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Wild-Card Roundup: What do East and West races look like entering the stretch?

A look at the wild-card races in the Eastern and Western Conferences as the NHL heads into the home stretch.

With roughly five weeks remaining before the start of the playoffs, the wild-card races in the East and West are in full effect. But who holds the edge and what hurdles will bubble teams face on their path to a potential playoff berth?

EASTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

New Jersey Devils

33-24-8 — 74 pts.

On a purely statistical basis, it would be easy to suggest the Devils have already done most of the heavy lifting necessary to earn a post-season spot. Truth it, though, that despite having the “easiest” schedule based on average point total of opponents, New Jersey goes into the final month of the season staring down two meetings with each of the Vegas Golden Knights and Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as a six-game Western road swing that will take New Jersey through California where every opponent will be fighting for their playoff lives. Good thing Taylor Hall is white hot, because the Devils are going to need the offense.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 63.5 points

Carolina Hurricanes

29-25-11 — 69 pts.

The expectation was that the Hurricanes were going to be in this position by the time the end of the season rolled around. But it was also expected that Carolina would be more firmly in the wild-card race than they are now. Nothing about the Hurricanes’ success this season has been all that convincing, and goaltending issues continue to plague the team while offense has come at a premium. The cause for the most concern in Carolina, though, should be the fact that the Hurricanes have been awful of late. Since the start of February, Carolina is 4-6-3 with the lowest goals-for total in the East. That doesn’t scream playoff push, even if they currently have a spot.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 70.9 points

OUT:

Columbus Blue Jackets

32-28-5 — 69 pts.

Columbus has been streaky all season, and having lost their past two games, coach John Tortorella has to be hoping this isn't the start of another extended losing streak. After the trade deadline, though, it appears offense is still a worry. The Blue Jackets have been held to four goals on 64 shots in their first two games of a trip to California are about to run to a San Jose Sharks team that is as desperate to keep up its winning ways. Cumulatively, the Blue Jackets might have one of the tougher schedules, but only five of their final 17 games are against true Cup contenders, including meetings with Vegas, Pittsburgh and the Nashville Predators. 

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 71.4 points

Florida Panthers

31-25-6 — 68 pts.

How many people would've been willing to write off the Panthers at the start of January? Safe bet says the majority of pundits wouldn’t have had Florida righting the ship and sneaking into the post-season as a wild-card team. Yet, here we are, with the Cats as one of the hotter teams in the conference over the past two months and a group that is making a serious charge up the standings. Over their past dozen games, Florida is 9-3-0, in large part due to a red-hot power play. But what might really make the difference for the Panthers is runway. They have at least three games in hand on other Eastern wild-card contenders and a strength of schedule that’s more difficult than only that of the Devils.

Remaining Schedule: 20

Average Opponent: 70.7 points

New York Islanders

29-29-8 — 66 pts.

What a disappointment the past month has been for the Islanders. Right in the thick of the playoff hunt with this post-season appearance potentially as important as any in the modern history of the franchise — anything that helps convince John Tavares to stay is a great thing — New York has basically fallen to the bottom of the race. The Islanders have lost six in a row, including a back-to-back set against the struggling Montreal Canadiens, and the high-powered offense that was once driving the team has dried up somewhat. The Islanders are technically behind the rival Rangers in the wild-card hunt, which is telling given the Blueshirts sold at the deadline.

Remaining Schedule: 16 games

Average Opponent: 71.4 points

WESTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

Dallas Stars

37-23-5 — 79 pts.

Dallas did themselves a huge favor with an overtime victory over St. Louis on Saturday afternoon, but the Central Division isn’t going to make life easy on the Stars. The good news? Dallas has been the sixth-best team in the conference and third-best in the division over the past four weeks. The bad news? No team in the Western wild-card race has a greater strength of schedule and 11 of Dallas’ final 17 games are on the road, including a run of six-straight that sees the Stars square off against the Penguins, Jets and Capitals.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 75.2 points

Los Angeles Kings

36-25-5 — 77 pts.

After two consecutive seasons outside the playoffs, the Kings are eying up a return to the dance, but getting back into contention for the Stanley Cup means Los Angeles has to avoid dropping easy points. You know, like losing in regulation when they’re up two goals in the final 10 minutes of the third period on account of some ill-timed infractions, as they did Saturday to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings don’t have a cushion, either, so they’re going to have to make the most of a relatively soft schedule the rest of the way.

Remaining Schedule: 16 games

Average Opponent: 70.5 points

Minnesota Wild

36-22-7 — 79 pts.

The step forward Minnesota took with five-straight wins has been partially negated by consecutive losses, but this is no time for the Wild to panic. An upcoming four-game stretch against five teams either outside or on the playoff bubble could help Minnesota get back on track, and stockpiling points over the next week or so is going to come in handy when the Wild hit the mid-March portion of their schedule. A pair against the Predators, a home-and-home with the Stars and meetings with the Golden Knights and Boston Bruins is going to make for a tough stretch to end the month and could make or break Minnesota’s playoff hopes.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 73.7 points

Anaheim Ducks

32-21-12 — 76 pts.

Injuries have plagued Anaheim all season and a healthy Ducks team is one that many expected to be making a hard charge towards the playoffs. To be sure, coach Randy Carlyle’s group has been playing well above .500 since the back half of the schedule got underway — they’re 13-7-4 since Jan. 1 — but the past month has been mediocre and the Ducks have accumulated fewer points than the San Jose Sharks and Kings over the past month. Luckily, Anaheim has a game in hand on two Pacific opponents and two paths into the playoffs: the wild-card and the final divisional spot. That said, Los Angeles and Calgary will have the benefit of slightly easier schedules.

Remaining Schedule: 17 games

Average Opponent: 71.5 points

OUT:

Colorado Avalanche

35-24-5 — 75 pts.

Despite belief that Colorado would turn into a pumpkin at some point down the stretch, the Avalanche have refused to go away. But they’ll face no tougher test of their mettle than the final month of the playoffs with a wild-card berth on the line. On the schedule are multiple dates with the Golden Knights, Predators, Blues and Ducks, with each point picked up against contending teams another step closer to the playoffs. Nathan MacKinnon seems as determined as any player in the league when it comes to driving his team to the post-season and, despite the second-toughest slate among the Western teams listed, the extra game in hand could give Colorado and its MVP candidate the key to heading to the playoffs.

Remaining Schedule: 18 games

Average Opponent: 74.3 points

St. Louis Blues

35-26-5 — 75 pts.

A seven-game losing streak heading into the deadline prompted St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong to sell Paul Stastny, which is fairly telling of the Blues’ situation. However, St. Louis isn't exactly out of it yet and could make a serious move into wild-card contention if they heat up on their upcoming trip to the West coast. Contests against San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim could turn into six crucial points, and beating Colorado once they return to St. Louis would also pay dividends in the playoff battle. The Blues have the horses to go on a run to end the season even without Stastny. It’s just going to take some timely victories.

Remaining Schedule: 16 games

Average Opponent: 70.9 points

Calgary Flames

32-25-9 — 73 pts.

Schedule-wise, the Flames are in a good position, particularly with six of their final 16 games against draft lottery opponents such as the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes. Those won’t be gimmes, of course, but they’re games the Flames should win, especially with the playoffs potentially on the line. Calgary needs to get its defense in order to really ensure a playoff berth, though. Their 76 goals against since Jan. 1 are the fourth-most in the conference. The Flames also can’t afford a stumble as the game — or games — in hand other Western teams possess could prove costly.

Remaining Schedule: 16 games

Average Opponent: 69.0 points

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