In or Out? Predicting Which Teams on the Cusp Will Make NHL Playoffs
Over a third of the NHL's 2020-21 season has been completed entering March. Some interesting races for postseason contention are taking shape in the standings.
Forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to play a shortened 56-game schedule, the league realigned its 31 teams into four divisions based largely on region. As a result, the top four teams in each division will qualify for this season's Stanley Cup playoffs.
With the May 8 finale to the regular-season schedule drawing closer, the jockeying for playoff positioning will grow in intensity. Some clubs, like the Chicago Blackhawks, appear to be in a good position to secure the final postseason berths in their divisions. Others, such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, are in danger of dropping out of contention.
Several variables could also come into play. The Montreal Canadiens' recent coaching change could determine their fate in the standings. Trades, injuries and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 could also have an effect on the playoff chase.
Here's our prediction of which teams on the postseason bubble will qualify for the 2021 playoffs.
Scotia North Division
In: Montreal Canadiens
Bursting from the gate with seven wins, one loss and two overtime defeats, the Montreal Canadiens managed just two victories in the next 10 contests. Head coach Claude Julien was replaced by interim bench boss Dominique Ducharme as management sought to right the sinking ship. The offense dried up through February, their defensive play was sloppy and starting goalie Carey Price allowed several costly goals.
The Canadiens are clinging to fourth in the Scotia North Division. They have an opportunity to regain the advantage with games in hand on several teams above and below them in the standings.
Offseason additions Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Jake Allen have played well throughout this slump. Most important to Montreal's playoff hopes, though, is that the team that could overtake them is having issues of its own.
Out: Calgary Flames
Difficulties at both ends of the rink could prove the Calgary Flames' undoing as they attempt to overtake the slumping Canadiens.
Their goals-for per game (2.59) ranks 25th overall, in part due to inconsistent production from stars Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. They're also having defensive issues, as their goals-against per game (2.95) is the league's 11th-highest.
The Flames might have to consider options outside the organization to address those issues. On Feb. 22, NHL insider Elliotte Friedman told Sportsnet 969 the Fan's Pat Steinberg there doesn't appear to be anything imminent, but general manager Brad Treliving is making calls. Finding a suitable deal in the trade market could make or break their season.
Discover Central Division
In: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks' playoff hopes seemed thin entering this season. They lacked an experienced starting goaltender, while illness and injury waylaid centers Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach. But after winning just three of their first 10 games, they won nine of 13 in February to rise into the top four in the Discover Central Division.
Some of the credit belongs to rookie goalie Kevin Lankinen and youngsters such as Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik and Pius Suter. The biggest factor, however, is veteran winger Patrick Kane. He's played his way into the Hart Memorial Trophy conversation with his offense and leadership.
The Blackhawks have embraced the underdog role and look like a serious playoff contender.
Out: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets have reached the playoffs in each of the past four seasons under head coach John Tortorella. That streak, however, could be coming to an end this year.
Despite the additions of forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic in a Jan. 23 trade with the Winnipeg Jets, the Blue Jackets have won just six of their past 16 games. They sit five points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the division.
Their once-solid defensive game has come unglued this season, as they sport one of the worst goals-against per game (3.26) in the league. The usually reliable defense tandem of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is struggling, while starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo is having one of the worst seasons of his career.
If Tortorella can't find a solution soon, they'll slip even further out of contention.
MassMutual East Division
In: New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins
Expectations were high for the New York Islanders this season after they reached last year's Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1993. They lurched from the gate, though, winning just three of their first nine games. But they turned things around in February by winning eight of their next 12 to rise into third place in the MassMutual East Division.
The Islanders have focused on strong goaltending and a sound defensive game since Barry Trotz became their head coach in 2018-19. They are among this season's bottom dozen in goals for per game (2.67), but their 2.29 goals against per game is the league's third-best. They need more production from their secondary scorers, but their stifling defensive system helps them overcome that issue.
Meanwhile, the first 20 games weren't easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tristan Jarry had some difficulty adjusting as their full-time starting goalie. Injuries walloped their defense corps, sidelining Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson and Mike Matheson. Superstar center Evgeni Malkin had a slow start, and a lower-body injury recently sidelined winger Jason Zucker.
Despite those issues, the Penguins have still found ways to win and remain in the thick of the playoff chase. The first line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust remains reliable offensively. Their blue line is getting healthier, and Malkin and Jarry are playing better of late. Their goals-against and penalty-killing stats remain a concern, but their improvement through February bodes well for their playoff chances.
Out: Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers encountered some difficulties through the early portion of this season. They lost 10 days of their February schedule because of COVID-19. They're also facing some defensive concerns that threaten to upset their playoff hopes.
Starting goaltender Carter Hart is off to a poor start with a 3.35 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. Matt Niskanen's retirement left a big gap on the right side of their blue line. Their penalty-killing percentage is among the league's worst, in part because two-way center Sean Couturier was sidelined by injury.
The Flyers could struggle to stay in the playoff chase unless they address these issues.
Honda West Division
In: Colorado Avalanche
After winning seven of their first 11 games, the Colorado Avalanche endured an 11-day interruption in their schedule because of COVID-19. They wasted little time regaining lost ground in the standings upon their return, winning four of their seven remaining contests in February to sit fourth in the Honda West Division.
It's not surprising to see the Avalanche rise quickly in the standings. They possess considerable scoring punch, led by their first line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They also have a deep, young defense corps and are getting solid goaltending from Philipp Grubauer. They should continue to improve and secure a playoff spot.
Out: Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes
The rebuilding Los Angeles Kings weren't expected to be a playoff contender this season. They seemed destined to finish near the bottom of the standings after winning just three of their first dozen games. However, a six-game winning streak propelled them into the top four in the division. Whether they can stay in the hunt remains to be seen.
Veterans like goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty and forwards Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and captain Anze Kopitar continue to lead the way for their young teammates. They've been terrific through the early going, but there's no certainty this aging core can maintain its pace over the remainder of the season. If their performance fades, so will the Kings in the standings.
Following an offseason that saw a change in management and the departure of winger Taylor Hall, the Arizona Coyotes are jockeying for a playoff berth. After winning just three of their first eight games, they took six of 13 games in February.
The Coyotes offense remains an ongoing issue. Their 2.57 goals for per game ranks 27th overall, and they are generating the second-lowest shots for (26.5) in the league. That anemic production ensures they will have a tough time keeping pace in the playoff chase.
Stats (entering games on Feb. 28) via NHL.com.