At the beginning of the season, many experts were predicting that the battle for the four playoff spots in the MassMutual East Division would be tight; so far those predictions are bang-on.
With about a month to go in the NHL season the East currently looks like this (as of Wednesday evening):
- Washington Capitals - 60 points
- New York Islanders - 58 points
- Pittsburgh Penguins - 56 points
- Boston Bruins - 50 points
- New York Rangers - 46 points
- Philadelphia Flyers - 44 points
- New Jersey Devils - 34 points
- Buffalo Sabres - 27 points
Besides the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, there are six teams in the East Division who can claim to have a shot of making the playoffs this season: the Capitals, Islanders, Penguins, Bruins, Rangers, and Flyers (though they’re fading fast).
At the moment, the Bruins seem to be sitting somewhat comfortably in the 4th and final playoff spot with 50 points, 4 points up on the New York Rangers and 6 points up on the Flyers with 2 games in hand. However, there’s still enough time for those standings to change.
Assuming that the current top three teams in the division are bound for the playoffs, which of the remaining three playoff hopefuls has the best chance of locking up that final spot?
Let’s take a closer look at how the Rangers, Bruins, and Flyers are currently playing, then combine that with their remaining regular season schedules to determine who has the best odds of qualifying for the post-season.
The Philadelphia Flyers
On March 1, the Flyers were sitting in 3rd place in the East Division with a record of 10-4-3 and MoneyPuck.com was giving the Flyers a 71.8% chance of making the play-offs, and a 4% chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Since then, the Flyers have plummeted to 6th in the East division by only winning 9 of their last 25 games. MoneyPuck.com is now giving the Flyers a 6.5% chance of making the playoffs with a 0% chance of winning the Cup.
For the Flyers, a similar story has emerged this year, the same one that has plagued their team forever: poor goaltending.
After a stellar season last year from Carter Hart, the Flyers finally thought they had their goaltending problems solved for the foreseeable future; however, the problems in net may be worse than ever. In 26 appearances this season, Hart’s numbers have been downright dreadful (GAA 3.79 and SV%.872) and backup goalie Brian Elliott’s numbers are only marginally better (GAA 3.04 and SV%.888).
If the Flyers are going to have any chance of making the playoffs, their goaltending must improve drastically over their final 14 games.
In their remaining match-ups, the Flyers will have 7 games against teams who currently sit in playoff spots and 7 against teams outside the top four, including 5 more games versus the New Jersey Devils. While the Flyers are certainly not in an ideal situation currently, they’ve also been extremely streaky over the last few seasons, so a big winning streak is never completely out of the question.
New York Rangers
The start of the Rangers’ year was pretty much the opposite of the Flyers and Bruins.
On March 1, New York had a record of 7-9-3 and found themselves near the bottom of the division. MoneyPuck.com was only giving the Rangers a 27% chance of qualifying for the playoffs at that point, and a 0% chance of winning the Cup.
The big reasons for the Rangers’ poor start to the year were poor goaltending from their young goalies, an ice cold start for Mika Zibanejad, and the three-week absence of Artemi Panarin due to personal issues back in Russia.
Since March 1, the Rangers are 13-7-2 and have overtaken the Flyers in the East Division standings. The most noticeable difference between this team and the one from January/February is that their offense has erupted over the last six weeks. The Rangers have scored the third-most goals in the NHL since March 1 (86) and are the 7th-highest scoring team in the league this season (136 goals for).
Along with their much improved play of late, the Rangers have a very favorable schedule over the next two weeks.
The Rangers will have to face just one team currently in the playoffs over their next eight games.
Interestingly, the Rangers’ final two games of the season will be against the Boston Bruins. It’s quite possible that those two games could determine who captures the division’s final playoff spot.
This is year has been a bit of a roller coaster for your B’s, hasn’t it?
They got off to a hot start this season, but have played sub-par hockey over the last six weeks, winning just 10 of their last 21 games. We’re all too familiar with the Bruins’ difficulty scoring at 5v5; however, the Bruins have also been struck by the injury bug in a near-backbreaking way this season, particularly on the back-end.
The Bruins are 4th in the league in man-games lost, and have had to dress 12 different defenders so far this season, the most of any team in the NHL: Currently Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, Jaroslav Halak (COVID-19), Tuukka Rask, Trent Frederic, and Ondrej Kase are out of the lineup, and John Moore will miss the rest of the season following hip surgery.
It’s not all bad news for Boston though, as Charlie McAvoy returned to the lineup in the Bruins’ most recent game against the Sabres, Rask appears set to return tonight against the Islanders, and much needed reinforcements (Taylor Hall, Mike Reilly and Curtis Lazar) were added to the Bruins’ roster at the trade deadline.
While Boston is probably the best team of the three chasing the final playoff spot and have the greatest probability of qualifying for the post-season (77.6% according to MoneyPuck), there are some big question marks for the Bruins going forward. For instance, will the Bruins ever get fully healthy? How will Rask play down the stretch? How will the new players gel with the rest of the lineup?
While the Bruins have a couple games in hand on the Flyers and Rangers, they may have the toughest schedule remaining of the three teams. The Bruins will play seven of their remaining 16 against playoff teams, along with two against the Rangers and two against the Devils, who have had Boston’s number at times this season, winning four of the first six meetings this year.
In order for the Bruins to make the playoffs this season, it goes without saying that they’re going to need to improve their overall game.
Getting key players back from injury will certainly help, but the offense (especially the power play) needs to improve drastically. In addition, the Bruins need to take as many points as possible from their remaining match-ups with the Sabres, and find a way to beat the Islanders and Devils, who they’ll face twice more each this season.
For Bruins fans, the last month of the NHL season hasn’t been overly stressful for the last few years, but this year could be much different.
Fans accustomed to the Bruins fighting for the top spot in the league (or at least the division) may instead be forced to sweat out the conclusion to this season, as a playoff spot is far from certain.
Regardless of who makes the playoffs from the East, it should be a very exciting battle down the stretch.
Who do you see claiming the fourth spot? Do you see anyone currently in the top three falling off in a big way?