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The NHL Playoff Races To Watch Down The Stretch

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Hard as it is to believe — it feels like the season just started! — the average NHL team now has about 20 games left in its schedule. In other words, the stretch run is upon us, and to help make sense of it, we’ve reassembled some of our hockey chat crew to discuss the playoff races (such as they are). For each division, I’ve highlighted the teams either currently in fourth place or those with at least a 5 percent chance to slide into the top four and make the playoffs (according to our Elo simulations).

Sizing up the West Division playoff chase

Team record, Elo rating and playoff odds for NHL West Division teams

Chance to…
Team W L OTL Pts Elo Rating Win Division Make Playoffs
Golden Knights 24 9 2 50 1568 48.0% 99.9%
Avalanche 23 8 4 50 1578 45.3 >99.9
Wild 22 11 2 46 1525 6.6 99.0
Blues 16 13 6 38 1501 0.1 38.2
Coyotes 16 15 5 37 1474 <0.1 22.8
Kings 14 14 6 34 1478 <0.1 29.9
Sharks 15 16 4 34 1460 <0.1 10.2
Ducks 11 20 6 28 1425 <0.1 <0.1

Playoff odds are based on 2,500 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule and playoffs using Elo.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Let’s start with the West, where the top three — the Golden Knights, Avalanche and Wild — are pretty well settled in postseason position. But the chase for the No. 4 spot is wide open, with four teams sitting between 10 and 40 percent playoff odds. Our model thinks the Blues are the favorites (and we would have expected them to make it going into the year), but they have only a 38 percent chance after a recent slump. Do you think St. Louis can hang onto fourth place in the West?

terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): Honestly, yes, I think they’ll pull it out. They’ve still got enough of that Cup-winning core together, and they’ve got a ton of talent on both sides of the ice. I expect them to hold onto that fourth spot. Goaltending is an issue though …

neil: It certainly seemed more that way earlier in the season, but they’ve kept the door open for the other teams. I can never quite figure out how good the Blues actually are, which I guess goes back several years now.


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terrence.doyle: Yeah, Neil, that’s exactly right. Aside from the obvious (which is a very painful moment for me as a fan, personally), they’ve just been disappointing their fans since expansion.

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): They’re about to come out of just a few days off, which may help them break out of this recent slump. Across the league, this really has been an entire season of fits and starts.

neil: That’s true. Gotta be tough to maintain focus in that environment.

terrence.doyle: The bad season is bad!

neil: Of course, everyone has to deal with it in their own way. At least the Blues have played the fourth-easiest schedule of any team by Elo so far. They have the third-hardest from here on out, which may be why their playoff chances aren’t higher. 

terrence.doyle: 😬

neil: Speaking of their goaltending issues, what did you guys think of that Jordan Binnington contract extension? He hasn’t been bad between the pipes. Certainly better than Ville Husso, the backup. But not outstanding either.

terrence.doyle: I feel like it’s a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” situation. Which is kind of how I feel about all goaltending contracts, to be honest, because goaltending is so mercurial. 

emily: One in the crease, two by the boards?

A hockey puck with ice around it and a word bubble reading “Hmm maybe there will be a Cinderella story though! (There won’t.)”

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neil: Haha

The way teams have been approaching their Cup-winning goalies is always fascinating. We kinda saw it with Marc-André Fleury and then Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. “Cup-winning goalie” sounds like a great thing to have, until you remember how quickly those guys’ fortunes can change.

terrence.doyle: 👆

(The Murray/Fleury situation worked out real well for Pittsburgh.)

neil: Casey DeSmith is now Jarry-ing Tristan Jarry, who had Jarry-ed Murray, who had Murray-ed Fleury. Or something.

terrence.doyle: 🙃

Anyway, I was glad we were starting with the West. I was trying to decide whether I think it or the Central is the poorest division, and I still can’t quite make up my mind. But, like, somehow the Sharks still have a shot, so …

neil: And that alone is pretty shocking. Ten percent!

terrence.doyle: Imagine if they sneak in, go on a run and beat the Leafs in the final? (Not gonna happen; would be devastated for Jumbo Joe.)

neil: Oh, man. Well, Emily, as a Californian, is there reason to think either the Sharks or Kings, or the Coyotes (we won’t forget them even though they’re in Arizona) can actually chase down the Blues and make this exciting?

The Kings might actually be getting the best goaltending of the bunch with Calvin Petersen.

emily: Does this go back to the Lake Tahoe ice situation? Are all the California hockey teams just cursed this season from that?

terrence.doyle: Drew Doughty has also been very Drew Doughty-like this season. Outside shot at the Norris, which helps, and will certainly help in the run-in.

emily: Regardless, it feels unlikely, but if the Blues continue to struggle, it opens the door that the Coyotes or Kings seem in the best shot to grab, especially when looking at their courses charted in terms of playoff odds.

terrence.doyle: Anaheim literally flatlining. 😑

emily: The “Mighty Ducks” reboot clearly not affecting them.

terrence.doyle: LOL

neil: Dallas Eakins, meet Gordon Bombay.

terrence.doyle: FWIW, this feels very much in line with what the NHL (and all sports I suppose) wants in terms of ultimate parity: teams that have been dominant in the past decade either sucking horrendously or struggling to qualify for the postseason. 

neil: Yeah, and we’ll see if the Blues keep counting in the latter category — seems like a critical point for them right now, where they need to turn things around and stop the slide. But maybe the multi-day break will help.

Sizing up the Central Division playoff chase

Team record, Elo rating and playoff odds for NHL Central Division teams

Chance to…
Team W L OTL Pts Elo Rating Win Division Make Playoffs
Lightning 25 9 2 52 1603 61.2% >99.9%
Panthers 24 9 4 52 1529 7.2 99.9
Hurricanes 24 8 3 51 1556 31.6 99.9
Predators 19 18 1 39 1488 <0.1 31.6
Blackhawks 17 16 5 39 1484 <0.1 30.6
Blue Jackets 14 16 8 36 1481 <0.1 7.4
Stars 12 12 10 34 1511 <0.1 30.5
Red Wings 12 21 5 29 1392 <0.1 <0.1

Playoff odds are based on 2,500 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule and playoffs using Elo.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The other really interesting playoff race is in the Central. While the Lightning, Panthers and Hurricanes are all but assured to make it, it’s by no means clear who will snag the No. 4 spot. The Blackhawks looked like the early choice after a hot start — with over a 60 percent chance in early March — but a recent skid has coincided with a surge for the Nashville Predators, who seemed dead in the water early. Which of these teams do you think has the edge now?

emily: To think we had just spoken about the Predators’ struggles!

terrence.doyle: We did!

emily: I’m really surprised that they’ve turned it around — it felt dire.

terrence.doyle: I simultaneously can’t believe they’re back, and am like, “Of course they’re back.”

They’ll sneak in and hang a banner in remembrance of their first-round exit. 😈

This division is bizarre. Best team on the planet. Two very very good teams. Then four teams in an absolute scuffle for the last spot. (And then there’s Detroit …)

I feel like it’s gonna be Dallas, ultimately. They have too much talent, were there a year ago, know how to get it done, whatever other cliché we can tack on.

neil: Yeah, the Stars do seem like they might be playing their way back into the mix, particularly after beating Nashville Thursday night. Though Dallas is behind Nashville, Chicago and Columbus in the standings, they have the highest Elo in the bunch (in part because they started from a higher place as defending conference champions).

terrence.doyle: They’ve got to make the most of their games in hand, of course.

What’s their remaining schedule look like in comparison to the others?

neil: That’s what complicates things and makes this race extra interesting. Dallas has the fifth-hardest remaining schedule; Nashville the 11th-hardest and Chicago the 16th-hardest.

Columbus is sandwiched in there too, but their remaining SOS is sixth-hardest, and their Elo isn’t overly impressive.

terrence.doyle: Oof, maybe I’ll take it all back and say Chicago?


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neil: IDK, though. The Kevin Lankinen magic is starting to slow down some. Not that it’s not a great story to see a rookie goalie emerge and have a great season. But if he’s not outright winning games for them, it all comes down on Patrick Kane and very little else.

terrence.doyle: Columbus feels like the definite odd team out, especially since Patrik Laine seems to have forgotten how to score

neil: Do you think it might be that time in the John Tortorella Coaching Arc where his hard-driving approach loses effectiveness in Columbus?

emily: Columbus is confusing. Its last week included losing twice to Detroit and then beating the Lightning? Make it make sense.

terrence.doyle: They love beating Tampa, to be fair. 

How they haven’t deleted this tweet …

neil: That was a proto-Drive Into Deep Left Field By Castellanos copypasta.

terrence.doyle: LOLOL

neil: But yeah, making sense of this playoff race is tough. It’s basically a dead heat right now. I can see plenty of reasons why each team in the mix may or may not qualify.

Sizing up the East Division playoff chase

Team record, Elo rating and playoff odds for NHL East Division teams

Chance to…
Team W L OTL Pts Elo Rating Win Division Make Playoffs
Capitals 23 9 4 50 1538 28.3% 96.8%
Penguins 24 11 2 50 1545 31.4 97.7
Islanders 23 10 4 50 1558 31.2 97.5
Bruins 18 10 5 41 1552 9.0 85.7
Flyers 17 14 4 38 1509 0.1 11.1
Rangers 17 15 4 38 1512 <0.1 10.9
Devils 13 16 5 31 1457 <0.1 0.3
Sabres 7 23 6 20 1407 <0.1 <0.1

Playoff odds are based on 2,500 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule and playoffs using Elo.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Now that we’ve made it through the two really good playoff races, let’s talk about the two that are a little — OK, a lot — more settled. We’ll start in the East. The fourth-place Bruins haven’t exactly been great recently, losing five of their past nine games, but they have a solid cushion in points percentage over both the Flyers and Rangers … and it helps that the Flyers have been horribly crashing and burning recently. Are the Bruins as safe here as that 86 percent playoff probability suggests?

terrence.doyle: Eh, I was gonna say: Speaking of one of those teams that might not qualify …

neil: LOL

terrence.doyle: So, as we all know, the Bruins CANNOT SCORE 5-ON-5 GOALS!

That said, they have games in hand and a bit of a cushion, and they are among the best defensive teams in the league. If they can figure out how to get some secondary scoring (which is what Bruins fans have been saying for a decade now), they could be very dangerous. Especially because that top line is probably the best line in hockey.

And six of their remaining games are against Buffalo…

emily: Including three in a row toward the end of April! Just gotta knock those points out.

neil: Yes — the Bruins have the easiest schedule from here on out.

It’s funny how this division looked so stacked on paper going into the season, but now it’s doing the Bruins a big favor in the playoff race. Even though Boston has been mediocre, the Rangers dug too big of an early hole to climb out of, and the Flyers have been an April Fool’s joke lately. 

emily: The schedule is the biggest thing keeping me from going full panic, but I worry that all the struggles and frustrations just may result in a collapse. They need momentum, and having multiple Sabres games in a row is a prime opportunity to build it.

A Sabres player lying on the ground to the side of a hockey net.

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terrence.doyle: IDK if there’s any data to back this up, but I always feel a little nervous when my teams have something on the line and have to play crap teams toward the end of the season. Feel like there’s a “nothing to lose” sorta spoiler element that can be dangerous.

emily: USMNT energy.

terrence.doyle: Ohhhh, yes.

There’s only one U.S. national team, IMO, and it ain’t them.

All this said, I think the Bruins come out with that playoff spot, and whoever gets them in the first round is going to be angry because they are clearly better than they’ve shown so far this season

emily: Agreed. I think fixing scoring will be easier for the Bruins than the Flyers trying to fix their goaltending as the season wraps up.

neil: There is NO hope for Philly’s goaltending.

terrence.doyle: Oh why, is it bad?

neil: LOL

terrence.doyle: Hadn’t noticed.

😭

Put Gritty in net.

neil: I mean, but actually. His size alone. And they say goalies have to be a little crazy — Gritty has that WELL covered.

terrence.doyle: Not great on the ice, shoot at his feet!

neil: He’ll work on his butterfly.

terrence.doyle: LOLOL

emily: Every year needs a weird goalie narrative. This is the one we deserve this season.

terrence.doyle: 👆

neil: EBUGs are so 2020. Mascot goalies are the future.

terrence.doyle: 🤣

neil: That’s an interesting point about whoever wins the division having to potentially face the Bruins in Round 1, though. It’s totally unclear who that will be as well, but it won’t be a great reward if the Bruins deliver on those playoff odds and get in as the 4-seed.

Sizing up the North Division playoff chase

Team record, Elo rating and playoff odds for NHL North Division teams

Chance to…
Team W L OTL Pts Elo Rating Win Division Make Playoffs
Maple Leafs 23 10 3 49 1541 59.3% 99.4%
Jets 22 13 2 46 1530 19.4 99.0
Oilers 22 14 1 45 1511 7.0 93.6
Canadiens 16 8 9 41 1516 14.3 95.7
Flames 16 18 3 35 1489 <0.1 7.0
Canucks 16 18 3 35 1480 <0.1 5.3
Senators 12 21 4 28 1415 <0.1 <0.1

Playoff odds are based on 2,500 simulations of the remaining regular-season schedule and playoffs using Elo.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Finally, we’ll travel up to Canada for the North Division playoff chase — and by the numbers, it’s really not much of a chase at all. The Canadiens are in fourth place, but they have a higher points percentage than the third-place Oilers, while the Maple Leafs, Jets and Oilers are all at least 10 points clear of the Flames and Canucks. Our model gives Montreal a 96 percent playoff probability and 94 percent to the Oilers, with both Calgary and Vancouver in the single digits. What has to happen for this battle to get interesting?

(Maybe Vancouver not having a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak would be a start?)

terrence.doyle: Canadiens and Oilers get sucked into a black hole?

neil: That’s not accounted for in the model, for sure.

terrence.doyle: Honestly, I’m just happy that it seems like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are gonna have a chance to make a run this season.

neil: Yeah, we have not nearly seen enough of them on the playoff stage. (We’ve barely seen them there at all!)

terrence.doyle: Calgary and Vancouver are just pretty miserable 5-on-5 teams, and it feels like any push would be too little, too late.

emily: A little too long, and I can’t wait. 

terrence.doyle: They’re both in the bottom half in terms of share of goals scored at 5-on-5.

I beat this drum all the time, but 5-on-5 is how the majority of the game is played, and if you’re not good at it, you’re probably not going to succeed.

neil: Very true.

terrence.doyle: (The Bruins are at least great defensively at 5-on-5. Gotta do one of the two things good, it seems, to be good.)

emily: “Can’t score, can’t stop being scored on” is bad. Got it.

terrence.doyle: Haha

At least the Canucks don’t give up, like, six a night anymore, as was their wont early on. Or at least it felt that way.

A Bruins player looking around to pass the puck on the ice

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neil: Yeah, and the goaltending between those two teams is interconnected. When Calgary signed Jacob Markström away from Vancouver, that seemed like a coup for them, but flash forward to now — Markström has struggled, and Thatcher Demko has emerged to be Vancouver’s goalie of the future it seems.

But his terrific recent play is probably another case of too little, too late…

emily: (I will never get tired of the name Thatcher Demko.)

neil: Oh, it’s one of the best.

Fellow San Diegan, Emily! 

terrence.doyle: Sounds like a law firm.

neil: Thatcher, Demko and Holtby.

emily: Did not know many kids named Thatcher growing up, but it does not surprise me. It’s a skateboarder name more than a hockey player name, clearly.

neil: I love this sentence from Thatcher’s Wikipedia page: “Demko began playing ice hockey in San Diego at the age of 4. He later moved to Los Angeles to play youth hockey.” 

Truly the realization of Gary Bettman’s 1990s dreams.

terrence.doyle: Bettman did one good thing, anyway.

emily: Quashed the dreams of Pro Beach Hockey.

terrence.doyle: Don’t get me and Neil started on Pro Beach Hockey …

neil: Bring back the Salsa, Web Warriors and Dawg Pac!

emily: This isn’t the ending we imagined, and certainly not the one we wanted. Thank you for being there the entire way.


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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Emily Scherer is FiveThirtyEight’s senior designer.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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