With less than four weeks remaining in the regular season, the playoff picture can be boiled down to these five races:
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
What’s at stake: President’s Trophy and home ice advantage throughout playoffs.
Numbers: The Penguins caught the Capitals on Monday with a shootout loss, leaving the Eastern Conference leaders each with 95 points and 14 games remaining.
Overview: The Caps may spin this mini-tailspin as a being a jolt they needed to refocus for the playoffs. But this feels like a momentum shift that will allow the Penguins to charge past them to finish first overall. Not long ago the Capitals were scoring at will. Today, Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored in 10 games, and has no even-strength goal in 18 games. Meanwhile, the Penguins are peaking. No matter who they lose to injury, the Penguins remain focused on their mission to be the first team in 20 years to repeat. A caution for the Caps and Pens: The Columbus Blue Jackets are 6-3-1 in their past 10 and only three points behind Washington.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild
What’s at stake: No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Numbers: Wild have lost three times to Chicago since Feb. 8 and their lead in the Central Division has dwindled to one point
Overview: The Wild have been the better team the entire season, and this Minnesota group is mentally tough enough to survive this late challenge to their division lead. But whether they can beat the Blackhawks in the playoffs is another matter. The Blackhawks have eliminated the Wild in three of the past four seasons. This Blackhawks understand how to win in April, May and June. The team has surged of late, winning 13 of their past 16 games.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
What’s at stake: First place in the Atlantic Division.
Numbers: The Senators and Canadiens are 8-2 in their past 10, and Montreal’s lead is only two points. The Senators have two games in hand.
Overview: Ottawa and Montreal are only 102 miles apart, and their rivalry never receives the proper amount of attention. Who finishes first in the Atlantic matters in these two cities. While the Canadiens have held first place all season, the Senators have looked sharp enough to pass them in the final weeks. The Senators have won six games in a row. The Senators were an above-average offensive team last season, and coach Guy Boucher has made them harder to play against this season. Because the Canadiens have Carey Price, they should have the goaltending edge. But Craig Anderson has the same goals-against average (2.23) and a better save percentage (.930) this season. The Canadiens and Senators play three times over seven days starting Saturday. Those games will decide this race.
Los Angeles Kings vs. St. Louis Blues
What’s at stake: Final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Numbers: The Blues have won five in a row, including a 3-1 victory over the Kings on Monday to take a five-point lead in the wild-card race.
Overview: Statistically speaking, the Kings are better defensive team (fifth in NHL at 2.46 goals-per-game) and the Blues are the better offensive team (14th at 2.76 goalie per game). The Kings may have championship-caliber players in key leadership positions, but they have little room for error down the stretch after Monday's loss. Changes will be made if they miss the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs
What’s at the stake: Last wild-card spot in Eastern Conference.
Numbers: The Maple Leafs lead with 76 points and one game in hand. The Lightning and Islanders each have 75 points with 14 games remaining.
Overview: The Lightning looked to be seller’s mode at the trade deadline when they dealt goalie Ben Bishop and center Brian Boyle. Wrong. The Lightning, 8-2-1 in their past 11 games, are finally playing like the contender they were expected to be. The Maple Leafs are ahead of schedule in their rebuilding, but their key players lack experience. That could betray them down the stretch. Don’t count out the Islanders who have played like a playoff team since Doug Weight took over as coach. Seven of their last 14 are against non-playoff teams.
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