A Look At The Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

Patrick McDermott:Getty ImagesPhoto: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

With the final week of the NHL’s regular season looming, it is time to take a look at the teams who are in a position to make a serious push towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Three teams in the Eastern Conference (Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Washington Capitals) have already secured their spots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while others are fighting for to secure a place. Here is a look at some key games for teams fighting for positioning in the East.

Washington Capitals (100 points, four games remaining)

Current Position: First in the Metro, three points ahead of New York Islanders

Schedule Breakdown: four games remaining (two home, two away)

  • Sat. 3/30 at Lightning
  • Mon. 4/1 at Florida Panthers
  • Thurs. 4/4 vs. Montreal Canadiens
  • Sat. 4/6 vs. New York Islanders

Likely First Round Opponent: Carolina Hurricanes (also possible: Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Canadiens)

Outlook: The Capitals are coming off of a home-and-home series sweep over the Hurricanes and have won three straight games. They have gone 13-4-1 over the past 18 games. The defending Stanley Cup Champions have a majority of their team from last season and are arguably even better with the additions of forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen. The Capitals also have six forwards with at least 20 goals and center Nicklas Backstrom should hit that mark as he currently sits at 19. Captain Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL once again this season with 49 goals. With one of the league’s top offenses, the Capitals should be among the contenders for the Eastern Conference, though their defense could be a question mark as defenseman Michal Kempny is out “indefinitely” and could be done for the year. They have an opportunity to clinch their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. If goaltender Braden Holtby plays the way he did last year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals should be in a good place to make a deep run once again.

New York Islanders (97 points, 4 games remaining)

Current Position: Second in the Metro (two points ahead of Penguins, who have a game in hand)

Schedule Breakdown: four games remaining (two home, two away)

  • Sat. 3/30 vs. Buffalo Sabres
  • Mon 4/1 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Thurs. 4/4 at Florida Panthers
  • Sat. 4/6 at Capitals

Likely First Round Opponent: Penguins (also possible: Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Capitals)

Outlook: The Islanders have been inconsistent in the past month. After getting outscored by a combined total 9-0 in games against the Bruins and Canadiens last week, they have won three of their past four games. Overall, the Islanders are 6-4-0 in their last 10 games. Their scoring average of 2.73 goals-per-game will not match up well against most opponents. Forward Anders Lee is the lone Islander to eclipse the 25-goal plateau (28). While their league-leading 2.40 goals-against per game is impressive, they will likely face a team with a potent offense. Both of their goaltenders are among the top-five in the NHL in save percentage, which should help them. They did not make any major moves at the trade deadline and could fall in the First Round if they remain inconsistent, but with reigning Stanley Cup Champion head coach in Barry Trotz behind the bench, don’t count them out.

Pittsburgh Penguins (95 points, 5 games remaining)

Current Position: third in the Metro (four points ahead of Carolina)

Schedule Breakdown:

  • Fri. 3/29 vs. Nashville Predators
  • Sun 3/31 vs. Hurricanes
  • Tues. 4/2 at. Detroit Red Wings
  • Thurs. 4/4 vs. Red Wings
  • Sat. 4/6 vs. New York Rangers

Likely First Round Opponent: Islanders (also possible: Capitals, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Canadiens)

Outlook: The Penguins have won three straight games and are 6-2-2 in their past 10. They once again have one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, averaging 3.36 goals-per-game. They have four forwards with 70+ points, with center Sidney Crosby leading the way with 94 points, and two players with 30+ goals (forward Jake Guentzel: 38, Crosby: 33). Their goaltending can be inconsistent at times but goaltender Matt Murray has played well since a rough start, earning a save percentage of .919. Pittsburgh made several moves to bolster the defense at the trade deadline but their average of 2.92 goals-against per game is in the middle of the pack. The Penguins have some tough competition to get through in the Capitals and the Lightning if they hope to get their third Stanley Cup in four seasons, but their strong offense makes them a threat in the East.

Carolina Hurricanes (91 points, five games to play)

Current Position: First Wildcard (one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets)

Schedule Breakdown: four games remaining (two home, two away)

  • Sat. 3/30 vs. Philadelphia Flyers
  • Sun 3/31 at Penguins
  • Tues. 4/2 at Maple Leafs
  • Thurs. 4/4 vs. New Jersey Devils
  • Sat. 4/6 at Flyers

Likely First Round Opponent: Capitals (also possible: Islanders, Penguins)

Outlook: The Hurricanes were one of the league hottest teams in 2019, going 27-9-2 in a 38-game stretch before a home-and-home series with the Capitals, where they lost both games by a combined score of 7-3. They have been impressive defensively this season as their goals-against per game average of 2.74 is tied for the eighth-lowest in the NHL and their penalty-killing efficiency of 81.9% is the sixth-best. The Hurricanes also take a lot of shots, leading the league with an average of 34.6 shots per game, and don’t allow very many, third-fewest with an average of 28.5 shots-against per game. The Hurricanes are likely to give their opponent a scare in a series but with their playoff inexperience (last appearance was 2009) and the competition they would face, it’s questionable how far they could actually go.

Columbus Blue Jackets (90 points, 5 games to play)

Current Position: second Wildcard (tied with Canadiens, against whom they have a game in hand)

Schedule Breakdown: five games remaining (one home, four away)

  • Sat. 3/30 at Predators
  • Sun. 3/31 at Sabres
  • Tues 4/2 vs. Bruins
  • Fri. 4/5 at Rangers
  • Sat. 4/6 at Ottawa Senators

Likely First Round Opponent: Lightning (also possible: Capitals, Islanders, Penguins)

Outlook: The Blue Jackets loaded up at the trade deadline, acquiring center Matt Duchene, forward Ryan Dzingel, and defenseman Adam McQuaid but they are not guaranteed a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they have been inconsistent since the deadline and are tied with the Canadiens for the final wild-card spot in the East, though they have a game in hand. They seem to be figuring it out as they have won three straight games and are 6-3-1 in their last 10. Their 84.7% penalty-killing efficiency is the third-best in the NHL, though their 15.4 power-play efficiency is the fourth-worst. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, they will most likely play the Lightning in Round 1 if they even make the Stanley Cup Playoffs after loading up.

Montreal Canadiens

Current Position: Out of the Playoffs (tied with Blue Jackets for second wild card)

Schedule Breakdown: four games remaining (two home, two away)

  • Sat. 3/30 at Winnipeg Jets
  • Tues. 4/2 vs. Lightning
  • Thurs 4/4 at Capitals
  • Sat 4/6 at Maple Leafs

Likely First Round Opponent: Lightning (also possible: Capitals, Islanders, Penguins)

Outlook: The Canadiens, who have gone 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, have been one of the most surprising teams this season after finishing with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but they have dropped off sharply since a red-hot start. Montreal lost to the Blue Jackets by a score of 5-2 last night in a game which had major implications on who will grab the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, so it might be a stretch for them to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs given their challenging schedule (every game is against a playoff team). The Canadiens have a relatively young offense and their 2.99 goals-per-game average is in the middle of the pack while their defense is an area where they could be exposed even though they have an average of 2.90 goals-against per game. Running into a goaltender of Carey Price’s caliber would be a nightmare for any opponent, though.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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