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What We’re Watching In The NHL’s Playoff Races

After plenty of twists and turns (and game postponements), the NHL’s 2021 regular-season journey is nearly over. The average team now has just 10.6 remaining games in which to make its final case for the postseason — though in all practicality, many of those playoff spots are basically clinched already. According to our Elo-based model, 13 teams have at least a 98 percent chance of grabbing one of the 16 available playoff berths, leaving just a few remaining slots up for grabs. Here’s the state of each of those outstanding races, as our model sees it:

(Apologies to the East, where the four most likely playoff teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders at over 99 percent, the Washington Capitals at 99 percent and the Boston Bruins at 98 percent — are all almost certain to make it, thus robbing us of a dramatic playoff chase in that division.)

The main battle: Dallas Stars (50 percent) versus Nashville Predators (39 percent)
Season series: Nashville leads 4-3-0
Remaining head-to-head matchups: one (May 1)
The spoiler: Chicago Blackhawks (11 percent)

The best remaining playoff chase has already had its share of developments this season, as both Nashville and Dallas started the year cold before going on recent hot streaks to emerge as front-runners over Chicago. The Stars are looking to replicate the same defense-and-goaltending formula that helped carry them to the Stanley Cup Final last season, and they rank seventh in save percentage while allowing the league’s second-lowest rate of expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

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But while Dallas has been the better team this year — with a +0.31 schedule-adjusted goals-per-game differential (also known as SRS) to Nashville’s -0.13 mark, plus superior possession metrics — the Preds are still right in the playoff mix because they hold a 2-point edge on Dallas in the standings, with multiple tiebreakers in their favor, and they play an easier remaining schedule (according to Elo).1 Nashville also has goalie Juuse Saros, the NHL’s fifth-best netminder this season by goals above replacement,2 to potentially steal games down the stretch. For their part, the Blackhawks may have peaked already with their early-season surge. Chicago needs a lot more than just the stellar 1-2 offensive punch of Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat to make a last-ditch playoff push, though a win Wednesday night over Nashville boosted their odds by four percentage points.

The main battle: St. Louis Blues (61 percent) versus Arizona Coyotes (21 percent)
Season series: Arizona leads 5-2-1
Remaining head-to-head matchups: none
The spoiler: Los Angeles Kings (15 percent)

On paper, the Blues are too good to have to fight this battle, but the 2018-19 Cup champs have struggled to find health or consistency for most of the season. Even after seemingly pulling out of last month’s death spiral with a recent three-game winning streak, St. Louis then proceeded to drop back-to-back contests (including one Saturday against the rival Coyotes), reviving questions about the team’s suitability for the playoffs. While the Blues do have the superior Elo rating, they will face a much harder remaining schedule (fourth-toughest in the NHL) than either the Coyotes (21st) or Kings (19th) and have only one remaining head-to-head matchup against either team. But although Arizona currently holds a 1-point edge in the standings on St. Louis, the Coyotes have played four more games; they’ve also been a less impressive team in terms of both SRS and advanced metrics, all of which explains why the Blues are still favored to win this playoff race.

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The Kings are the really interesting potential spoiler here, though. Yes, L.A. sits 5 points behind the Coyotes — trailing even the San Jose Sharks — but the Kings also have four extra games in hand, and they have probably been better statistically than Arizona and even St. Louis this season. The Kings rank 18th in SRS (compared with 21st for St. Louis and 23rd for Arizona), 16th in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 (St. Louis is 21st; Arizona is 23rd), 16th in the share of expected goals created in its games (St. Louis is 25th; Arizona is 28th) and 12th in the share of scoring chances created (St. Louis is 25th; Arizona is 29th). While Los Angeles will probably get caught up in a numbers game and miss the playoffs regardless, you could make the case it deserves to be there more than the underachieving Blues or talent-strapped Coyotes.

The main battle: Montreal Canadiens (78 percent) versus Vancouver Canucks (19 percent)
Season series: Montreal leads 6-0-3
Remaining head-to-head matchups: none
The spoiler: Calgary Flames (4 percent)

This wasn’t looking like much of a battle about a week ago, with the Canucks’ season on pause because of a terrible COVID-19 outbreak and the team facing big questions about whether it should resume play at all. But not only did Vancouver rally to return Sunday and play its first game since March 24, it also won that game and one on Tuesday, both over the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs. In concert with the Canadiens’ recent skid — six losses in eight games before they beat Edmonton Wednesday night — the Canucks’ victories have kept hope alive for an improbable playoff bid that would rank alongside the Miami Marlins’ run last MLB season in terms of overcoming major virus-related setbacks to win.

To be clear, the odds are still very much against Vancouver at this point. Montreal has a 10-point lead in the standings (granted, having played five more games) and will face an easier schedule from here onward. The Canadiens rank higher in Elo, SRS, Corsi and expected-goals percentage. Even the recent news of an injury to Montreal goalie Carey Price isn’t as bad for the Habs as it sounds, since Price has been outplayed by backup Jake Allen all season anyway. And Vancouver must leapfrog Calgary — another team with a superior SRS and possession metrics — in the standings just to get in Montreal’s rearview mirror. Still, the Canadiens are no longer the postseason locks they once seemed to be; they’ll need to work to close out this race. Otherwise, they risk a historic collapse (Montreal’s playoff odds were as high as 97 percent on April 6) that could help the Canucks go from the possibility of not finishing the season to making the playoffs within the span of a month.

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  1. After accounting for home-ice effects, the average Elo of Nashville’s remaining opponents is 1486 (25th-hardest), while that number for Dallas is 1559 (second-hardest).

  2. Our spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) and’s Point Shares, which we calculate by running a series of regressions and properly rescaling leaguewide value to better distribute it among forwards, defensemen and goalies. (We assign forwards 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent; the metric also creates more separation among league goaltending performances and balances total league offensive value against the value of defense plus goaltending.)

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.