In the vernacular of the day, we can provide you with even more brackets, bubbles and locks.
The NHL is down to the final four … weeks left in its season, that is, and it appears at least 13 of the 16 playoff spots are already spoken for.
Barring a big streak or collapse by someone, the East’s two wild-card slots are between Pittsburgh, Detroit and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Colorado are fighting for the last spot in the West.
Everyone else appears safely in the field but who and where they will play is wildly in the air and will produce plenty of drama in the season’s final month. Remember the format: Teams 2-3 in each division play a first-round series while the division winners are guaranteed a first-round match against a wild-card.
A look at the divisions:
Boston has become a big story, moving into first place in a season that started with three losses and questions about coach Claude Julien’s status. That came amid the backdrop of a tumultuous summer without any major moves other than the trades of Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton. But Brad Marchand has become a star with 34 goals – third in the NHL – and the B’s have overcome home woes with a beastly 23-7-3 record on the road.
The Bruins have a one-point lead over Florida and Tampa Bay. A Boston division title would produce an epic all-Florida first round between the upstart Panthers and defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning. They have never met in the postseason since joining the NHL in 1992 and 1993, respectively.
Detroit entered Sunday’s play lurking four points back of Tampa Bay. The Red Wings are trying to extend the longest playoff streak in professional sports, which dates to 1991.
The 2-3 matchup here is just as juicy as the Atlantic, with the New York Rangers and Islanders spending the last several weeks on a collision course to the first round. That hasn’t happened since a Rangers sweep in 1994 that came on the road to their lone Stanley Cup of the last 76 years.
The Islanders’ slot, however, seems tenuous with goaltender Jaroslav Halak out six weeks with a lower-body injury. The Penguins learned Saturday they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin for six weeks (upper body) but gutted out a key 5-3 win Sunday in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. Stat to note going forward: That win improved the Penguins to an NHL-best 29-0-0 when leading after two periods.
Philadelphia, sparked by rookie defense stud Shayne Gostisbehere, lurks four points back. A 2-7 shootout record, including Saturday’s loss in Florida, has really hurt a Flyers team that was not figured to be a postseason bubble team.
Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago are all jockeying to avoid each other in the first round. The only way to do it is by winning the division. The Blues have won six straight, including Thursday’s win over Chicago and Saturday’s overtime triumph in Dallas, to forge a tie with the Stars at 91 points. The Hawks are three back. Dallas continues to struggle with its two-headed goaltender of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi while St. Louis is riding youngster Jake Allen.
The Blackhawks have been oddly mediocre for more than a month since their 12-game winning streak ended but they endured a similar March lull last year, and are working to incorporate new players acquired at the trade deadline like Andrew Ladd and former Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
Nashville, which had a 14-game point streak ended Saturday in Vancouver, appears solid for a wild-card. Minnesota pulled ahead of Colorado on tiebreakers for the second wild-card with Saturday’s win at Montreal while the Avalanche were blowing a two-goal lead and losing in Winnipeg.
The league’s weakest division appears to be the only one that will have three playoff teams. Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose are locks while Arizona, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton are toast.
Like the Central, a division title looks to be well worth it here. It would produce a first-round matchup with the Wild or Predators, which appears far preferable to one of the All-Calfornia battles that will take place between teams 2-3.
The Ducks have become the team to watch in the West, wiping out what was a 16-point deficit in the division in mid-January with a stretch of 18 wins over 20 games. They have currently lost two straight for the first time since the week before Christmas, and the Kings moved two points ahead of them with an overtime loss to New Jersey late Saturday night.
Los Angeles has a potential Western Conference final preview Monday in Chicago (8 p.m. NBCSN); the teams split their showdowns in 2013 and 2014, with the winner going on to take the Stanley Cup each season.
The Sabres were off Sunday after Saturday’s dramatic overtime win over Carolina. The game-winning goal by Jack Eichel came with one second left, the latest OT winner in the regular season in franchise history.
Eichel’s 22nd goal of the season made him the first NHL player to a win a game at 4:59 of OT since Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson beat Edmonton on Dec. 16, 2014.
The Sabres return to practice Monday and their next game is Wednesday night at 7 against Montreal in First Niagara Center. Buffalo has 12 games left and only four are against teams currently in a playoff spot.