Breaking down the important races in the final two weeks of the NHL season

Updated: March 25, 2016 at 3:54 pm by Cam Lewis

There are only two weeks left in the NHL season, and while most of the playoff picture seems to have sorted itself out and we know who the legitimate contenders are, there are still three interesting races to follow for that makes the final stretch of action worthwhile. 

First, there’s a yard sale going on in the Eastern Conference (thanks largely to Boston imploding) in which five teams are separated by only four points, and one of those teams is going to end up on the outside looking in. And as a bonus, they all play each other a bunch of times to finish out the season, which makes it even more ridiculous. There’s also a sorta kinda race going on in the West where the Wild have decided to be just bad enough to make it seem like the Avs have a chance to make the playoffs despite the fact they’re arguably one of the worst teams in the league. And finally, there’s a massive battle for draft lottery supremacy, as seven contenders are duking it out for a 20 per cent chance of having their name chosen in a random draw that we all know is going to be won by the Oilers anyway. 

Eastern Conference Wild Card Race

Earlier this month, it looked like the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference was going to be a battle largely between the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Detroit Red Wings seemingly safe in the standings. Now, it’s expanded into a five team race as the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders have started to go cold down the stretch, and ninth to fifth place in the Conference is separated by only four points. Also, to make this even more interesting, all of these teams are playing each other a bunch more times down the stretch. 

(Key: Bolded in the schedule are teams also involved in this race, and in italics are teams who are ahead of a given team in the standings.) 

Pittsburgh Penguins: 40-25-8 (88 points) with nine games remaining (at Detroit, at New York Rangers, vs Buffalo, vs Nashville, at New York Islanders, vs Philadelphia, at Ottawa, at Washington, at Philadelphia). 

New York Islanders: 39-24-9 (87 points) with ten games remaining (at Tampa Bay, at Carolina, vs Columbus, vs Pittsburgh, vs Tampa Bay, at Washington, at New York Rangers, vs Buffalo, vs Philadelphia). 

Boston Bruins: 39-28-8 (86 points) with seven games remaining (at Toronto, at New Jersey, at St. Louis, at Chicago, vs Carolina, vs Detroit, vs Ottawa). 

Philadelphia Flyers: 36-24-13 (85 points) with nine games remaining (at Arizona, vs Winnipeg, vs Washington, vs Ottawa, at Pittsburgh, at Detroit, vs Toronto, vs Pittsburgh, at New York Islanders).

Detroit Red Wings: 37-26-11 (85 points) with eight games remaining (vs Pittsburgh, vs Buffalo, at Montreal, vs Minnesota, at Toronto, vs Philadelphia, at Boston, at New York Rangers). 

Looking at their remaining schedules, it’s pretty obvious that Boston is in the worst position moving forward. They only have seven games remaining, and only one of those is against another team involved in the race, making it difficult for them to make up ground quickly in the standings. Also, they’re currently on a five-game losing streak thanks to an unsuccessful trip through California, and now, they’re heading out on another road trip for four games before heading back to TD Garden for their final three games of the season. Luckily enough, they’re playing Toronto, New Jersey, Carolina, and Ottawa, who are all pretty weak opponents, but if they struggle on this upcoming trip, which involves games against Chicago and St. Louis, they could easily play themselves out of a playoff position. 

The Islanders are in a similar position to Boston, heading into the final couple of weeks riding a cold streak with a handful of difficult games on the horizon. That said, unlike Boston, they have ten games left, so there’s some more room for error there. But if I was sliding in the standings, I really wouldn’t want to have three of my final ten games to be against Washington and Tampa Bay. 

The Penguins, of all the teams involved, have their destiny in their own hands the most. They’re slightly ahead of the pack and currently sit third in the Atlantic Division, and four of their remaining games are against teams trying to catch them. I guess you can view this as either a good or a bad thing, in that if they struggle against Philadelphia, Detroit, or the Islanders, they’re making it a hell of a lot easier for one of those teams to climb over them, but if they can win those head-to-head games, they’ll pretty much guarantee themselves a spot. 

I think the Flyers might have the most attractive schedule of all the teams remaining, as they have two opportunities to play the Penguins and potentially jump them in the standings, and if that doesn’t pan out, they play four of their nine games against teams well below them in the standings, with one game against Washington being the only really difficult game they have left. And finally, there’s Detroit, who has a pretty favourable schedule moving forward. They’ll have three opportunities to take down other teams they’re chasing in this race, and they aren’t facing any opponents who I would say are really difficult matches. I guess the Rangers and Wild, maybe? But still, they don’t have to face Washington at all, who, at this point, is really the one team you want to avoid. 

Prediction: I think the Bruins are going to end up on the outside looking in. Having a difficult stretch of road games at the end of the season is tremendously taxing, and they simply don’t have the extra games remaining to make up the ground they lose. Detroit will finish as the third team in the Atlantic, the Penguins will finish third in the Metro, and the Islanders and Flyers will round out the Wild Card. 

Western Conference Wild Card Race

How is this even a thing? I’m not sure if I should be impressed that the Minnesota Wild have been mediocre enough to allow the Colorado Avalanche, the team who boasts the worst underlying numbers in the league, to be front and centre in a playoff race, or if I should be impressed with the Avs for managing to defy analytics again and somehow shoved themselves into the playoff conversation despite being a terrible team. Anyways, here we are, and the final playoff position in the Western Conference comes down to one really bad team that’s overachieving, and one really bad team’s underachieving. Let’s figure out who gets the honour of being hammered by Dallas in the first round, shall we? 

(Key: Bolded in the schedule are teams also involved in this race, and in italics are teams who are ahead of a given team in the standings.) 

Minnesota Wild: 36-28-11 (83 points) with seven games remaining (at Colorado, vs Chicago, vs Ottawa, at Detroit, at Winnipeg, vs San Jose, vs Calgary). 

Colorado Avalanche: 38-32-4 (79 points) with eight games remaining (vs Minnesota, at Nashville, at St. Louis, vs Washington, vs St. Louis, at Nashville, at Dallas, vs Anaheim). 

Oh man, there’s just no way this is happening. Honestly, if Minnesota allows Colorado to beat them out and grab that final playoff spot, the Wild should just pack up shop and move to Dallas or something, because that would be a colossal failure. 

The Avs have one game in hand, but every single one of their games is against a team that’s ahead of them in the standings. And to make matters even better for Minnesota, they have a head-to-head game, so the Wild can pretty much stomp their throat a put an end to this whole debacle right then and there. After that game, the Ava have to travel for games in Nashville and St. Louis before returning home to get spanked by the Capitals, then they face the Blues one more time before heading on the road for another hack at the gauntlet. 

On the other side, the Wild have a couple of tough games against Chicago and San Jose, but otherwise, they get to face a handful of bad teams like Calgary, Winnipeg, and Ottawa. Plus, like I said, the two teams have a head-to-head and Minnesota can put an end to Colorado just like they did back in 2003 when Andrew Brunette sunk the heavily-favoured Avs ship in the first overtime period of game seven in the first round of the playoffs. You know, the final goal of Patrick Roy’s career! There’s no way they can mess this up, right? Right?!

Prediction: The Wild will earn the last Wild Card spot not because they’re any good, but because Colorado isn’t good either and had a really difficult schedule. 

Tank Central! 

Perhaps even more exciting than the races that’ll determine which teams get to be involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the tank race to determine which teams have the highest likelihood of having a ball with their logo selected at random at the NHL’s annual Draft Lottery Extravaganza. This one is actually really difficult to predict, because there are honestly more bad teams in the NHL who are actively trying to lose games than good teams who legitimately look like they’re going to win on any given night. Besides, as we all know, this whole thing is futile because the Oilers are going to win the lottery anyway. But just for the hell of it, let’s figure out which terrible team sucks the most. 

(KEY: Bolded in the schedule are teams who are also really bad.)

Toronto Maple Leafs: 27-35-11 (65 points) with nine games remaining (vs Boston, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Buffalo, vs Detroit, vs Florida, vs Columbus, at Philadelphia, at New Jersey). 

Edmonton Oilers: 30-40-7 (67 points) with five games remaining (at Los Aneles, vs Anaheim, vs Calgary, vs Vancouver, at Vancouver). 

Vancouver Canucks: 27-33-13 (67 points) with nine games remaining (at St. Louis, vs Chicago, vs San Jose, at San Jose, at Anaheim, vs Los Angeles, at Edmonton, at Calgary, vs Edmonton). 

Winnipeg Jets: 31-37-6 (68 points) with eight games remaining (at Buffalo, at Philadelphia, vs Ottawa, vs Chicago, vs Minnesota, at Anaheim, at San Jose, at Los Angeles). 

Columbus Blue Jackets: 30-36-8 (68 points) with eight games remaining (at Nashville, at Washington, at New York Islanders, at Carolina, vs New York Rangers, at Toronto, at Buffalo, vs Chicago). 

Calgary Flames: 31-37-6 (68 points) with eight games remaining (vs Chicago, at Arizona, at Anaheim, at Los Angeles, at Edmonton, vs Los Angeles, vs Vancouver, at Minnesota). 

Buffalo Sabres: 30-34-10 (70 points) with eight games remaining (vs Winnipeg, at Detroit, at Pittsburg, vs Toronto, at New York Rangers, at New Jersey, vs Columbus, at New York Islanders.) 

Wow, this is going to be tight! As of right now, seven teams are within striking distance of last place, as 30th and 25th in the league are separated by only five points. 

Right now, I think Edmonton is probably the frontrunner for tanking supremacy, which is sad and hilarious because there are other teams out there who are trying a hell of a lot harder than they are to be awful. The Oilers only have five games left, while everyone else has seven or eight, so there simply isn’t as much of an opportunity for them to gain ground in the standings, even though three of those games are coming against Calgary and Vancouver.

The Jets have a great opportunity to make up some negative ground in the standings, as they only have one game left against other bad teams. Same goes for the Sabres and Blue Jackets, who play each other once, but otherwise only have one other game against an awful team. 

I don’t like Vancouver’s chances, because they have nine games remaining, and three of them are against Edmonton or Calgary, and the Canucks seem to have a knack for getting points in overtime games, which isn’t good for their tank positioning. Same goes for Toronto, who seem to be finding a way to win games as of late. They have nine left on the schedule, so there’s a lot of room for error in which they can grab a few points here and there and pull themselves down in the tank standings. 

Prediction: I just can’t see anybody out-tanking the Oilers. They only have five games left, so even if they mess up and win a few of them, the absolute maximum amount of points they can earn is ten, and we all know that isn’t happening.