A Look at the Wild Card Race in the Eastern Conference

Mike Stobe:Getty ImagesPhoto: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As the NHL season winds down with fewer than 15 games remaining in the regular season for most teams, this time of year tends to bring out the best in everyone as they scrap and claw for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and home-ice advantage. While there are a handful of locks to get into the dance from each conference, several spots remain up for grabs. NoVa Caps takes a look at the highly competitive race in the Eastern Conference where six teams are fighting for three spots.

Current Standings:

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Toronto Maple Leafs (13 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/10 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
  • 3/19 vs. New York Islanders
  • 3/21 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
  • 3/23 vs. Florida Panthers
  • 3/25 at Lightning
  • 3/26 at Carolina Hurricanes

Split: eight home/five away

Outlook: The Maple Leafs missed a huge opportunity when they went 0-2-1 during their California road trip against three of the worst teams in the NHL this season.  As a result, they lead the Panthers by only three points for the final spot in the Atlantic Division, with Florida having a game in hand.

The schedule is pretty daunting the rest of the way for the Maple Leafs, with two games against the Lightning and the rest against teams they are trying to fight off, including a huge game against the Panthers on March 23.

While the Maple Leafs’ average of 3.41 goals-per-game is tied with the Colorado Avalanche for third in the NHL, their average of 3.20 goals-against per game is the worst of any team currently occupying a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. It certainly doesn’t help that Morgan Reilly has been out since January 12. The Maple Leafs have the talent to grab that spot in the Atlantic Division or make the cut for a wild card spot, but they face a challenging schedule with the Panthers stalking them.

Columbus Blue Jackets (12 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/12 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
  • 3/19 vs. Washington Capitals
  • 3/21 at Maple Leafs
  • 3/24 at New York Rangers
  • 3/27 at Lightning
  • 3/30 vs. Islanders
  • 4/2 vs. Lightning
  • 4/3 at Carolina Hurricanes

Split: five home/seven away

Outlook: The Blue Jackets have been one of the best stories in the NHL this season, going 19-2-5 from December 9 to February 7 to power their way into a wild card spot after losing leading scorer Artemi Panarin and No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last summer and suffering through a number of injuries. However, they have gone 3-6-6 since that stretch and continue to miss some big pieces like defenseman Seth Jones, forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, forward Josh Anderson, and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

Columbus leads the pack of wild card contenders in the Eastern Conference, but they still have a mountain of injuries and everyone chasing them has at least two games in hand. Never count out a team coached by John Tortorella, but with the injuries, the fact that everyone has games in hand, and the team’s average of 2.57 goals-per-game (the worst of any team that is currently occupying a wild card spot right now), it appears that they could miss the playoffs after stunning the hockey world by sweeping the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the Lightning in Round 1 last year and with their success this season.

Carolina Hurricanes (15 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/14 vs. Penguins
  • 3/22 at Islanders
  • 3/24 at Penguins
  • 3/26 vs. Maple Leafs
  • 3/28 vs. Penguins
  • 3/31 vs. Boston Bruins
  • 4/3 vs. Blue Jackets
  • 4/4 at Bruins

Split: eight home/seven away

Outlook: After a 5-0-0 start to the season, the Hurricanes have been in and out of a playoff spot for the last several months. They earned huge wins over the Islanders and Penguins this weekend to reclaim the final wild card spot in the East.

Defensemen Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, and Sami Vatanen are all on the shelf due to injury for the near future, but Carolina’s average of 2.85 goals-against per game is tenth in the NHL and they helped their blueline by adding Brady Skjei at the trade deadline. They also bolstered their center depth with the addition of Vincent Trocheck. The Hurricanes made the case that they very well could have won the trade deadline but that won’t matter if their .913 save percentage remains the seventh-worst in the NHL. To make things worse, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have not played due to injuries since February 22 but Mrazek could be nearing a return.

The Hurricanes face a horrid schedule where they play the Penguins three times in the next two and a half weeks and the Bruins twice in the final week of the regular season, but if they play like they did this weekend, this should be a Stanley Cup Playoff team.

New York Islanders (15 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/15 at Penguins
  • 3/19 at Maple Leafs
  • 3/22 vs. Hurricanes
  • 3/24 at Philadelphia Flyers
  • 3/30 at Blue Jackets

Split: six home/nine away

Outlook: Since a franchise-record 17-game point-streak where they went 15-0-2 ended in November, the Islanders are 19-20-7 and rank 23rd in the NHL with a .489 points percentage. They face a challenging schedule the remainder of the year with the Western Canada trip and some games against opponents fighting for their lives or positioning.

The Islanders average of 2.76 goals-per-game is 22nd, and while they are tied for seventh with an average of 2.78 goals-against per game, defensemen Adam Pelech (Achilles) is done for the season and Johnny Boychuk (eye) has no timetable to return. The fact that the Islanders have to go against some of the top offenses in the league the rest of the way and are only 2-5-3 in their last 10 makes it hard to see them making the Stanley Cup Playoffs after shocking many a season ago. However, don’t count out a team coached by Barry Trotz.

New York Rangers (14 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/18 vs. Penguins
  • 3/20 at Penguins
  • 3/24 vs. Blue Jackets
  • 3/26 at Capitals
  • 4/1 vs. Flyers
  • 4/2 at Penguins

Split: five home/nine away

Outlook: A six-game winning streak in February catapulted the Rangers into the wild card race after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past two years.

Panarin has led the way with a career-high 93 points this season and Mika Zibanejad (who ranks fifth in the NHL with 39 goals), Ryan Strome (career-highs with 40 assists and 59 points), and Tony DeAngelo (career-highs with 15 goals, 53 points, and a +10 rating) have taken big steps this season to help the Rangers climb into a tie with the Flyers for fifth in goals-per-game (3.34). Though, their average of 3.16 goals-against per game is the sixth-worst in the league.

Rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who is 9-2-0 with a .931 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average this season, has earned the No. 1 job in the Big Apple and has returned from injury, so that should help them with the push toward the finish line. They can grab a wild card spot but it will be tough in such a tight race.

Florida Panthers (14 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/23 at Maple Leafs
  • 3/28 at Bruins
  • 3/30 vs. Rangers

Split: six home, eight away

Outlook: The Panthers were expected by many to take a huge step forward this season, but that has not been the case as they are three points out of the final wild card spot and the final divisional spot in the Atlantic Division. The road to get there will be anything but easy as their game against the Maple Leafs in two weeks will be pivotal for both squads and they face the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues twice in the next two weeks.

This season has been no different in Florida as they rank eighth with an average of 3.32 goals-per-game but 29th with an average of 3.29 goals-against per game. The Panthers definitely have the talent to make some noise in the next few weeks but it won’t matter if Sergei Bobrovsky has a .900 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average after they gave him $70 million to fix their goaltending issues.

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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