NHL Bubble Teams' Chances of Reaching the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs
With just four weeks to go in the National Hockey League's 82-game regular season, the playoff picture is coming into focus.
For a good part of the year, many teams were bunched together. It looked like nothing much would be settled until the late stages of the calendar, but some separation has occurred.
Blame Canada for starters. All seven Canadian teams have dropped to the lower reaches of the league standings, virtually guaranteeing that the 2016 Stanley Cup champions will be based in a U.S. city for the 23rd consecutive year.
With those teams out of the way, we're left with what boils down to a two-horse race in the Western Conference, while a couple of Eastern teams have their sights set on three vulnerable teams on their side of the bracket.
Sports Club Stats is an excellent resource for the mathematical probabilities of teams reaching the postseason. The website factors in variables such as head-to-head competition and the likelihood of three-point games but doesn't try to quantify late-season hot streaks or individual player surges, slumps or injuries. It's a good jumping-off point, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
Here's the lay of the land after completed games on March 13. Who do you think looks vulnerable? Will the challengers be able to do enough to knock them out?
New York Islanders
2015-16 Stats: 66 GP, 37-21-8, 82 pts, third in Metropolitan Division
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 98.8 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Pittsburgh Penguins (2), Philadelphia Flyers (2), Carolina Hurricanes (2)
Helping Their Chances: The New York Islanders hold a two-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division, but the Islanders have one or more games in hand on every team in the Eastern Conference. The Isles' 7-2-1 record over the last 10 games also ties them with the Philadelphia Flyers for the best record in the Metro during that span.
Hurting Their Chances: The Islanders are 0-1-1 in front of Thomas Greiss since starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak suffered a groin injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, per Arthur Staple of Newsday. Greiss, 30, has been excellent this season, posting an 18-7-4 record and pushing Halak for more minutes.
With Halak expected to be sidelined for six to eight weeks, the Islanders' fate down the stretch run and—presumably—into the postseason will rest squarely on Greiss' shoulders. As a career backup, there's no way of knowing whether Greiss can handle the workload or the pressure as the stakes get higher.
In or Out: IN
Mathematically, the Islanders are still in good shape to secure a postseason berth. Losing Halak may mean they could drop into a wild-card spot by the end of the season—and the first round would be interesting. The playoffs begin just over five weeks after Halak was injured, meaning Greiss would almost certainly be asked to shoulder the early load, at the very least, in the first round.
2015-16 Stats: 68 GP, 36-24-8, 80 pts, fourth in Metropolitan Division, first wild-card spot in Eastern Conference
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 88.3 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: New York Islanders (2), Carolina Hurricanes (1), Philadelphia Flyers (3)
Helping Their Chances: The Pittsburgh Penguins are nestled into the first wild-card spot and seem to be a more cohesive unit since new coach Mike Sullivan took over the team on Dec. 12.
The Penguins are trending in the right direction with a 6-4-0 record in their last 10 games, and Sidney Crosby has rediscovered his scoring touch. After a slow start, Crosby is up to 29 goals and 69 points this season, tied for for fifth place in NHL scoring.
Hurting Their Chances: The vibe may be better, but the Pens' record since Sullivan took over has not improved on that of his predecessor. Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 when Mike Johnston was relieved of his duties, a .589 points percentage. The team has gone 21-14-5 under Sullivan, an almost-identical percentage of .586 points per game.
Also worrisome is the fact Pittsburgh lost one of its stars, center Evgeni Malkin for an expected six to eight weeks on Friday with an upper-body injury, per the Penguins' website. That timeline means Malkin finishes the regular season with 27-31-58 in 57 games and won't be available again until, the tail end of the first round at the earliest.
Malkin is key for the Penguins down the middle, on special teams and even on the wing when needed. His absence will make Pittsburgh a little less tough to play against down the stretch and into the playoffs.
In or Out: AT RISK
Like the Islanders, the math suggests the Penguins have an inside track to a playoff berth. The math does not take into account the emotion that will accompany three games against the Philadelphia Flyers during the last four weeks of the regular season.
Pittsburgh and Philly always play each other hard. The stakes will be extra high since there's almost certainly a playoff berth at stake.
Detroit Red Wings
2015-16 Stats: 69 GP, 34-24-11, 79 pts, fourth in Atlantic Division, second wild-card spot in Eastern Conference
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 56.5 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Philadelphia Flyers (2), Pittsburgh Penguins (1)
Helping Their Chances: The Detroit Red Wings own the longest active playoff streak in professional sports, having reached the postseason for the last 24 seasons. Detroit also holds down the second wild-card spot, giving the team the inside lane for the stretch run.
In addition to revered elder statesmen such as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, two of the NHL's most intriguing new talents have emerged with the Red Wings this year. Petr Mrazek has supplanted Jimmy Howard as the team's No. 1 goaltender, while Dylan Larkin is a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Hurting Their Chances: Dropping a 1-0 decision to Mike Babcock's last-place Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday was not a step in the right direction for the Red Wings. According to Sports Club Stats, that single loss dropped their playoff chances by a whopping 14.3 percent.
Scoring has been a problem all year for Detroit, ranking 23rd in the NHL in goals for (173)—by far the worst of any playoff team. Special teams, which are so crucial in the postseason, have also been an issue. The Red Wings rank 24th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill.
Just seven games after returning from a knee injury, defenseman Niklas Kronwall was sidelined again with a knee sprain on Saturday—though he is only expected to be out for one to three weeks, according to Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News.
The Red Wings may also be hurt by a lack of head-to-head games against their wild-card rivals. Most of the other teams still in the race are in the Metropolitan Division and should have greater control of their fate—though they can't all get points when they play each other so often.
In or Out: AT RISK
The Red Wings should pick up plenty of points during the last month of the season thanks to the least intense schedule among their playoff rivals.
Instead of head-to-head battles, most of Detroit's remaining games come either against clubs that have already punched their tickets such as the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers or playoff also-rans that have every reason to lose such as the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets.
As long as they take care of business and score some goals, Detroit should extend its playoff streak to a 25 seasons.
2015-16 Stats: 67 GP, 32-23-12, 76 pts, fifth in Metropolitan Division
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 49.2 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Detroit Red Wings (2), Pittsburgh Penguins (3), New York Islanders (2)
Helping Their Chances: The Philadelphia Flyers sit three points out of the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, but they have one game in hand on Pittsburgh and two on Detroit, which strengthens their position.
Philadelphia is also one of the healthier bubble teams in the Eastern Conference. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto is out for the season, but forward Jakub Voracek is back skating after missing seven games with a foot injury, per Sam Carchidi of Philly.com.
Also, the Flyers have been boosted in the second half of the season by rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. A wizard with the puck, Ghost is up to sixth in the league among all NHL defensemen with 15 goals and leads all rookies with 20 power-play points—in just 49 games. He's not quite a secret weapon anymore, but he brings the firepower that could make the difference during a late-season playoff surge.
Hurting Their Chances: Not too much. The Flyers have more momentum on their side than the Penguins and Red Wings—and maybe even the Islanders. Dave Hakstol has his team playing a loose, fun brand of hockey that typically delivers successful results.
Philadelphia's only issue is the fact the team needs to make up points and knock somebody out in order to claim a postseason berth. Those opponents won't go quietly—but the Flyers still have multiple chances to make their case on the ice against the three teams they're chasing.
In or Out: PROBABLY IN
With a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, the Flyers are making a legitimate push and have narrowed the gap between themselves and the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Most tantalizingly, Philadelphia has two games against the Red Wings and Islanders and three against the Penguins left on its schedule. If the Flyers can come out on the top side of, say, two out of three of those mini playoffs, they'll almost certainly break through into wild-card territory after missing the postseason in 2014-15.
2015-16 Stats: 69 GP, 31-26-12, 74 pts, sixth in Metropolitan Division
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 5.3 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Pittsburgh Penguins (1), New York Islanders (2)
Helping Their Chances: With 13 games left on their schedule, the Carolina Hurricanes are within five points of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. It's the best push the team has made for a playoff berth since finishing two points out in ninth place with 91 points in 2010-11.
Remarkably, the Hurricanes are playing some of the best hockey of their season since captain Eric Staal was dealt to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. After losing their first game following Staal's trade announcement, the Canes have since gone undefeated in regulation with a 3-0-2 record.
Hurting Their Chances: With only 13 games left, the Hurricanes are simply running out of opportunities to accumulate points.
It doesn't help, either, that the Philadelphia Flyers are in their way in the standings or that they have fewer head-to-head games against the other Eastern Conference bubble teams than any of their competitors.
In or Out: OUT
Good try, Carolina, but for the seventh straight year, there will be no playoffs in the Tar Heel State.
In his second season in charge, Bill Peters has shown he's a solid bench boss. Before he was injured, Justin Faulk showed he could become part of the NHL's next wave of elite offensive defensemen. There's plenty of reason for optimism after this season for the Hurricanes.
2015-16 Stats: 69 GP, 32-27-10, 74 pts, fourth in Central Division, second wild-card spot in Western Conference
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 72.8 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Colorado Avalanche (1)
Helping Their Chances: It's already down to a two-horse race for the second Western Conference wild-card spot, and the Minnesota Wild hold the edge.
Since replacing coach Mike Yeo with John Torchetti on Feb. 13, the Wild have amassed a 9-5-0 record, which has put them back into the postseason conversation.
As well as having a little extra bounce thanks to the coaching change, the Wild are almost completely healthy. Minnesota doesn't have an offensive superstar, but Charlie Coyle is starting to break out—leading the team with a career-high 21 goals. Scoring by committee is the name of the game, with 10 players in double figures for goals this season.
Minnesota has a reasonably easy schedule down the stretch, with eight of its 13 games against non-playoff teams. The Wild also have one game in hand on the team that's trying to chase them down, the Colorado Avalanche.
Hurting Their Chances: The second Western Conference wild-card spot is down to a one-on-one battle between the Wild and Avalanche, and the Avs want it bad.
Both teams have 74 points and have been in lockstep for the last 10 games, with 5-5-0 records.
The longer the Wild let the Avs hang around, the greater the chance the team will leave itself vulnerable as the season winds down to its final games.
Minnesota holds a 3-0-1 edge in the season series, which bodes well for one more game against the Avs on March 26 in Denver.
In or Out: IN
The Wild have not yet made the jump to become an elite team in the NHL's strong Central Division, but they know how to pour it on when the games start to matter.
It won't be a surge like we saw last season, when Minnesota steamrolled into the playoffs behind new goaltender Devan Dubnyk, but Minnesota will get in—and could cause a little grief for the Pacific Division champion when the teams cross over in the first round.
2015-16 Stats: 70 GP, 35-31-4, 74 pts, sixth in Central Division
Playoff Chance per Sports Club Stats: 26.2 percent
Important Head-to-Head Games Remaining: Minnesota Wild (1)
Helping Their Chances: It's not quite carved in stone mathematically, but with Minnesota and Colorado sitting seven points behind the Nashville Predators and seven ahead of the Arizona Coyotes, chances are one of the two teams will claim that second Western wild-card spot.
The Wild and Avs are tied with 74 points each, and Minnesota holds one game in hand. But a Colorado win in the teams' last head-to-head meeting on March 26 could erase that advantage.
The Avalanche's management team made it clear that the playoffs were the goal with its activity at the trade deadline, picking up rental forwards Mikkel Boedker and Shawn Matthias. Defenseman Eric Gelinas is more of a long-term investment; he's signed for one more year after this season before becoming a restricted free agent, per General Fanager.
Results with the new players have so far been decent. Matthias has contributed four points in eight games, Boedker has three in seven and Gelinas is a plus-one on the blue line in his four appearances for Colorado. That extra depth is helping the playoff push and should also be beneficial if the Avs can displace Minnesota for that final wild-card berth.
Hurting Their Chances: It feels like it's too little, too late for Colorado. Even though they're still in wild-card contention, there's a strong possibility they'll finish the season with under the 90 points that left them in last place in the Central Division in 2014-15—and that should put Patrick Roy's job as head coach in jeopardy.
The Avs have earned a couple of wins against strong teams since the trade deadline, beating the Florida Panthers and shutting out the Anaheim Ducks. The team needs to channel those efforts consistently if it hopes to knock out Minnesota and play on past mid-April.
In or Out: OUT
History is on Minnesota's side. So are the numbers and the season series between the two teams, in which Colorado is 1-3-0.
It may go down to the wire, but expect to see another early summer vacation for the Avs once the regular-season stats go final on April 10.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games complete Sunday, March 13.