NHL Playoff Race: Can the Leafs, Canes Make the Cut in the East?
NHL Playoff Race Enters Home Stretch, But Can Carolina Or Toronto Rally To Steal A Spot?
The NHL Playoff race has officially entered the home stretch, as no team has more than six regular season games to go.
Things are far from settled in the Eastern Conference, though, as five teams are still reasonably within striking distance for the last three spots in the postseason: The Montreal Canadiens (currently sixth), the Buffalo Sabres (seventh) and the New York Rangers (eighth) make up the bottom three playoff teams, were the season to end today.
But, the Carolina Hurricanes sit just three points back of the Rangers and Sabres, while the Toronto Maple Leafs sit just five points back of a playoff berth. Can either of them actually rally enough to make the postseason?
It’s going to be a tough go of things for the Leafs, who play just four more regular season contests. Two of those are against playoff teams, the Canadiens and Capitals, while New Jersey remains on a serious hot streak in the third. Finally, they do have a gimme against the Ottawa Senators, meaning that five points (one win, two overtime losses, one loss in regulation) is probably a reasonable expectation.
Carolina’s schedule, on the other hand, is slightly easier, with five games on the slate. Two of them are against non-playoff teams in Atlanta and the New York Islanders, so six points is well within reach. However, their other three contests, against Detroit, Tampa Bay and Buffalo will end up making the difference.
If the Hurricanes beat the Sabres, they can probably punch their ticket to the postseason. But, a loss would all but doom them to stay home.
The Rangers’ schedule does them no favors, as their next two contests pit them against playoff teams, the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. Their final games aren’t pushovers, either, as they face a plucky Thrashers squad and a streaking Devils team to round out their season.
Finally, you have the Sabres, who might have the toughest schedule out of the bunch. They’ll face playoff locks in Washington, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, plus that crucial game against the Hurricanes in their last five. Finally, they close with lightweights Columbus to end the season.
Look for the Rangers to stick in the playoffs, while the Maple Leafs remain on the outside looking in. The biggest changes could come after Carolina plays Buffalo, as the winner will likely advance to the postseason.
In the end, I think things will stay largely the same down the stretch, and the Sabres and Rangers will sneak into the playoffs.