Officially, the NHL’s post-season begins May 2. But if you’re paying close attention, you’ll see that, in essence, the Stanley Cup playoffs are already underway.
For proof, look no further than the league’s schedule for today – April 26: there are 13 games on tap, and only two games have no implications on the playoffs. That means a whopping 11 games have the potential to affect the post-season. Three of them have a direct impact on teams desperate to lock up one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference: the Nashville Predators are hosting the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames; with a win, the Preds can inch closer to clinching a wild-card spot – and, just as importantly, if they beat the Flames, they can move closer to avoiding the Western Conference-leading Colorado Avalanche in the first round.
An even bigger showdown will take place in Dallas Tuesday, where the Stars host the Vegas Golden Knights. If Dallas beats Vegas and the Predators beat Calgary, the Vancouver Canucks will be eliminated from playoff contention. However, if the Stars fall to Vegas, and the Canucks beat the Seattle Kraken Tuesday, Vancouver’s playoff hopes will remain alive.
But there are other games Tuesday involving teams in the West that will impact post-season matchups. The Edmonton Oilers can lock up second place in the Pacific with a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it won’t be easy, as the Pens need to win their final two regular-season games to hold off the Washington Capitals and avoid falling into one of the two Eastern Conference wild card positions (and a date against either the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers in Round One). In addition, although we know the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild will square off in the first round, the Wild (who take on the Arizona Coyotes Tuesday) and Blues (who are on the road against the Avs) are in a battle for home-ice advantage.
In sum, the playoff picture in the West is still muddy, but by the time Wednesday’s slate of five games is over, we’ll have a much better view of how things will play out at the start of the post-season. That’s because, out of those five games Wednesday, four of them – the Rangers against Montreal; Vegas on the road against Chicago; the Stars hosting the Coyotes; and the L.A. Kings against the host Kraken – have potential implications on the post-season. With a win over Seattle, the Kings can cement their hold on third spot in the Pacific, lock up a first-round showdown against Edmonton, and eliminate the Golden Knights and Canucks from playoff contention.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we know who the eight playoff teams will be. However, there’s still much to be decided in terms of the four first round series. The Florida Panthers have earned top spot in the East, but after that, there’s no guarantee yet which teams will be playing each other.
On Tuesday, six games will factor into the final playoff picture in the East. Toronto can secure second place in the Atlantic Division with a win over Detroit; the Penguins can, for the moment at least, remain in third place in the Metropolitan Division if they beat Edmonton; the Capitals can keep the heat on Pittsburgh if they beat the New York Islanders; the Tampa Bay Lightning can get closer to earning third place in the Atlantic (and a first-round showdown against the Maple Leafs) with a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets; the Boston Bruins can avoid the second wild card position if they beat the Panthers; and the Hurricanes and Rangers square off in Manhattan, with Carolina potentially locking up top spot in the Metro with a regulation-time victory. And if the Rangers beat Carolina Tuesday, their home game Wednesday against the Canadiens will possibly affect their playoff position.
As you can see, the stakes in both conferences are already sky-high. If teams aren’t playing playoff-caliber hockey by this point, their on-ice future in the days and weeks ahead is going to be brief.
It’s not the playoffs officially, but it may as well be.