With the trade deadline passed and just more than one month left in the regular season, we’re officially into the Bubble Zone. That’s the section of the schedule where we obsessively chart the ups and downs of the various teams fighting for the final playoff spots.
How exactly do you define the bubble? In today’s NHL, with its loser points and fake parity, teams don’t actually move around all that much, and breathless declarations about how fascinating the playoff race will be often are an exercise in optimism. It’s basically a little fake excitement before the dust settles and we realize the same teams have been holding down spots since November.
But that kind of realism is no fun, so let’s pick an arbitrary number instead. How does 10 points sound? That’s a nice round number, so let’s go with that. Any team within 10 points of a playoff spot as of today is officially in bubble territory.
Based on that, we can go ahead and declare that any team more than 10 points clear of ninth place in its conference is a mortal lock, which means the following teams are in: Nashville, Montreal, Anaheim, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, both New York teams, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. And we can pour one out for the following teams, which are at least 10 points back of the final spot and therefore have no hope: Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton, Carolina, Toronto, and Columbus.
That leaves us with 14 teams fighting for six spots, which is pretty similar to what we’ve had in past years. Here’s how those teams would appear to shake out.
Group 1: Should Feel Pretty Safe
Current status: IN (35-20-10, 80 points, 11 points up on ninth)
Remaining schedule: They start a five-game homestand tonight, and nothing the rest of the way really stands out as especially difficult, with the possible exception of April, by which point they should have things wrapped up. They don’t have any games left against the ninth-place Panthers, but they do play the eighth-place Bruins twice.
The optimist’s view: The Caps have been rolling since December, and with a nine-point lead, it would take an epic collapse to cost them a spot. Those types of collapses do happen, but there haven’t been any signs that Washington is vulnerable.
The pessimist’s view: Braden Holtby has pretty much been a one-man show in goal, so if he ever got hurt, they’d be in trouble. That’s about all I can come up with.
Worth noting: While they’re sitting in a wild-card spot, they’re actually far closer to winning the Metro than they are to missing the playoffs.
Current status: IN (32-21-12, 76 points, four points up on ninth, although that’s a bit misleading)
Remaining schedule: It’s rough. They begin a four-game road trip this weekend that includes stops in Nashville, St. Louis, and Tampa, and they close the month with home games against Montreal, Chicago, and the New York Rangers.
The optimist’s view: Few thought the Jets would be a playoff team, and we’ve all spent the season waiting for them to drop out of the race, but they just keep banking points. Those points should come in handy now; with a four-point cushion and multiple teams between them and the last spot, they could survive a mini cold streak or two. As long as Michael Hutchinson keeps playing well (and getting starts), they should avoid the kind of losing streak that would drop them out of the race.
The pessimist’s view: The Wild are on fire, and if they pass Winnipeg, the Jets suddenly start to look vulnerable. Everyone still expects the Kings to find a way in, which would leave the Jets needing to fend off the Flames and Sharks, two teams that have been just about impossible to predict all season. And with Dustin Byfuglien getting hurt last night — at this point, we don’t know how badly — this whole thing doesn’t look quite so comfortable any more.
Worth noting: The Kings and Sharks are right behind them in the wild-card standings, but the lead is a little safer than it looks; both California teams would actually pass the Flames (and maybe Canucks) in the Pacific standings first.
Group 2: Would Need a Miracle
New Jersey Devils
Current status: OUT (27-27-10, 64 points, seven points back of eighth)
Remaining schedule: Five of their next seven come against non-playoff teams, including games with the Sabres and Coyotes. They’ll need to bank those points, because after that it gets tougher.
The optimist’s view: Sometimes you just need to get hot at the right time, and they’ve been reasonably hot lately, including Tuesday’s win over the Predators.
The pessimist’s view: They’re seven back, they don’t have games in hand, they don’t play the team they’re chasing (Boston), and they have to pass two other teams. That’s … not good.
Worth noting: This would be the third consecutive year the Devils miss the playoffs. Since their first playoff appearance in 1988, they’d missed the playoffs only three other times total.