Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The optimist’s case for the eight teams still chasing down a playoff spot

We’re​ down to crunch​ time​ in​ the​ NHL​ playoff​ race, with​ 16 spots up​ for grabs and​ less​ than three weeks​​ to sort it all out.

At this point, we can basically break the league down into four groups. There are the teams that are already in, either because they’ve clinched (Tampa, Calgary) or are so close that they’re basically locks (Boston, San Jose, Winnipeg and several others). You’ve got the teams that are already out, like Ottawa and Los Angeles. And you’ve got teams like Arizona, Carolina and Columbus that are holding down spots right now and who would really like to run out the clock before somebody can catch them.

It’s the fourth group that we’re interested in today: Teams that are still alive but don’t have a spot today. According to Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections model, there are eight teams that wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they started today, but who still have a playoff probability north of zero percent.

Note that we’re not counting teams like the Sabres, Rangers and Ducks who are sitting at zero percent probability even though they haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet; we can call them the dead teams walking. We’re interested in the teams that still have a chance. A slim chance, in some cases, sure. But a chance.

It’s nervous times for fans of those teams. Some of them are probably pretty miserable right now. Today, let’s put on our optimist goggles and look on the bright side, as we make the case for why each of those eight teams is going to close the gap and make the playoffs. We won’t be right for all of them. There’s a good chance that we won’t be right for any of them, given how hard it is to make up ground in an NHL playoff race. But we’re going to try, if only because fans of these teams could probably use some news.

Finding optimism is going to be a challenge for some of these teams, so we’ll start off easy with the team that the model likes best and work our way down. (All odds are from the Tuesday morning update to Dom’s model.)

Let’s get positive, starting with the team that’s most likely to make the leap.

The team: Minnesota Wild

The race: The Wild sit just one point back of the Coyotes for the final Western wildcard spot. They could also theoretically catch the Stars, who are three points up, or even the Blues, who are five up. But the Blues and Stars each have a game in hand.

All in all, it’s not a bad spot to be in. And it’s why the Wild have the highest odds of any team currently on the outside looking in.

Their odds: 29 percent. Huh. That’s not actually all that high. This may be tougher than I thought.

Why they’ll make it: They’re chasing three teams and only have to pass one, which is a pretty good position to be in. If they can get hot, they’re probably in, and even if they can’t, there’s always the chance that one of the other teams will stumble down the stretch. Fans tend to focus too much on how many points a team has to make up and not enough on how many teams they have to pass and the Wild are in decent shape by both measures.

More importantly, the schedule serves up one more game with the Coyotes, on March 31 in Arizona. That means that the Wild control their own fate. Win that game, and hold serve the rest of the way, and they’re in.

Why they won’t: Yeah, about that schedule. It also brings games against teams like the Predators, Knights, Capitals, Jets and Bruins. That’s not good news for a team that’s already lost six of eight and has recently been saying things like “We have no heart right now.”

Parting words of optimism: Two weeks ago, the Wild went into Tampa and shut out the Lightning. Compared to doing that, catching the Coyotes should be easy.

The team: Montreal Canadiens

The race: With ten games to go, the Habs are three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes, who have a game in hand.

Their odds: 18 percent, down from over 40 percent just a week ago. That’s the biggest drop in the league in recent days.

Why they’ll make it: Last week was brutal, but there’s a chance to turn it around starting tonight as they get the Flyers, Sabres and Panthers over the next week. They also have one game each with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, meaning they control at least some of their own destiny. And while the last week looks brutal – it goes Jets, Lightning, Capitals and Leafs – those teams will have all wrapped up playoff spots and could be resting starters.

Beyond that, the Canadiens looked great on Saturday and just got robbed by a goalie who stood on his head. That happens. And when you’ve got Carey Price, it’s more likely to happen in your favor than the other way around.

Why they won’t: We can talk all we want about deserving a better fate, but last week really was devasting to Montreal’s hopes. Three or four points doesn’t seem like much, but history tells us that it’s a lot to make up in the first half, let alone in late March. And remember, they won’t hold the ROW tie-breaker on either Columbus or Carolina, so the gap is more like four and five.

On top of that, the offense has dried up and there isn’t a lot of time left to figure out how to get it back.

Parting words of optimism: You’re chasing a team that’s never won a playoff round and one that’s missed the postseason for nine straight years and you have Carey Price. You’ve got this.

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