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NHL playoff races are wild as deadline looms

The calendar says late January, so NHL teams coming out of the All-Star break aren't focusing on the end of the season as much as they're pointed to the Feb. 25 trade deadline. The next month will crystallize who should become a buyer or a seller, and those games will be needed to decode the dilemma.

If the league is looking for parity, it has certainly found it this year. There are 23 teams in a playoff spot or within four points of one as play resumes Monday night – including 13 of the 15 teams in the Western Conference.

Practices resumed Sunday and games get cranked up again Monday as New Jersey is at Pittsburgh and Winnipeg is at Philadelphia. With many teams following the All-Star break with their bye week, there are no more than three games on the schedule any night until Friday. In fact, Winnipeg is the only Western Conference team playing until Friday, and the Jets come out of the All-Star break flying with three games in four nights.

If you're looking for key numbers to help unlock the secrets to success, you may want to follow goal differential and road record. Of the 16 teams currently in playoff spots, the only one with either a negative differential or losing record away from home is Dallas. The Stars are minus-2 in goals and 9-13-2 away from American Airlines Center (where the Sabres play Wednesday night).

No one in the East holding a spot is lagging in either category, with Montreal's plus-5 the lowest differential and Boston's 10-10-4 mark the worst on the road. The Sabres, meanwhile, are minus-4 in goals and 10-12-3 away from home, so they need to pick up the pace in both categories.

Each team in the league has from 30-34 games left to play before the season ends April 7. Here's how the division and wild-card races currently stack up:

Atlantic

The race: Tampa Bay has made a runaway of things with a 37-10-2 record producing a monstrous 14-point lead and a 127-point pace. After that, anything is possible. Toronto (62 points), Montreal (61) and Boston (59) are all battling for second and a 2-3 Leafs-Habs finish would produce their first playoff matchup since 1979. The Sabres are at 54 points but have three games in hand over Montreal and one each over Toronto and Boston.

The Leafs seem to need another defenseman at the deadline if they want to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004 and it will be interesting to see if they get a long-term extension done with star center Auston Matthews in the next couple of weeks. A third straight first-round defeat, regardless of opponent, will certainly have the fan base up in arms at coach Mike Babcock given the massive expectations this season began with.

Noteworthy: All eyes will be on the Sabres' seven-game homestand that opens Friday night against Chicago. Four of the games are against teams currently out of the playoffs and a fifth opponent (Minnesota) is barely inside the West cut line so it's clearly a chance for Buffalo to collect points in its first real playoff push since 2012. Also of note: The Sabres still have three games left against Toronto, including the Feb. 25 deadline day game in Scotiabank Arena.

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Metropolitan

The race: Nobody could have forecast the New York Islanders leading the division so late in the year – and having more points at the break than the John Tavares-led Leafs. In his first year after winning the Stanley Cup in Washington, Barry Trotz is currently a runaway leader for coach of the year. And he can thank GM Lou Lamoriello's leap of faith to sign former Sabres goalie Robin Lehner – who leads the league with a 2.02 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in what's easily the biggest individual comeback story in the NHL. The Islanders are three points up on Washington, as the defending Cup champs are on an ugly 0-5-2 slide.

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Noteworthy: Columbus, which came into the NHL in 2000, has yet to win a playoff series in its history and appears to be going for it this year in the final season of contracts with winger Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets are four points back of New York in third place.

East wild-cards

Boston (59) and Pittsburgh (58) currently hold the spots. The Sabres and Carolina, both at 54, seem to be the only remaining challengers and Carolina has made up a seven-point deficit on Buffalo the last 2 1/2 weeks. You would think Pittsburgh – which has been much improved since slipping into last in the East in mid-November – would eventually creep into the Metro's top three. The Sabres' best chance might be overcoming a team that comes back to the pack. But which one?

Central

The race: Winnipeg and Nashville have pulled away from the pack to share the top spot, nine points ahead of Minnesota. Finishing first would provide home-ice advantage in a second straight Jets-Predators division final, although Winnipeg won Game 7 of last year's series in Bridgestone Arena. The Jets, however, had nothing left in their tanks after that series and lost to Vegas in five games in the West final.

Noteworthy: Colorado went worst-to-playoffs in the West last year but has struggled to a 5-12-3 record in its last 20 games after a 17-7-5 start. The Avs are facing a similar offensive crisis as the Sabres: A dynamite top line followed by little secondary scoring. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have spent some time apart and you wonder if former Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov can be had for offensive help.

Pacific

The race: It's over, with Calgary, San Jose and Vegas pretty much locked into the top three spots in some order. Fourth-place Vancouver is 10 points back. The top three teams are dynamite at home (50-14-12) but Calgary has forged a six-point lead over San Jose largely by going 16-9 on the road, the best record in the West.

Noteworthy: Since losing the Cup final in Game 7 at Tampa Bay in 2004, Calgary has won just one playoff series (a 2015 first-rounder over Vancouver). The Flames have not won a single playoff game over the last three years, sandwiching a pair of non-qualifying seasons around their 2017 four-game sweep at the hands of Anaheim. Vegas, meanwhile, is trying to become the first team to lose a Cup final and return to the ultimate series the next year since Pittsburgh fell to Detroit in 2008 and then beat the Red Wings in Game 7 in 2009.

West wild-cards

It's a total turtle race, with Dallas, Colorado and Vancouver all tied at 52 points and skidding Anaheim a point back. None of the four teams have won more than four of their last 10 games. Arizona (50) and St. Louis (49) are charging hard and Connor McDavid said at the All-Star Game in San Jose that everyone is forgetting Edmonton is just three points back even with all of its turmoil. Hard to see any of the survivors having much staying power come playoff time.

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