New York Islanders
The Islanders are the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference while playing in the toughest division in the league. They have managed to rebound from a shaky start to the year. After acquiring Bo Horvat they have solidified themselves as a playoff team for sure with the recent success they’ve had. Even with the momentum they have, they can’t oust any of the top-three teams in the Metro. There is a huge divide between the Hurricanes, the Devils, and the Rangers. Between the Rangers and the Islanders lies a 13 point gap. The gap in points between the lowest three seed in points (Tampa Bay – 90) to the Islanders is seven points. With only eight games left in the Islanders’ schedule, it would be really hard for them to push anyone out of their current spot. And they have to worry about Pittsburgh taking them over for the first Wild Card spot, with only 1 point separating the two teams. As the first Wild Card, they do have the “luxury” of potentially facing the Hurricanes in the first round. But if they fall to the second Wild Card, they will have to take on the mighty Bruins. Either way for the Islanders they have a tough road ahead of them. They have a battle-tested team that is geared more for playoff hockey than the regular season that they have proven in the past. What really lies in question for the Islanders is not whether they will make the playoffs. The hard question the Islanders will have to face is if they can truly go far as their goaltender Ilya Sorokin has taken them.
The Penguins have truly struggled to find an identity this season and that has shown through their terrible inconsistency this year. Even with the old guard of Sideny Crosby, Evgenii Malkin, and Kris Letang still around for the show, there is not much to truly make this team spectacular. The Penguins are the oldest team in the league with an average age of 30.27. Not to mention, in comparison to every other team in the playoff picture, Pittsburgh has arguably the worst goaltending right now between Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. Pittsburgh has been one of the premier playoff teams over the last couple decades with a couple championships in tow, so it’s hard to completely count them out. But since winning the Stanley Cup in 2017, the Penguins in five playoff runs have only won a round once back in 2018. Father Time’s clock continues to tick for the Penguins who look to make one last run with the crew they’ve got. Whether they steal the first Wild Card from the Islanders or stay where they are, they don’t have the best chances of taking down either of Boston or Carolina.
The Panthers have been the most disappointing team in the NHL this year. The President’s Trophy winners of last year are now scraping every last inch of ground to even make the playoffs this year. Lately they have been playing inspired hockey going 6-3-1 in their last 10 games to close the gap on Pittsburgh. The Panthers have 79 points and sit only 3 points behind Pittsburgh. Yet even with how close they’ve gotten in recent weeks, the Panthers’ path to the playoffs got wobbly this week. Regulation losses to the Flyers and Leafs marked their first losing streak since January, and the first time they’ve gone without a point in back-to-back games since New Year’s. The streak continued with Saturday’s loss to the Rangers, one that was followed by a dramatic Penguins win over the Capitals. All in all, not a great week for the Panthers’ chances. The other major concern facing the Panthers, if they make the playoffs, is are they even a threat? The Panthers have always been one of the league’s under dogs for a long time. The second best team in Florida, the dark horse everyone likes but can never seal the deal, the great team on paper that never truly gets it together. For the Panthers the time is now while there is still even the slightest chance to squeeze in. After that it’ll truly be a David vs Goliath scenario for them.
Everyone’s favorite “came out of nowhere” team has made this season incredibly fun to watch. Not only for the fans in Buffalo but the entire league. The Sabres over the past decade have always been the team that started red hot in October and then just immediately fizzled out like Icarus flying too close to the sun. But this year, it has been different for the Sabres. The odds look slim for Buffalo to end their 11 year playoff drought and are potentially extending that to a league leading 12 year playoff drought. Many believed once they traded away Jack Eichel that everything was going South for the Sabres, In fact, it became the opposite. Under GM Kevyn Adams, the Sabres have direction and will be a playoff team in the next couple of years. And a serious one at that. Sure, anything can happen between now and the start of the playoffs in April. But the numbers aren’t looking to be on the Sabres’ side. Luckily for Buffalo, this season has been an absolute win. Regardless of making the playoffs or not, they have brought life back into the city of Buffalo and the fans of the Sabres. The rebuild has started going in the right direction for the team. They have a healthy and dynamic prospect pool, have an incredible roster with tons of sprouting talent, and they are built like a team that will be a pain to play in the playoffs once they get proper goaltending.
The Kraken have rebounded big time from their inaugural season in the NHL. From a lottery team to a playoff contender in a season, Seattle has laid the groundwork for a solid playoff team. They didn’t take Vegas’ approach of hunting every big name player to add to their Infinity Gauntlet of talent to their roster. Instead, they’ve been more patient and slow in regards to putting their roster together. The Kraken currently sit in the first Wild Card after being a top-three team in the Pacific Division almost all year. The Oilers have ousted them out as their goaltending hasn’t been what the Kraken would have liked. For sure the Kraken have a well-rounded and deep team that can make and compete in the playoffs. But their slack of true star power and goaltending has set them apart from the top teams in the conference. That will come with time as Matty Beniers and Shane Wright continue to develop. They have a three point gap to hopefully beat out Edmonton, but the Oilers have been the hottest team in the league over the last month. Even if they don’t end up as a top-three team in the Pacific, they have a ton of potential to go far for their first playoff run. The West is wide open and they look to be playing the Minnesota Wild in the first round. If Kaprizov doesn’t play in the First Round and the goaltending plays above average in the playoffs, the Kraken can go on a run.
In February, the Jets were the top seed in the Central. In March, they are now the second Wild Card. As a Jet’s fan told me when asked if they can finish at the top of the Central Division, “The Jets are in control of their own destiny.” Luckily for any team in the Western Conference, like I said above for Seattle, the West is wide open. The Jets have arguably the best goaltender in the league in Connor Hellebuyck, and if he gets hot at the right time, the Jets could go all the way. Things just haven’t been going the right way for the Jets and they need to step things up if they want to be considered a serious threat in the playoffs. The stars like Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers have struggled of late and their power play needs to tighten up. Compared to where they were in February to where they are now has been disappointing. But they still have some time to make it back. They are only three points behind Seattle for the first Wild Card, but they are seven points behind Dallas. At this point, the Jets just need to hold their ground for their playoff spot and reset big time for the playoffs.
The hockey world has talked about how the Panthers and the Flames have been attached at the hip this season since the Matthew Tkachuk trade. Four points stand between the Flames and a playoff spot. They have a 13% chance to make the playoffs, and with eight games to make up ground everything has to go right. Which is ironic seeing as everything has gone wrong for the Flames this season. With some other teams around them stifling, and Calgary slowly making up their own ground, there is still a glimmer of hope for the Flames. Jacob Markstrom needs to be the anchor he was last year for this team to have an inkling of a chance to make the playoffs. A former Vezina finalist has fallen to the wayside with an .890 save percentage on the year. This team battled with the Oilers in the second round to now being almost completely out. They have the easiest strength of schedule for the remainder of their season, so now’s the time for Calgary to show everyone what they might be made of.
While they were sellers at the trade deadline, the Predators are still hanging on by a thread in the Wild Card race. However, Nashville dropped back-to-back contests over the weekend, which didn’t help their postseason chances. Not to mention, unlike the Flames who are 1 point above them, the Predators have the hardest strength of schedule for the remainder of their season. They have been able to stay in the mix off of the back of Juuse Saros in net. He hasn’t been putting up Vezina numbers, but the type of play he has showcased could have him nominated for the award any year. The Predators as a roster aren’t in the shape they would have hoped to be this time last year. Compared to the rest of the West their time is running out. They have a 14% chance to still squeeze in, but will it really be worth it?