As of today, we’re officially down to one month left in the NHL regular season. And that means it’s time to start figuring out the postseason picture, with our annual look at the playoff bubble.
Most teams have about 15 to 17 games left, so it’s a little early to definitively declare anybody in or out — nobody has actually mathematically clinched anything. But I think we can all agree that a few teams are locks. The Ducks, Blues, Hawks, Sharks, Kings, Bruins, Avalanche, and Pens are in. The Oilers, Flames, Sabres, Islanders, Predators, Panthers, and Hurricanes are done. Everyone’s on board with that, right?
That still leaves 15 teams, which seems ridiculously excessive for a so-called bubble. Then again, this is the NHL’s Age of Fake Parity, where Gary Bettman & Co. pretend that every team with a pulse is still right in the thick of things even though we all know most of them really aren’t. (For example, here’s last year’s bubble piece, written with a quarter of the season left; note how absolutely nobody actually moved in or out of a playoff spot.) If that’s the image the league insists on projecting and fans want to embrace, who am I to argue?
In that spirit, let’s take a look at each of the 15 teams fighting for the eight remaining spots.
Group 1: Should Feel Pretty Safe
New York Rangers
Current status: IN (35-27-4, 74 points, three points up for wild-card spot or Metro berth)
Remaining schedule: The Rangers play 10 of 16 on the road, including five of the next six, but their record away from MSG is actually better than it is at home. In terms of opponents, they have one of the easier schedules of any bubble team; they’ll have 12 games against teams that are currently below them in the standings.
The optimist’s view: They have an easy schedule, they’re relatively hot, they’re just about completely healthy, and they just added a reigning Art Ross winner with a chip on his shoulder.
The pessimist’s view: Well, they just lost Ryan Callahan, so … intangibles? Sorry, I got nothing. They’re in.
Worth noting: It’s unlikely, but if the Lightning end up as a wild card, they could face Martin St. Louis and the Rangers as soon as the second round.
Current status: IN (35-25-7, 77 points, six points up for wild-card spot)
Remaining schedule: It’s all over the map, bouncing back and forth between top teams and also-rans. Overall, call it medium difficulty.
The optimist’s view: After a tough stretch in January that had coach Michel Therrien on the hot seat, they’ve steadied the ship. The current three-game losing streak is a concern, but they’ve probably banked enough points to weather it.
The pessimist’s view: Goalie Carey Price is still hurt, and at this point we’re not sure when he’ll be back. The Canadiens are not the same team without him, and if he can’t return soon, their cushion could vanish pretty quickly.
Worth noting: If the playoffs started today, they’d face the Leafs for the first time since 1979. And it would be awesome.