When the NHL changed the playoff format to include wild-card teams last season, it’s unlikely even they could have imagined a scenario in which the races for the final playoff berths in each conference would be this tight.
With less than 10 games remaining on the schedules of all playoff hopefuls, only six points separate teams in the Western Conference, while a three-team race separated by five points in the Eastern Conference could come down to the final night.
What’s on the horizon for each of the teams, and who stands the best shot at making it in?
CALGARY FLAMES: 40-27-7 (36 regulation and overtime wins), 87 points
The never-say-die Flames are on the verge of shocking the league and making the playoffs in a year most expected them to be in draft lottery contention. By starting out on an improbable run and continuing to win high-scoring games with last-minute heroics, the Flames have kept pace in the Pacific Division and are currently holding onto the third spot in the division by a single point.
Remarkably, Calgary actually holds the tie-breaker over their closest competition, the Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets. The Kings have 34 ROW, while the Jets have a meagre 31. If it comes to a tie in points, Calgary has the edge. However, the upcoming five-game road trip could be deadly, as they swing through the Central Division and have to take on two of the league’s hottest teams in Minnesota and Dallas.
Remaining games: at Minnesota, at Nashville, at Dallas, as St. Louis, at Edmonton, vs. Arizona, vs. Los Angeles, at Winnipeg.
Key players:Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau will have to keep the offense rolling along, while Kris Russell’s play in lieu of the injured Mark Giordano is the main reason the Flames defense has stayed afloat.
MINNESOTA WILD: 42-25-7 (38 ROW), 91 points
For the last two months, the Wild have been one of the hottest teams in the league thanks to Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk’s play has been enough for some to consider whether or not he deserves a nod for the Vezina for his half season of work. He's unlikely to take home any end of year hardware, but it’s a testament to how incredibly he’s played that it’s even considered.
In their last 10 games, the Wild are 7-3-0 and have won three straight. They’re riding Dubnyk hard and he could wear down by the playoffs. With Minnesota three points up on the Winnipeg Jets for the first wild-card spot, there’s little doubt the Xcel Energy Center will be hosting playoff games in April.
Remaining games: vs. Calgary, vs. Los Angeles, vs. New York Rangers, vs. Red Wings, vs. Winnipeg, at Chicago, at Nashville, at St. Louis
Key players: Dubnyk is the one who has got Minnesota this far, and he's going to need to be the one to keep it going.
WINNIPEG JETS: 38-24-12 (31 ROW), 88 points
While Calgary can make the playoffs by fending off Los Angeles, the Jets have to ward off the Flames, Kings and Stars. The Jets slipped out of a playoff spot briefly in mid-March, but a five-game winning streak put them right back in the driver’s seat.
Ondrej Pavelec has been good for the Jets down the stretch after taking the starting role back from Michael Hutchinson, and if Winnipeg wants to make it to the post-season, they’re going to have to hope their goaltending holds.
Remaining games: vs. Montreal, vs. Chicago, vs. New York, vs. Vancouver, at Minnesota, at St. Louis, at Colorado, vs. Calgary
Key players:Dustin Byfuglien has missed nine straight at the worst time of the season, and his return could be enough to propel the Jets into the post-season. It can’t be stressed enough how much the Jets need their goaltending to help them in their final eight games.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: 36-23-14 (34 ROW), 86 points
If the Kings fail to make the playoffs, they would be the first defending Stanley Cup champions not to make the post-season since Carolina in 2006-07. That’s not a club they want join, and it’s an uphill battle right now.
Los Angeles is trailing Calgary by a single point for the third spot in the Pacific, need to make up a two-point deficit to catch Winnipeg and have to hope to pick up some wins in regulation or overtime along the way. Those will be of utmost importance as the end of the season nears, especially considering how tight they are to the Flames. If the Kings and Flames end the year tied in points, Los Angeles winning at least five of their next nine games in regulation could be enough to put them into the post-season.
Their April 9 contest with Calgary will be the biggest game of their campaign.
Remaining games: at New York Islanders, at Minnesota, at Chicago, vs. Edmonton, vs. Colorado, at Vancouver, at Edmonton, at Calgary, vs. San Jose
Key players:Jonathan Quick is going to need to be Playoff Jonathan Quick. If he can steal a couple of games for the Kings, it could prove to be the difference between trying to defend their championship and an early summer.
DALLAS STARS: 36-28-10 (32 ROW), 82 points
More than any team in the race – and that includes both conferences – Dallas is going to need help to get into the post-season. The Stars have the slightest chance of making the playoffs, and much of their hope hinges on the teams in front of them sliding.
That said, in the West there is no team hotter than the Stars right now. Over their last 10 games, Dallas has gone 8-2-0 and have made leaps in the standings. A dominant win over the Blackhawks and victory over the Sabres helped their cause, but giving up a single point to the Flames, who they needed a shootout to beat, could be enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
Remaining games: at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Calgary, vs. St. Louis, at Nashville, at San Jose, at Anaheim, vs. Nashville
Key players: All season long goaltending has hindered the Stars push for the playoffs. They’ve scored four goals in each of their last three games to come away with victories, but the wins over Buffalo and Calgary were by one-goal margins. Kari Lehtonen and Jhonas Enroth need to shut the door.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: 39-24-10 (35 ROW), 88 points
The Capitals are seldom mentioned when it comes to the Eastern Conference wild-card race, but if they don’t pick up their play, there’s a chance they could be the ones missing out on the post-season. They’re 6-4-0 over their last 10 games, but the failure to pick up any single points while the Bruins and Senators are chasing down playoff spots is leaving Washington fans chewing their nails.
Obviously, with a three-point spread on Ottawa and a four-point lead on Boston there’s less reason to worry, but the Senators have a game in hand and are on an absolute tear with Andrew Hammond stealing the show. That said, if the Capitals get hot, they might be able to leap the Pittsburgh Penguins and into a safer spot in the East.
Remaining schedule: vs. New Jersey, vs. Nashville, at New York Rangers, vs. Carolina, at Montreal, at Ottawa, at Detroit, vs. Boston, vs. New York Rangers
OTTAWA SENATORS: 37-24-11 (32 ROW), 85 points
The story of the year, by far, has been the incredible surge by the Senators to put themselves into the wild-card conversation. As of Wednesday, they sit firmly in the second and final spot in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve got the Bruins and up-and-coming Panthers nipping at their heels.
Andrew Hammond – better known as the ‘Hamburglar’ – has been nothing short of amazing for Ottawa and has the league talking. Like Dubnyk in Minnesota, there’s no telling how the Senators season would have ended had it not been for Hammond.
Winners of seven straight and owners of a 9-1-0 record in their past 10 games, Ottawa’s run has helped them get ahead of Florida and Boston. If they can hold on, a first-round date with Montreal might await them.
Remaining games: vs. New York Rangers, at Toronto, vs. Florida, at Detroit, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Washington, at Toronto, vs. Pittsburgh, at New York Rangers, at Philadelphia
Key players: Could it be anyone but Hammond? In his 16 appearances this season, he has a 14-0-1 record, two shutouts, 1.67 GAA and .946 SP. He nearly broke a 76-year-old record held by Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and he’s the best story going in the NHL right now.
BOSTON BRUINS: 36-25-12 (33 ROW), 84 points
After battling back and forth for the final wild-card spot with the Panthers, the Senators came out of nowhere to take the final berth away from the Bruins. Luckily for Boston, they can still get it back – it’s just going to take a collective effort.
Losing Dougie Hamilton to injury is a serious blow, but the Bruins got David Krejci back right when they need some scoring. If Krecji can step up and add some punch to the offense, and if Tuukka Rask can play like the world beater he’s capable of being, Boston can claw right back and take the wild-card spot from Ottawa.
First thing’s first, though: the Bruins desperately need to snap their five-game skid.
Remaining games: vs. Anaheim, vs. New York Rangers, at Carolina, vs. Panthers, at Detroit, vs. Toronto, at Washington, at Florida, at Tampa Bay
Key players:Patrice Bergeron has almost single-handedly kept the Bruins afloat this season and is deserving of all the accolades he gets, but even he will need to step up his game. Bergeron was dominant in the Bruins triumphant comeback over the Maple Leafs in 2012-13. He’ll need to channel that same player down the stretch.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: 33-26-14 (25 ROW), 80 points
When it comes to underlying statistics, the Panthers are rather impressive for a team that was expected to be abysmal this season. However, there are few teams in the NHL as stunted offensively as Florida. Their 180 goals are the 25th fewest in the NHL, worse than even the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs. Florida’s goaltending has kept them in the race.
Of note is that Florida has only 25 wins in regulation or overtime, which doesn’t bode well should they need some final day heroics to get into the post-season. If it comes down to a tiebreaker, the Panthers aren’t even close to the ROW totals of the other wild-card competitors.
The Panthers best hope is to win a handful of tight games without help of the shootout. They’re also going to need the Bruins and Senators to slide a bit, which seems unlikely as the two teams are neck-and-neck for the final wild-card spot and look primed to fight it out until the bitter end. What is promising, though, is that Florida may control their own fate with games against the Senators and Bruins on the horizon.
Remaining games: at Toronto, at Montreal, at Ottawa, at Boston, vs. Carolina, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Montreal, vs. Boston, vs. New Jersey
Key players: It’s all about Roberto Luongo from here on out. The veteran netminder has been the backbone of the Panthers and he’s going to need to keep it up if Florida has playoff aspirations.