NHL Playoffs: 2015 Wild Card Race

As the 2014-15 season winds down many teams have all but clinched their playoff berth, but like most years the last few playoff spots are far from determined, with several close teams on the outside looking in. How good of a chance does your team have of making the playoffs?

Eastern Conference

Going into Thursday night’s action, the top 7 teams in the East held a 9 point cushion over 8th place Boston, the second and final Wild Card seed. With 20 games remaining (less for many teams), those top 7 can feel pretty safe in reaching the 2015 Playoffs, barring any major disasters. Unfortunately for the Bruins, just 4 points separates them from 3 other teams eagerly chasing a playoff berth. To try and predict the last Wild Card position, lets look at the season so far and the final stretch of games remaining for the 4 teams competing for it.

Boston Bruins (71 points, 20 games remaining, 94 point pace)

Currently holding down the final playoff spot, it is Boston’s position to lose. For a measure of difficulty of the remaining schedule, I averaged the current points/game of each team they will play and projected that onto an 82-game season. Boston’s remaining schedule faces them with teams on pace for an average of 94.6 points, slightly better than the Bruins’ present pace. The main challenge for Boston will be their match-ups against the teams chasing them, having to play Florida 3 times and Ottawa twice still.

Florida Panthers (69 points, 18 games remaining, 88 point pace)

Florida has been chasing Boston for that final playoff spot for some time, and though they’ve gained some ground there is still a lot of work left for them to pass the Bruins. As mentioned they have 3 games remaining with Boston which has the potential to make or break the season for either team. Of the other 15 remaining games, 8 come against teams in that safe top-7 group of Eastern conference teams, including 3 games against the conference-leading Montreal Canadiens. Overall the Panthers have a slightly more difficult schedule than the Bruins to finish, with their opponents on pace for 95.9 points.

Ottawa Senators (65 points, 20 games remaining, 89 point pace)

With a hot streak spurred on by newcomer goalie Andrew Hammond, Ottawa has thrust themselves into the playoff conversation. Hammond won his first NHL start February 18th against the Canadiens and has started every game since for the Senators, posting an impressive 6-0-1 record (1.35GAA, .957 Sv%). Ottawa has been one of the best teams in the league through their last 10 games which includes an undefeated trip through California where Hammond notched his first two career shutouts. They are very unlikely to continue at their current pace but they should be able to challenge Boston for 8th if they can sustain some of their momentum. Their schedule puts them against teams on pace for 91.9 points – the easiest of the 4 East teams looked at here – though 14 of their remaining games are against teams who currently have a better record than they do.

Philadelphia Flyers (66 points, 18 games remaining, 85 point pace)

The Flyers are just 5 points behind Boston for the final spot, but with the Bruins having 2 games in hand and 2 other teams between them, they certainly have their work cut out for them. Their upcoming opponents are on pace for 93.2 points, an easier schedule than Boston or Florida, but a third of their remaining games are against powerhouses in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Being at the back of the pack, it is unfortunate for Philadelphia that they only play the teams they are chasing 3 times (Ottawa twice, Boston), so these will be massive games for the Flyers as they try to keep pace and preserve their playoff hopes.

The final Eastern playoff spot really is Boston’s to lose, but I believe they will hold on to it. They have so many of their last games against teams chasing them, if they can win these important games they will likely make it into the playoffs again this year.

Western Conference

The Western Conference has a little more room for opportunity than the East. With only 4 teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, and Anaheim) seeming to be safely in a playoff spot, much can change in the coming weeks to the last few playoff positions.

Vancouver Canucks (75 points, 19 games remaining, 98 point pace)

The Pacific Division is wide open below Anaheim, and Vancouver has a great chance of making the playoffs as the 2nd or 3rd seeded Pacific team. They have more points than trailing Pacific teams Calgary, San Jose, and Los Angeles; as well as more (or as many) games left to play. They also have the easiest schedule to finish the season, as their opponents are on pace for just 86.6 points and only 6 of the 19 teams they play are currently in a playoff position. They will play Arizona 3 times along with Edmonton, Toronto, and Columbus once each. The Canucks are probably the safest pick to make the playoffs of any team in this list.

Calgary Flames (72 points, 19 games remaining, 94 point pace)

Like Vancouver, Calgary has an easier schedule than the other teams in the Wild Card race, with remaining opponents on pace for 89.7 points. The Flames only have 3 games against other teams in the West race, but with their final 2 games against Los Angeles and Winnipeg their fate may not be decided until the last day of the season. They also have some tough tests ahead in Detroit, Anaheim, St. Louis (twice), and Nashville.

Winnipeg Jets (76 points, 17 games remaining, 96 point pace)

With Nashville, Chicago, and St. Louis leading the Central Division, the Jets and Wild have their best shot at the playoffs through the Wild Card seeds. Unfortunately for both teams, their final games are significantly more difficult than the teams in the Pacific chasing them – Winnipeg still has to play St Louis 3 times, as well as games against Nashville, Montreal, and the Rangers. The Jets’ last 17 games are against teams on pace for 99.2 points, with only 4 games left against teams not currently in a playoff spot.

Minnesota Wild (75 points, 19 games remaining, 98 point pace)

Like Ottawa, Minnesota has been incredibly hot lately thanks to a new face in net. Since acquiring Devan Dubnyk in mid-January, the Wild have gone 16-3-2 and are now comfortably sitting in the first Wild Card spot, just 6 points behind Chicago for 3rd in the Central Division. Minnesota will need the success they’ve had with Dubnyk to continue in order to make the playoffs as they face the hardest schedule of any team on this list to finish their year, with games against teams on pace for 100.0 points. Five of their last 19 games are against either Nashville or St. Louis, and they still have games to play against Anaheim, Detroit, and the New York Rangers.

Los Angeles Kings (72 points, 19 games remaining, 94 point pace)

The reigning Stanley Cup Champions are not in the greatest position to repeat this year. Fortunately they only need to pass 1 of the 4 teams ahead of them to make the playoffs, and they proved in 2012 as the 8th seed that as long as they make it in they can win it all.  The Kings’ schedule is easier than the Wild or Jets, with their opponents on pace for 93.2 points. The final week of the regular season should be interesting as it will see Los Angeles play fellow playoff hopefuls Vancouver, Calgary, and San Jose.

San Jose Sharks (72 points, 17 games remaining, 90 point pace)

The Sharks are having their worst regular season in over 10 years, and could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Though their remaining schedule is easier than most teams they are chasing, with opponents on pace for 90.0 points, the Sharks have struggled playing teams much lower in the standings. Against the bottom 6 teams in the league this year (Toronto, Columbus, Carolina, Buffalo, Arizona, and Edmonton) San Jose is just 6-6-2. Four of their remaining games are against these bottom teams, if they are going to make they playoffs this year, winning most of those would be a good start.

Vancouver is the closest to a lock of any West team in the list above, and I think they will likely finish as either the 2nd or 3rd team in the Pacific Division. As a Sharks fan I’ve learned to never count out the Kings, and I imagine they will find a way to sneak into the playoffs, probably as the 3rd Pacific seed. I think the Jets will take the first Wild Card spot and make their first post-season appearance since returning to the Winnipeg, with Minnesota and Calgary battling for the final playoff spot (I give an edge to Calgary based on their remaining schedule)

 


All statistics and schedules from before games on March 5th, 2015

Cover Photo: Matt Stone / Boston Herald

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