NHL Eastern Conference playoff race: Seven teams, two spots and so much mediocrity

By Peter Baugh, Max Bultman, Matthew Fairburn, Kevin Kurz, Rob Rossi, Arthur Staple and Josh Yohe

There are seven teams vying for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. There’s the third-place spot in the Metro, with the Philadelphia Flyers holding on and four teams still in the hunt; those same four teams are also pursuing the Detroit Red Wings for the last wild-card slot.

“Pursuing” might be too strong a word, though. Of the seven teams, the best record over a team’s last 10 games belongs to the Washington Capitals at 6-4-0 — which doesn’t exactly scream “We want this!”

So who does want this? We’ve broken down all seven teams in descending order of mediocrity to see why they’re still alive, why it’s been such a struggle and whether these teams can move out of the mushy middle next season. (Playoff percentages are from Dom Luszczyszyn’s model.)

Philadelphia Flyers

35-26-9, 79 points

Playoff chances: 75 percent

Why they’re still in it: For a while, it was their penalty kill and their ability to play a fast transition game, but lately that’s taken a hit, particularly after they traded Sean Walker, who was their most consistent defenseman. Still, the Flyers have shown that they have an ability to outwork other teams for long stretches while getting contributions from their depth, keeping them in third place in the division for the better part of the last two months. When they have off nights, they’ve been able to quickly recover, regardless of who has been in the lineup.

Why they can get in: After next Tuesday’s meeting with the Rangers in New York, the schedule eases up — of their final nine games, only two are against teams in playoff position: another game at Madison Square Garden on April 11, and a meeting with the Capitals on April 16 in the season finale. They could also get a few defensemen back for that final push, such as Nick Seeler, who led the league in blocked shots and was the feisty, heart-and-soul of the defense corps before his injury on March 5.

Why they could miss: The defense is in shambles. In Tuesday’s win over Toronto, the Flyers had rookies Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning as a pair, while older veterans such as Marc Staal and Erik Johnson are also going to be counted on until/if others (Seeler, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jamie Drysdale) return from their respective injuries. Their goaltending has also been suspect lately. No. 1 Samuel Ersson was pulled in two of his last three games before rebounding against Toronto, and backup Felix Sandstrom has never shown to be a consistent NHL-level goalie. They’ll also have to hope that coach John Tortorella scratching captain Sean Couturier this week doesn’t have any adverse effects in the dressing room.

Will they be here again next season: They’ll probably be the same kind of team they are this season: not a Stanley Cup contender, and not in the discussion for a top-five pick. While there could be some roster turnover, the new front office has made it clear that their rebuild — yes, they’re still calling it that — is going to take a little more time. That said, playoffs or not, they’re thrilled with the foundation they’ve put into place with a new culture and so many of their young player, such as Owen Tippett, Cam York and Tyson Foerster, taking major steps forward. — Kevin Kurz

Detroit Red Wings

36-28-6, 78 points

Playoff chances: 40 percent

Why they’re still in it: Mainly because of their parade through January and February, going 16-5-2 to begin 2024. Between outstanding goaltending from Alex Lyon, and a lineup that managed to score with ease, the Red Wings built up an eight-point lead in this race by late February. So for them, still being “in it” is more of a testament to how dreadful their collapse has been in March — with Dylan Larkin out, they were a shell of the team they were before, and the bail-out performances in goal have dried up, too.

Why they can get in: Larkin returned on Thursday and with him back, Detroit’s lineup will finally be able to slot itself correctly again. He’s their best player and the engine that drives them, and getting him back should help to maximize Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane too.

Why they could miss: There are plenty of advanced numbers to suggest that the Red Wings were due for a collapse down the stretch, with or without Larkin, and this stretch, during which the goaltending has come back to earth, may be the manifestation of that. When healthy, the Red Wings can trade chances with opponents, but their team defense has a bad habit of asking far too much of its netminders.

Will they be here again next season: For a rebuilding team that seemed to be breaking through, you’d like to think this is an easy yes, but it may be a bit more murky than some Detroit fans want to admit. The Red Wings are going to have a hard time making any upgrades next season, with significant raises due for Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider, putting them in a tricky spot with the salary cap. They also are likely going to need to find space for at least two rookies, and it’s possible there could be as many as three in Detroit’s lineup. While that should be exciting, it will also inevitably come with some rookie mistakes, and that makes it entirely possible the Red Wings actually see a slight step backward in 2024-25. — Max Bultman

Washington Capitals

33-26-9, 75 points

Playoff chances: 31 percent

Why they’re still in it: Spencer Carbery was not on anyone’s short list to contend for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach — at least not when he was hired. But he’s proven to be the perfect fit for the Capitals, who last season sold at the trade deadline and needed a fresh voice for different players who would join an aging core that won the Cup in 2018. Carbery has instilled the Capitals with energy and enthusiasm while weathering Alex Ovechkin’s poor start, not to mention the loss of Nicklas Backstrom. A good coach can elevate a perceived mediocre roster, and Carbery has proven to be a tick above good in his first season with the Capitals.

Why they can get in: The Capitals are flawed. But of the East’s wild-card contenders, the Capitals have been the most consistent in overcoming those flaws.
Consistency matters for in a tight playoff chase. Now that they’re in a favorable position, there is no reason to think the Capitals, barring a big injury, are going to suddenly hit a skid. They’ve basically been the same team all season. Also, captain Alex Ovechkin is playing his best hockey over the past couple of months. That doesn’t hurt.

Why they could miss: Only five teams began Tuesday with a worse goal differential. Eventually, that has to catch up with the Capitals, right? Since their 5-11-3 skid, which appeared to bury their playoff chances, the Capitals’ differential was plus-9 over a course of 18 games. What’s to-be-determined is if that trend is signal that Carbery’s group has figured things out, or if this recent run is an exception — and the Capitals revert to a team that doesn’t score enough to offset opponents’ offense. They’ve proven prone to slides, having started the season 1-3-1 and also had downswings of 2-4-1, 1-4-2 and 2-6-1. They haven’t hit a skid since early-February, so they might be due.

Will they be here again next season: Going into the trade deadline, GM Brian MacLellan made the point that the Capitals’ future is what he’s building toward. Going into this season, the next great Capitals team looked and felt as though it was at least a few years away — almost as though there was the space between that coincided with Ovechkin’s chase of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. They’re trying to thread a thin needle hole, similar to the Penguins. And there aren’t many successful examples of franchises that continue to contend while also eyeing the future. — Rob Rossi

Alex Ovechkin’s strong play is keeping the Capitals in the race. (Amber Searls / USA Today)

New York Islanders

29-25-15, 73 points

Playoff chances: 45 percent

Why they’re still in it: A six-game win streak from Feb. 26 to March 10 came at just the right time, while all the other teams around them stumbled. They’ve negated it with their current six-game winless streak, of course, but it’s not like anyone’s pulled away — even after Thursday’s 6-3 loss in Detroit, the Islanders still have a shot. Bo Horvat and Brock Nelson have had strong seasons, and Kyle Palmieri has come on over the last month. And Mathew Barzal and Noah Dobson carried the offense through the winter months, helping to at least grab some points that are keeping them afloat now.

Why they can make it: Ilya Sorokin has not been the same goalie who was the Vezina Trophy runner-up a season ago but he still has the potential to steal games, in theory. If he can do that a few times over the final 13, the Isles have just as good a case as any of these teams for a playoff berth. And during that six-game win streak, Patrick Roy’s methods seemed to finally sink in, at least temporarily. Maybe his team can get that mojo back somehow.

Why they can’t: This section could be 1,000 words. There’s the 15 blown two- and three-goal leads, there’s 22 blown third-period leads, there’s a league-worst penalty kill, a team that still allows too many high-danger chances and too many core players having very down seasons.

Will they be here again next season: Unless Lou Lamoriello finds a CBA loophole that allows him to void a few long-term deals, major changes seem almost impossible with this aging group. Being on the fringe of a playoff race in 2024-25 seems like a best-case scenario at the moment. — Arthur Staple

34-32-4, 72 points

Playoff chances: 3 percent

Why they’re still in it: The Devils have put together a season of mediocrity and are the beneficiaries of teams’ inability to pull away. There isn’t much hope left for the Devils — their odds to make the playoffs are under 10 percent — but there is a mathematical possibility. They’ll have to do something they haven’t done all year, though: put together a hot streak.

Why they can get in: The Devils addressed their goaltending at the trade deadline, bringing in Jake Allen and Kaapo Kahkonen. Goaltending has been an issue for the team all season, and Allen brings stability. He has looked good through two starts. The team still has star-level talent, too, with Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt at forward. Perhaps most importantly, Timo Meier has shown improvement since the coaching change.

Why they can’t: The math isn’t in their favor, plus the team has roster holes caused by injury (Dougie Hamilton and Joonas Siegenthaler are both out) and trades (Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller are on the Jets now). But perhaps most importantly, the Devils have shown an inability to get hot and sustain momentum throughout the entire season. It’s hard to see that changing now.

Will they be here again next season: With a good offseason, Tom Fitzgerald can have this team in a better spot this time next year. The core pieces are there, and young defensemen Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes should take steps forward after promising but inconsistent rookie campaigns. Fitzgerald indicated he wants to go “big-game hunting” for a starting goaltender to play in front of Jake Allen, who has another year left on his contract. If the Devils address that need and have better health in 2024-25, the team could return to what it was during a successful 2022-23 regular season. — Peter Baugh

33-33-5, 71 points

Playoff chances: 2 percent

Why they’re still in it: The main reason is that the teams around them refuse to run away with it. Even after stumbling against the Red Wings last Saturday, the Sabres held onto slim odds because the Red Wings and Islanders lost the next day. They’ve gone 1-1 since then and will need to get more consistent scoring to string together enough wins to stay alive.

Why they can get in: The Sabres have played their best hockey of the season recently, which gives them an outside chance at staying in the race. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is giving them elite goaltending, and that could be enough to help them stack wins. They also still have another game against the Red Wings, as well as two games against the Capitals (both at home) and a game against the Devils. That gives them a chance to make up ground against some of the teams they’re chasing. Bowen Byram has been a major boost to the lineup, too. He’s helping Buffalo play with the type of pace that made them one of the best offensive teams in the NHL last season.

Why they can’t: The teams around the Sabres have games in hand, and Buffalo is already seven points back with 11 games to play. After playing at a 73-point pace in October, November and December, the Sabres probably dug too deep of a hole. The Sabres haven’t had a winning streak longer than three games all season. That will have to change if they’re going to put together the type of run necessary to pull off the unlikely. No team has ever come back from as many as nine points down through 64 games, which is where the Sabres were on March 8.

Will they be here again next season: The Sabres hope to be in a more advantageous standing at this time next year. If the improvements they’ve made on defense and in net hold up next season, Buffalo just needs a bounce-back performance from their top scorers to make a stronger playoff push next season. They’re still a young team with enough cap space to make significant additions to the roster and get over the edge. They also have reason to belief more growth is possible from within, with so many young players in significant roles in the lineup. — Matthew Fairburn

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Alex Ovechkin’s strong play is keeping the Capitals in the race. (Gregory Shamus / USA Today)

Pittsburgh Penguins

30-29-9, 69 points

Playoff chances: 5 percent

Why they’re still in it: Oh, they barely are at this point. But the fact of the matter is that the Penguins have been a good five-on-five team for most of the season and that the combination of Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic has given them above-average goaltending. Following a recent slump, Sidney Crosby looks to be heating up again and has performed at better than a point per game all season. The Penguins are a proud group, and their locker room employs a wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, so it’s always conceivable that some magical switch could flip, though it looks wildly unlikely at this point.

Why they can make it: The Penguins are oddly healthy at the moment, as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are close to playing all 82 games for a second consecutive season. The Penguins aren’t dealing with injuries to any major contributors at the time, and they still get to play many of the teams they’re chasing, including Washington, New Jersey, Detroit and the New York Islanders.

Why they can’t: Have you seen them play lately? They simply aren’t a good team. Their power play has been laughably bad all season, which is really something, given the caliber of players that represent that unit. Their defensive lapses are impossible to ignore. Mike Sullivan is a great coach, but the Penguins don’t look like a well-coached team right now. Then there’s the psychological reality that the Jake Guentzel trade produced. Kyle Dubas doesn’t exactly think this is a team capable of making any kind of run, based on his moves before the deadline. And why would he? They didn’t make the playoffs last season and the Penguins are a worse version of themselves this season. There is a very real sense of resignation around the team these days.

Will they be here again next season: That seems quite likely. The Penguins won’t fall off a cliff entirely, because Crosby won’t let them, and they won’t go into full rebuild mode because more than half of their roster — literally — has a full or partial no-movement clause. They’re dying a slow death, basically, and Dubas has already implied that he will be aggressive in free agency this summer. So, they probably won’t be a terrible team next season, but all indications are that they’ll be in this pack once again. — Josh Yohe

(Top photo of Philadelphia’s Ryan Poehling and Detroit’s Alex DeBrincat: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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