With 15 or so games left in the NHL season, certain teams can start saying “playoffs” without being completely terrified of jinxing things beyond all measure. That being said, things on each side of the playoff picture are still very tight in both the Eastern and Western conferences and a lot can change, and usually does, going into the home stretch of the regular season. With the trade deadline having come and gone, it is really down to who can peak at the right time and who can hold onto a playoff spot and make it into springtime hockey. For the rest of them, its nearly time to start getting out their golf clubs or getting ready for some pre-season baseball.
The potential for big moves is still very much present in the NHL playoff picture as it stands, particularly in the Eastern Conference where the majority of the points are held in the top few spots. This means that pretty much anyone from 3rd to 12th, can move around enough to lose a playoff spot or make a drive for one at the end.
5. Ottawa Senators
With a few games in hand over some of the teams ahead of them, their situation looks a little worse than it is. Not only that, but Ottawa have been able to topple some of the bigger clubs this year – beating both Montreal and St. Louis in overtime in the last month – and their remaining schedule see them avoid most of the top teams in the league, aside from Pittsburgh in early April. So they have the opportunity to put together some great results together and make a run for a wildcard playoff spot in the East. What is more, a great deal of the Sens games in the next few weeks are going to be battling against teams that are very close to them in the standings, meaning that they can really be considered “four-pointers” and can cause some real swings in how things stand in the middle of the Eastern Conference.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
Without making this too much of a Canadian affair, it is hard to look at where the Maple Leafs are currently sitting in the standings without thinking that sooner or later there is bound to be a bit of a slide. Unlike the Senators and the Capitals and many of the teams down low, the Leafs are more likely thinking about holding onto a top spot. Looking back over their record this year – which is arguably very impressive – they have been incredibly streaky. Having managed to topple the Ducks in Anaheim recently, the Leafs took a bit of a beatdown from San Jose. What is more, the Leafs seem to be coming off of a long stretch of good form, which for them is usually indicative of a 5 or six game slide where they find themselves scratching for overtime points or somehow getting pummeled by 4 goals by the last placed teams. With so few games left in the season, it has to be asked whether or not there is time for the Leafs to be afforded such a slide as their cushion in the playoff picture is not as big as they would like.
3. Minnesota Wild
Having only registered one win so far in March over 4 attempts, against the lowly Flames no less, the Wild aren’t exactly on top form going into this crucial part of the season. To make things worse, they face the streaking Bruins in the coming days, and the Detroit Red Wings who are currently in the middle of the Eastern Conference melee for a playoff spot, so points will not be easy to come by. Combine this with two more dates with the St. Louis Blues, another try with Boston, and one each with Chicago and Pittsburgh and the run in for the Wild seems pretty bleak. It’s certainly going to be a fingernail biting time if you’re a Wild fan over the next few weeks, with any and all points looking like a blessing. They are really going to have to make sure to grab the points in the “easier” games as they hope to make their way into playoff hockey.
So if the Wild are looking like they could topple before the season closes out, who is most likely to take their place? While there seem to be just as many Canadian teams floating around the playoff berth on this side of the league too, I think it would be an optimistic view to suggest that Vancouver would be the team to make the charge. Things with John Tortorella this year certainly seem to have favored the Rangers in the coach swapping deal and the Canucks have only registered one regulation win in March over 6 attempts. It also doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the Winnipeg Jets claiming the spot, as the Jets have managed just 2 points in their last 5 games, one coming from an OT loss against the Avalanche with the other coming from a shootout loss to the Canucks.
2. Phoenix Coyotes
With a solid record in March – 4 wins in their last 5 games – the Coyotes seem to sense the legitimate chance of taking one of the wild card spots in the Western Conference playoff picture. With Boston being their hardest game as the season closes out, as well as a last minute date with the San Jose Sharks, the Coyotes look to have an easier run in than the teams around them also. As it stands, they also have a few games in hand over the Canucks, who are right behind them in the standings, so their likelihood of sliding downwards in the league is diminished further. The chance is there for the Coyotes and it seems like the only way for them to go is up and onwards into playoff hockey.
1. Detroit Red Wings
As a team who seem to always make the playoffs, Detroit cannot be counted out of this season yet, even though they find themselves sitting in around 10th place in the Eastern Conference with only 15 games to go. As well as needing their own results to start turning around, the Red Wings really need to see some of the teams above them start to panic about holding on to a playoff spot. With a few dates with Columbus – those will be 4 point games without question – and a few with Toronto, there is certainly space to make up the points they need to make it to the playoffs this year. Detroit have the experience and the depth as a squad, which they’ll rely on with Datsyuk and Zetterberg out, to make the change happen, and even though they are down in tenth right now in the Eastern Conference, Detroit tops our list as they have made it happen time and time again in regards to playoff hockey.