Today’s Daily Cup of Joe has an updated look at the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The short version is that it is a dog fight, and with the New York Rangers climbing up into the fray, it feels like someone with 105 point is somehow going to miss the playoffs.
As I said on Twitter today:
Not likely but it's not impossible that team could finish 7th in Metropolitan but good enough to win the Pacific Division. Gap is only 6 points right now with 3 games in hand.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) February 27, 2020
Below is a quick try at handicapping the race with my ‘subject to change’ in three days prediction for how it ends.
In the Metropolitan Division, I am giving only the Washington Capitals a bye for being free and clear of the dog fight for a playoff spot.
At 80 points in second place and with a six-point gap above the playoff cut line, the Penguins seem to be a reasonably safe bet to emerge as a playoff team even with a slip or two down the stretch. But the Penguins has lost four straight and are trending downward right now.
My bet: The Pens have a cushion and some high-end leaders who have been there a time or two. Not sure if they finish weak or strong, but I do think they at least make the playoffs.
Of the teams in playoff position, the Flyers are a team that surprises me a bit. The Flyers have risen to third place and their 7-3-0 mark in their last 10 games is second only to the Rangers scorching 9-1 pace. Philadelphia has had intermittent goaltending issues and is not a great team defensively. But what jumps out when I watch them and also peruse their stats is how deep they are offensively.
My bet: To be honest, I do not get this team. I feel like the Flyers are a team that could slip down the stretch, but then I have been wrong about that for 62 games so far.
New York Islanders
The Islanders started the 2019-20 season red hot and have to some degree just been treading water since. The Isles are 4-4-2 in their last 10 and have lost two straight. Maybe sensing the need for a spark, the Isles added defenseman Andy Greene and forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline. But the Isles are still a team trying to build a floor somewhere above the playoff cut line.
My bet: Even with the reinforcements, I think the Isles could keep falling.
Columbus Blue Jackets
One of the most underappreciated stories of the 2019-20 season is the relative success of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That team was left for dead last summer when long-time stars and leaders Bobrovsky and Panarin left via free agency. When the rentals from the last trade deadline also departed, the team looked to be decimated in terms of high-end players. On top of that the team has been ravaged by injuries. But Head Coach John Tortorella got the group to buy in at 100 percent and built a winner driven not by names but by system and commitment. After a hot stretch to push above the playoff cut line, the team has been struggling a bit of late with a 1-4-5 mark. No doubt injuries to Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson have played a role in the downturn.
My bet: I think the injuries to Jones and Atkinson will prove to be the injuries that broke the camel’s back. If I am wrong and Columbus makes the playoffs, shame on anyone who does not vote Tortorella for coach of the year.
The Hurricanes continue to ride the roller coaster up and down. The Hurricanes’ 5-4-1 mark reflects the team’s ups and downs and inability to find any kind of sustainable momentum. The Canes are also suddenly facing injury and roster challenges. When Sami Vatanen draws into the line (and assuming the two AHL goalies are still there), the Canes will have changed five players on their 20-man roster. I think the deciding point for the 2019-20 season could be how quickly Brind’Amour can figure out the lineup and how to get at least one goalie settled in.
My bet: I think the Hurricanes continue to be up and down and therefore end up battling for the final playoff spot.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are the best team in the Metropolitan Division right now and are playing as well as anyone in the NHL. The Rangers’ 9-1 mark in their last 10 games has the Blue Shirts within two points of a playoff spot and rising. The team is getting stellar goaltending right now and is just an all-around good hockey team. Momentum can be fleeting, but if the Rangers continue their current trajectory, they make the playoffs easily.
My bet: I think the Rangers have seized momentum at the right time. Based on that, I think they push up into the playoffs.
My wild guess for how it ends
2nd place — Pittsburgh Penguins: Between the current cushion and the top-end players leading the way, I think Penguins finish where they are right now.
3rd place — Philadelphia Flyers: As I said above, I still do not really get it, but I think the Flyers continue on their current course and set up a feisty first round playoff match up against the Pens.
4th place — New York Rangers: The Rangers are the best team in the Metro right now, and there is plenty of time to continue climbing. I think the Rangers do exactly that.
5th place — Carolina Hurricanes: To be completely honest, this is more hope than rationale. The key for the Hurricanes is to win at least one from the back-to-back set this weekend to gain some footing with all of the changes. That sets up an odd four-day layoff to practice and maybe buy time for goalie healing if needed. Then I hope the Canes find enough wins to hold onto the last playoff spot.
6th place — New York Islanders: The Islanders have not been great since the beginning of the season. I think their gradual slide continues even with the couple reinforcements that they added.
7th place — Columbus Blue Jackets: I think the Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson injuries will finally be too much to overcome, so I have the Blue Jackets continuing their decline.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of the teams in the Metropolitan Division fray, which one is the best right now?
2) Are the Hurricanes a playoff team? Why or why not?
3) Who else has the guts to try to rank the Metropolitan Division?