no other answer. They need him to be better, because the Islanders have the offensive weapons to make it into the post-season and beyond the first round.
How they make it: It’s pretty simple for the Islanders: beat Pittsburgh on Friday, or at least take the game to overtime, and they’re heading to the playoffs.
How they miss: Losing both games in regulation is the only way the Islanders miss the playoffs.
DETROIT RED WINGS: 42-25-13, 97 points (38 ROW)
It used to be so simple: water is wet, the sky is blue, the Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs. This season, it’s not a certainty and, in a sense, Detroit will have to rely on other teams to help them lock up their post-season berth if they want to make it 24 straight years of playoff hockey.
Or, the Red Wings can do it the easier way, which is beating Montreal and Carolina in their final two games of the season to get into the playoffs. Whichever way they do it, they need their goaltending to improve and do so quickly, because it’s their Achilles heel right now.
Remaining games: at Montreal, at Carolina
Key players: It doesn’t seem to matter who Mike Babcock starts of late, their goaltending has failed them. As such, it will be up to veteran stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to hoist this team into the playoffs. There’s still some magic left in the two, and they’ll have to put it on display in the next two games.
How they make it: Detroit just needs to win one game or take Montreal and Carolina to extra time. If they do that, they’re in. That, or they need Boston and Ottawa to lose each of their remaining games.
How they miss: It’s going to take a minor miracle for Detroit to miss the playoffs, but this is how they could: if they lose both of their remaining games in regulation or lose one in regulation and the other in overtime, the Red Wings could miss the post-season if Pittsburgh wins once in regulation and Boston and Ottawa win all of their remaining games.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: 42-26-12, 96 points (38 ROW)
Were the Penguins to miss the playoffs this season, it would be the first time since Sidney Crosby was a rookie that that has happened. Seven straight years, the Penguins have vied for the Stanley Cup, but a 3-5-2 record in their last 10 games has their hopes hanging by a thread.
Tuesday’s loss to Ottawa makes things more hectic in the Eastern Conference, too. Sure, the Penguins picked up a single point, but that still leaves Friday’s matchup with the New York Islanders as a must-win. A loss in regulation would be the worst thing that could happen to Pittsburgh.
Remaining games: vs. Islanders, at Buffalo
Key players:Sidney Crosby is the greatest player in the world and he needs to show why. It’s difficult to ask a single player to take over a game in the NHL, but if anyone is capable, it’s Crosby.
How they make it: Win their remaining games. Or win one and lose the other in overtime. They’ll stay ahead of the Senators based on ROW.
How they miss: Losing one game in regulation will hurt, but losing both seems like the only real way for Pittsburgh to miss out on the post-season.
BOSTON BRUINS: 41-25-13, 95 points (37 ROW)
The Bruins are one of only two teams in the league to have three games remaining, and that’s good news for Boston. Because of their game in hand over the other teams vying for a playoff spot, the Bruins can actually afford a loss – though, they certainly would prefer winning out and locking down the third spot in the Atlantic Division.
Unless they go on a scoring streak, the Bruins will enter the post-season as the team with the lowest goal differential. It’s been that kind of year for Boston, so a couple of big wins would be nice right now.
Remaining games: at Washington, at Florida, at Tampa Bay
Key players:Patrice Bergeron has led the Bruins all season and it’s time for him to put them over the top and into the playoffs. No one would want to face a healthy Bruins squad, and they could be an upset pick in the East.
How they make it: With three games left, the best way to make it would be to win out, but they can also sneak in should they win two of three, take all three to overtime or pick up four points in any way. Of course, should Ottawa lose both of their games Boston can back in.
How they miss: If the Bruins lose their final three games in regulation and Ottawa picks up a single point, the Senators are in. If Boston loses all three in overtime and Ottawa picks up four points, the Senators are in. Basically, Boston best not lose.
OTTAWA SENATORS: 41-26-13, 95 points (35 ROW)
This season has been the return of the #PeskySens, featuring the ‘Hamburglar’ Andrew Hammond and rookie standout Mark Stone. What’s saddest for the Senators, however, is that all of this could be too little, too late. With only two games remaining and no chance at earning the tie-breaker come the end of the season, the Senators will need help.
Remaining games: at Rangers, at Philadelphia
Key players: The easy answer is Hammond, but it might be time for Erik Karlsson to put the team on his back. Hammond has done a more than admirable job over the past month, now it’s up to the Senators’ captain to take them the rest of the way.
How they make it: They need to win or at least take both games to overtime. If they take their final games to OT and lose, they’ll then need Boston to lose their remaining games and at least two in regulation. Alternatively, Ottawa could make it should the Penguins lose both of their games in regulation and the Senators pick up two points in any fashion.
How they miss: If Ottawa loses in regulation, they’re done barring a miracle.