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March Madness: Breaking Down The Eastern Conference Playoff Race

It’s March Madness, NHL edition. Three teams are within one point of one another for the final Wild Card, while the Atlantic Division battles for top spot and the opportunity to play a very good Metro Division team in the first round of the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens — 86 points, 12 games remaining 

Remaning schedule: @ Senators, vs Seantors, vs Red Wings, vs Hurricanes, vs Stars, vs Panthers, @ Lightning, @ Panthers, @ Sabres, vs Lightning, @ Red Wings. 

The Canadiens are solidly in a playoff spot at this point, barring some kind of catastrophe like Carey Price getting injured. At this point, the race is basically between them and Ottawa as to who’s going to finish in first in the Atlantic Division. But is that even really a good thing? I mean, you get a banner for it, I guess, but I would rather not have to play the New York Rangers or Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.

Ottawa Senators — 85 points, 14 games remaining

Remaining schedule: vs Blackhawks, vs Canadiens, @ Canadiens, @ Bruins, vs Penguins, @ Canadiens, @ Flyers, @ Wild, @ Jets, @ Red Wings, vs Red Wings, @ Bruins, @ Islanders. 

The Sens have a couple of games in hand on the Habs, and are only one point behind them in the standings. That said, despite the fact they play two more games, they have the much more difficult schedule, as the Habs get to play six games against non-playoff teams, while the Sens have to go up against the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Wild, and play seven of eight games in a row on the road in the middle of it. But still, do they even want to play the top Wild Card team that badly?

Boston Bruins — 82 points, 12 games remaining 

Remaining schedule: @ Oilers, @ Maple Leafs, vs Senators, vs Lightning, @ Islanders, vs Predators, vs Stars, vs Panthers, @ Blackhawks, vs Lightning, vs Senators, vs Capitals. 

The Bruins have been on fire since firing Claude Julien and replacing him with Bruce Cassidy. Many will say this has to do with a change in system and voice, others will say they’re riding a high PDO bubble, and their underlying numbers under Julien suggested the team was underachieving and that this was inevitable. Regardless, the Bruins are 11-3 under Cassidy, and have rocketed up the standings into a conversation for top spot in the division rather than battling for the second wild card position.

New York Islanders — 77 points, 13 games remaining

Remaining schedule: vs Jets, vs Blue Jackets, @ Rangers, @ Penguins, vs Bruins, vs Predators, @ Flyers, vs Devils, @ Sabres, @ Predators, @ Hurricanes, @ Devils, vs Senators. 

Much like the Bruins, the Islanders fired their head coach and completely turned their season around on a whim. Under Dough Weight, the Islanders are 15-8-3, as the team has dragged itself up from the basement of the Eastern Conference and into a playoff seed. Their schedule the rest of the way features six games against non-playoff teams, three games against the elite of the Metro Division, and two against the solid Nashville Predators. It isn’t overly difficult, but it isn’t a cake walk either.

Tampa Bay Lightning — 77 points, 13 games remaining 

Remaining schedule: vs Maple Leafs, vs Capitals, vs Coyotes, @ Bruins, @ Red Wing, vs Blackhawks, vs Red Wings, vs Canadiens, vs Stars, @ Bruins, @ Maple Leafs, @ Canadiens, vs Sabres. 

Tampa Bay sold at the trade deadline, moving Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings in return for Peter Budaj and draft picks. As a result, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been given the net, and he’s ran with it, stopping 226 of the 236 shots he’s faced for an impressive .958 save percentage in all situations. Like the Islanders, they have 13 games left, but including five against non-playoff teams. They also have two game against the Maple Leafs, though, which will go a long way in determining which of those two teams has the best chance at grabbing the final wild card spot.

Toronto Maple Leafs — 76 points, 14 games remaining 

Remaining schedule: @ Lightning, vs Blackhawks, vs Bruins, @ Blue Jackets, vs Devils, @ Sabres, vs Panthers, @ Predators, @ Red Wings, @ Sabres, vs Capitals, vs Lightning, vs Penguins, vs Blue Jackets. 

Not too long ago, the Leafs making the playoffs appeared to be a foregone conclusion. But over the past few weeks, the aforementioned Bruins, Islanders, and Lightning have all heated up, while the Leafs have played .500 hockey, allowing them to be shoved down to tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have one game in hand over both the Islanders and Lightning. They have five games against non-playoff teams, which are critical, because they have to play a gauntlet featuring games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Columbus.

Conclusion: 

The Canadiens, Senators, and Bruins appear to be set as the teams that’ll occupy the top three seeds in the Atlantic Division, meaning Toronto’s focus becomes the second wild card. Of course, any one of Boston, Montreal, or Ottawa could go on a skid, and the Leafs could feasibly jump up, but the second wild card is a much more likely scenario. Toronto has a game in hand against both Tampa and the Islanders, but doesn’t have an easier schedule. Both games against the Lightning will be must-wins, as will the five games against Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, and New Jersey, as the rest of the schedule bodes a difficult task. Still, though, the Leafs are in control of their own destiny and aren’t yet in a situation where they desperately need other teams to lose games in order to have a chance. Just win, baby.