NHL playoff races: Senators are surging, Avs approaching 'panic' territory
Here's the risers, fallers, and where each and every playoff race stands as we head into the stretch run of the NHL season.
After one of the busiest NHL trade deadlines in more than a decade, clubs continue to jostle for playoff positioning.
For contenders, it’s already a challenge to maintain momentum while integrating new faces. It’s an even tougher juggling act for teams fighting for survival — or even home-ice advantage. We’ve really just scratched the surface of how these changes may influence various playoff races, but here's a look at last week's movement with teams ranked in order of standings points.
(Editor's Note: Some teams are mentioned multiple times due to being involved in both division and wild card races. All standings are up to date heading into March 6 games.)
Current East wild-card teams
New York Islanders (72 points, 65 games played, .554 points percentage): Slightly up 📈
During a light week for the Islanders, they snagged a shootout point in a loss to the Wild and then beat the Red Wings in regulation. That game against the Red Wings began a stretch of games against bubble teams. They host the Sabres on Tuesday, travel to Pittsburgh on Thursday, and then face the Capitals at home on Saturday. If their last two games against the Penguins (two significant regulation wins for the Islanders) are any indication, those contests could make an impact on the bubble races.
While other Eastern Conference teams engaged in an arms race, the Islanders mostly settled for Bo Horvat as their trade deadline addition. That said, Pierre Engvall provides some useful depth for a team fighting for their playoff lives.
Pittsburgh Penguins (71 points, 62GP, .573%): Slightly up 📈
Set aside a justifiably criticized trade deadline (Mikael Granlund, for this team, in 2023?) and the Penguins mostly took care of business on the ice. They put together a four-game winning streak, including two wins against the Lightning. A regulation loss to the desperate Panthers ended that streak, but they can’t dwell on that.
Over the next couple weeks, the Penguins mix games they simply can’t afford to lose versus lesser teams (Columbus, Philadelphia, Montreal) with another Islanders clash and three games against the Rangers. That schedule seems like a recipe for more drama.
Fighting for one of two East wild-card spots
Buffalo Sabres (68 points, 61 GP, .557%): Down, but not out. 📉
There’s a “happens to everyone” feel to losing to the Bruins, even by a 7-1 score. It also must be refreshing for the Sabres to spark some existential crises in the Lightning, rather than gain new ones thanks to Tampa Bay. Dropping a regulation loss to the Blue Jackets is a reminder that fans shouldn’t just assume a team will make good on games in hand, even versus cellar dwellers.
Their next six games involve five teams in playoff position (Oilers, Islanders, Stars, Rangers, and Maple Leafs) and one fading but still trying to hang in there (Capitals). If we didn’t already learn a lot from the Sabres being quiet at the trade deadline, this upcoming stretch will be a sink-or-swim moment.
Ottawa Senators (68 points, 62GP, .548%): Up, a lot. 📈
Last week, it felt overly generous to even include the Senators in the wild-card races. They’re now on a rousing five-game winning streak highlighted by two wins so lopsided against the Red Wings, they might have given Detroit the extra push to sell to a surprising degree at the deadline.
Speaking of the trade deadline, the Senators caught one of the biggest fish by nabbing Jakob Chychrun at a reasonable price. Even just last week, it felt like that addition was more about the mid-term future than the immediate present, but the Senators are surging.
They’ll need to handle a different test ahead: a five-game road trip (also seven of nine away from home). Disregard Ottawa at your own peril.
Florida Panthers (68 points, 64GP, .531%): Slightly up 📈
Since mid-February, the Panthers have been trading wins and losses. As important as a weekend regulation win against the Penguins is, failing to get a point against the suddenly-selling Predators isn’t ideal.
Mired in a disappointing season and stuck in salary cap paralysis, the Panthers treaded water at the deadline. They have five games left in their current seven-game homestand, adding to the growing vibe of “put up or shut up.” So far, they haven’t exactly been making a forceful argument that they’ll actually get their act together.
Washington Capitals (68 points, 64GP, .531%): Sold at trade deadline, yet winning lately.
In the grand scheme of things, a six-game losing streak (all regulation losses) likely doomed the Capitals to “retool” country.
With a veteran-laden roster and Alex Ovechkin chasing Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, the Capitals will probably only commit to putting one foot in that rebuilding territory for a while. Such a thought reverberates as Washington mostly took care of business recently: they won three of four games (two against clunkers, one versus the Rangers). This faint sign of hope could get squashed by the schedule ahead, as they await the Kings, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, and Sabres.
Detroit Red Wings (65 points, 63GP, .516%): Could be totally out soon, also sold big at trade deadline. 📉
Hey, if you’re going to plummet out of contention, you might as well do it before the deadline instead of after it. The Red Wings find themselves in a six-game losing streak where they’ve only salvaged a single standings point. Two crushing regulation losses to the Senators gave them that last nudge to being big-time trade deadline sellers, which will only make it tougher for Detroit to stay in the race.
Long-term, it’s not all doom and gloom, especially with Dylan Larkin finally signed to an extension. A weekend back-to-back set with the Bruins may just be the final nail in their 2022-23 season, however.
Race for the Central Division's No. 1 seed
Dallas Stars (81 points, 63 GP, .643%): Up, a lot. 📈
After a troubling month, the Stars are heating up, winning three in a row and taking points in five straight (4-0-1). Their most recent one was key: a 7-3 thumping of the Avalanche.
Like other West teams, the Stars opted for baby steps rather than expensive leaps at the trade deadline. That’s a bit disappointing, yet the West races are open enough that Dallas is looking strong. We’ll see if they still look hearty in a couple weeks, as they begin a six-game road trip on Thursday.
Right now, the Stars can be forgiven for eyeing home-ice in the West rather than sweating their divisional rivals. We’ll see if that remains true, as the first team behind them is also red-hot.
Minnesota Wild (78 points, 63 GP, .619%): Way up. 📈
Did seasonal depression wreak havoc on the Central? Like the Stars, the Wild hit a heavy lull around mid-January to mid-February. Now they’re looking scary. The Wild are on a four-game winning streak and an imposing nine-game point streak (8-0-1).
When you account for salary cap woes, it’s a bit easier to stomach the Wild mainly sorting through the bargain bin at the deadline, especially as other West teams were frugal. If things break right, the Wild added sneaky scoring, rounding out a group that was stingy defensively but struggled to light up the scoreboard.
Colorado Avalanche (74 points, 61 GP, .607%): Need to shake off another frustrating stretch. 📉
Periodically throughout the season, people have had to ask if we should be worried about the Avalanche. That question resurfaced as the Avs are now in a three-game losing streak, settling for a single OT point. Colorado has better reason to watch the wild-card rankings than dream of a division title.
If the Avalanche don’t win at least two games this week (home against the Sharks, Kings, and Coyotes), then sound the alarms.
Outside the Central top three
Winnipeg Jets (74 points, 63GP, .587%): Ice-cold, hoping they stopped the bleeding. 📉
Could Saturday’s 7-5 win over the Oilers be something of a rallying point? That gave the Jets just their second win since Feb. 16, a stretch where they’ve gone 2-6-1. Their schedule may not provide obvious relief, either. Starting next weekend, the Jets play eight of 10 games on the road.
One can understand if the Jets believe they have enough cushion to hang in there, and they improved their stock a bit at the trade deadline, but this is a shaky team right now.
Pacific Division's No. 1 seed
Vegas Golden Knights: (82 points, 63 GP, .651%): Strong week. 📈
Did the Golden Knights put some winter blues behind them? They’ve won three games in a row, including snagging Jonathan Quick’s debut. It’s unclear if Quick is much more than a name recognition addition, but Vegas has been getting the job done.
There are some real tests up ahead, though. The Golden Knights begin a five-game road trip on Tuesday, with the first three games being potentially bruising: Panthers, Lightning, and Hurricanes. Zooming out, eight of their next 10 games are on the road. At least this is a team that’s traveled well (17-6-5 away record) this season.
Los Angeles Kings (80 points, 64GP, .625%): Up, a lot. 📈
Did the Kings merely settle for half measures at the trade deadline, or are we sleeping on those additions? It’s too early to tell, but the Kings gave themselves a strong chance for home-ice in the first round, and can’t be totally disregarded as a division title threat.
They’re now on a three-game winning streak, and they play eight of their next nine games at home. Things are looking up for a franchise that’s been on the rise for a while now.
Seattle Kraken (78 points, 63GP, .619%): Up, a lot. 📈
Are we beyond the point of it being a coincidence that the Kraken are so tough on the road? They won all four games on their last road trip, improving to an outstanding 21-9-3 mark away from home (compared to 15-12-3 in Seattle). Nonetheless, let’s assume it’s a good thing the Kraken play five of their next six games at home, shall we?
Much of their outlook will be entwined with the Stars, as the two teams meet three times from March 11-21.
Outside the Pacific top three
Edmonton Oilers: (76 points, 64 GP, .594%): Slightly up on the ice, promising work at the trade deadline. 📈
With other Pacific Division rivals heating up, the Oilers’ view is limited to the wild-card and possibly a jump somewhere in that 2-3 seed matchup. That’s OK, especially after the Oilers added a crucial defensive upgrade in Mattias Ekholm.
Getting two out of three wins in a fairly challenging stretch (beating the Maple Leafs, splitting with the Jets) isn’t too shabby. Going forward, they can’t snooze for a second, with six straight games against playoff-relevant teams.
West wild card races
Currently ranked as two West wild card teams: Jets (74 points, 63GP, .587%) and Oilers (76 points, 64 GP, .594%)
Nashville Predators (68 points, 60GP, .567%): Selling at the trade deadline, yet hanging in there on the ice.
Credit the Predators with their wise, sober approach to the trade deadline. Sweatier and more desperate teams would cling to any hope instead of selling off parts that mostly aren’t working.
Let be known: the players who are still there are putting in the work. Nashville’s won five of six games, including two in a row. Sure, most of those teams are weaklings, but with three of their next four against similarly struggling teams, the Predators could continue to hang in there. Their odds are still low, but they may at least be able to linger, especially with Juuse Saros in goal.
Calgary Flames (67 points, 63 GP, .550%): Collapsing and fading. 📉
The Flames mirror their offseason trade partners from Florida in some broad ways: dim playoff hopes, stuck (mostly understandably) in neutral at the trade deadline. Even their five-game losing streak is somewhat understandable, as Calgary fell to teams who are all ranked above them in the standings.
Regardless, the Flames look like they’re toast. This team probably deserves better (see: Panthers, Florida) but the Flames may slip to the point where they don’t even deserve a mention in these articles much longer.