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With 11 games remaining in the season, the New York Islanders are closing in on an Eastern Conference wildcard spot.
While the top three spots in each division remain all but locked up, it's still anyone's guess which combination of teams take the final two spots. At this point, it’s tough to see any of the Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres or Detroit Red Wings getting into the playoffs. Technically possible, but there’s now more separation than we’ve seen at any point this season. Each team is at least six points back of the Florida Panthers for the second wildcard spot, with no team holding multiple games in hand.
It looks like it’s going to come down to three teams battling for the last two playoff spots: the Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Seeing the Islanders in this spot was unlikely only about a month ago. However, they’re rebounded to go 13-5-3 over their last 21 games, putting themselves right back in playoff contention, despite being without Mathew Barzal.
However, after putting together a great stretch of wins in important games verus some of the very teams they were battling against for a playoff spot, they suffered a tough loss to the Washington Capitals before the start of their Western Conference road trip. After dropping a second game in a row against the Los Angeles Kings to start the trip though, they did rebound with needed wins over the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.
As of now, the Islanders are one point up on the Panthers and two points up on the Penguins, but have played one more game than both. Of their 11 remaining games, here’s how their schedule breaks down:
- 6 home games, 5 away games
- 5 games vs. teams ranked in top-10 of NHL in points % (3 home, 2 away)
- 3 games vs. teams ranked 11-22 of NHL in points % (1 home, 2 away)
- 3 games vs. teams ranked in bottom-10 of NHL in points % (2 home, 1 away)
The Islanders do face some tough competition and an issue is most of the games against those top teams come early enough that their opponents probably won’t be resting top players yet. After a bit of a favourable schedule in March, we'll see if New York can rise up to get wins against some top teams.
The storyline surrounding the Panthers through much of the year was how the top regular season team in the NHL in 2021-22 had found themselves in such a bad spot just a season later. After trading off significant future assets on route to premature playoff exit, there wasn’t a lot to be happy about when the team looked to be destined to miss the playoffs this season.
However, things have changed and the Panthers are on an absolute tear right now. Florida is currently riding a seven-game point streak (6-0-1) and like the Islanders, they’ve battled back from a spot where few would’ve expected them to make the playoffs.
With Matthew Tkachuk averaging two points per game through March, Brandon Montour’s breakout year and expected offense from Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe, Florida is right in the mix.
Looking at their remaining schedule, it’s also somewhat favourable.
- 6 home games, 6 away games
- 5 games vs. teams ranked in top-10 of NHL in points % (4 home, 1 away)
- 4 games vs. teams ranked 11-22 of NHL in points % (2 home, 2 away)
- 3 games vs. teams ranked in bottom-10 of NHL in points % (0 home, 3 away)
The benefit to Florida's schedule is that they've seen significantly better results at home (21-10-4 at home, versus 15-17-3 on the road). Of their remaining games, they’ll have home ice in four of their five toughest matchups, against stronger opponents. Two of those will also be their last games of the season, where it's possible we see the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes resting players. Meanwhile, a lot of their road games come against weak teams (who have even worse home records than their road record).
Looking at momentum versus remaining schedule and the fact that the Panthers have a pretty healthy group right now, they may be the biggest threat.
While the Panthers arguably have the most momentum, on the flip side, the Penguins are the team trending in the wrong direction.
With Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang re-signing with the club last summer, there was emphasis on these next few years being the Penguins’ last few playoff runs of the Crosby era. They also proceeded to give up more future assets at the trade deadline, bringing in Mikael Granlund, Dmitry Kulikov and Nick Bonino.
While the Penguins seemed to be in a good spot to secure the first wildcard spot in the East at the time, things have gone south. The Penguins are riding a four-game losing streak and are stumbling into the final stretch of the season.
Of their remaining games, here’s how they break down:
- 6 home games, 6 away games
- 4 games vs. teams ranked in top-10 of NHL in points % (1 home, 3 away)
- 3 games vs. teams ranked 11-22 of NHL in points % (3 home, 0 away)
- 5 games vs. teams ranked in bottom-10 of NHL in points % (2 home, 3 away)
Their remaining schedule is arguably a little easier, in terms of remaining competition. That said, their games against the highest quality of competition do come primarily on the road, where the Penguins are only playing .500 hockey.
Missing the playoffs would be a massive failure for the Penguins at this stage, but they may still be the more likely team to fall out of the playoff race.
The battle in the East has lived up to expectations this year, with several teams trying to sneak into the postseason. At this point though, the picture is becoming clearer and with less than a month remaining in the season, we’re down to only a few teams going after the final few spots.
The upcoming games to track: the Panthers complete a road back-to-back against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, while the Penguins begin one against the Colorado Avalanche tomorrow.
The Islanders are back in action tonight, as they host the Toronto Maple Leafs.