By Allan Muir
By this time next week, NHL teams will have stopped lying to themselves. With only a quarter of this abbreviated season remaining, they’ll know if they’re in the playoff mix or not.
The prospect of having to face that hard truth only magnifies the significance of everything that happens between now and then.
With the trade deadline coming up on Wednesday, April 3, this weekend’s games could determine whether teams self-identify as playoff contenders or pretenders…and whether it’s time to go all in or start planning for next season. (Who has cap space to play with and who doesn’t.)
The key is to look beyond the standings and examine what it’s going to take to get into the dance after game 48 is in the books.
At the rate the Rangers are floundering, it could take just 51 points to secure the eighth spot in the East. That’s a little shy of the pass line that I’m setting at 52 to account for what I expect will be a surge in conservative play as teams scramble to at least take a single point out of as many games as possible.
The chart below considers what each team will have to do down the stretch to hit that mark. With loser points in play, there are different ways to arrive at the math. And the way the Southeast is playing out, it is possible that a team could take that division with as few as 50 points. But this will give you a general idea of how realistic each team’s postseason chances are. The two stats on the right show you how many points-per-game they’re averaging to this point, and what they’ll need to average down the stretch. When you see how much teams have to up their game, it’s clear how big a hurdle they have to jump to make the cut. (All stats as of Friday, March 29.)
Realistically, only the Islanders and Caps have a shot at overtaking the Rangers. The Isles have won three straight and six-of-10 as of this writing, which puts them roughly on pace to catch their rivals. Washington is just .500 over its last 10 games, but has shown signs that it could get hot enough to overtake the Jets. The Hurricanes are down to their third-string goalie, and their inability to get a big save at the key moments is killing them. The rest of the conference is playing out the string.
In the West, St. Louis holds down the eighth spot while averaging 1.09 points per game. That puts the cut-off pace at 53 points but again, I think the potential for a heavy dose of three-point games down the stretch will push this to 54. Here’s how it lays out:
The three-point gap separating the 10th place Stars, Oilers, Coyotes and Blue Jackets from the eighth spot may seem easy enough to bridge, but the odds are stacked against any of those teams winning 10 games down the stretch. Dallas plays at home three times during the next four nights and that stand could put them in the mix or into sell mode. The Blue Jackets were on a tear before Thursday night’s loss in Edmonton, but 10-3-1 seems beyond them. The Preds play the Blackhawks four times in their final 14 games. That doesn’t look good, but the inconsistency of the Blues could allow Nashville to hang close right to the end.