It doesn’t make for much of an exciting stretch run, but it just might be the truth and The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington isn’t afraid to make the claim: less than halfway through the 2021-22 NHL season, the eight Eastern Conference playoff spots appear to be locked up. While the eight in place can certainly jockey for position, Harrington believes that those teams currently in the postseason in the East will stay in postseason position and those not, including his Buffalo Sabres, have nothing left to play for this season. Do you agree?
The conference standings do paint a pretty bleak picture for the playoff race, as the gap between the eighth and final playoff spot and the next closest competitor is sizeable. In terms of both absolute points and points percentage, the Boston Bruins sit in eighth in the East with 46 points and a .657 points percentage, holding the second wild card spot if the postseason started today. In ninth place in both categories are the Detroit Red Wings, but calling it a distant ninth is generous. Detroit has 39 points on the year, just seven back of Boston, but having played four more games than the Bruins the Red Wings are actually just a .500 team, 157 percentage points back. Every other team outside the playoff picture is under .500 and they are all chasing a Bruins team that is 8-2 in their past ten games, riding a five-game winning streak. Just ahead of Boston are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are also 8-2 in their last ten. The only other teams in the conference that are not 200+ percentage points ahead of Detroit are the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers.
[See: Eastern Conference Standings]
Statistically, there don’t appear to be any clear underachievers outside of the playoff picture primed for a late push either. All eight teams not in a playoff spot in the East have a negative goal differential, with the top mark being the Columbus Blue Jackets at -15. In contrast, the worst differential among the playoff teams is the Rangers’ +17 and they are the only club below +20. Hardly any of the non-playoff teams hold a spot in the top half of the league in any major statistical category either. The New York Islanders are ninth in goals against per game and eleventh in penalty kill efficiency, the Blue Jackets are tied for twelfth in goals for per game, the New Jersey Devils are thirteenth on the penalty kill, and the Ottawa Senators are tied for fourteenth in power play efficiency – end of list.
Yet, can the playoff picture really be sealed up this early? The law of averages suggests that a current playoff team is likely to slump while a current non-playoff team is likely to hit their stride in the second half. In fact, this may have already begun. While the Bruins and Penguins have been surging, the Capitals are just 4-3-3 in their last ten games and struggling to find consistent goaltending and defensive play. The Capitals’ record is also buoyed by a league-leading nine overtime points and their abysmal 30th-ranked power play is a major stain on their playoff resume. If there is a pretender in the East, it could be Washington. The Rangers may also be due for some regression in the second half. New York has exceeded expectations thus far and have somehow found ways to win despite trouble scoring. Their 2.85 goals per game is tied for 18th in the league, behind the likes of Columbus and New Jersey and just .01 ahead of Ottawa. On the flip side of the playoff picture, the Islanders are one of the biggest disappointments of the season. A conference finalist last year, the Isles looked to be building a true contender. While they are still playing a good defensive game, the team has had no luck offensively this season. Yet, with a league-low 30 games played, the Islanders could have time to find their game and fight their way back into postseason consideration. At least on paper, the Philadelphia Flyers should also be better than their current record, while the rebuilding Red Wings and Blue Jackets should be happy with their performance so far this season but would be even happier to get their young rosters into a postseason battle.
It is hard to remember a conference having no battle for playoff position in recent memory, especially so early in the season. While it looks like that could be the case this year in the East, is that actual a realistic expectation? Is the current gap in the standings just too wide to overcome? Or is there enough potential for one or two teams in the playoff picture to collapse while one or two on the outside find a way back? Vote now and comment on which teams, if any, could drop out of the playoff picture and who might replace them.