The Good Ol’ Hockey Game: Sizing up the Eastern Conference playoff race

This feature is part of our bi-weekly look at the NHL, which appears every other Sunday on Page 2 of the print edition.

Anything can happen once you’re in the NHL playoffs. Sometimes, the trickiest part is just getting there.

With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators are in solid standing in the Eastern Conference. That leaves two openings for everyone else.

Here’s a look at five teams that could seize those spots.

(Records and statistics through Thursday’s games)


(Marianne Helm/GETTY IMAGES)

Why they’ll make it: They’ve got a hot goalie. Miller has won seven of his last nine starts, a run that’s included a pair of shutouts, and has yielded more than three goals only once in 20 games.

Why they won’t: Subpar scoring. The Sabres are tied for 25th in goals with 161 and tied for 28th in third-period tallies. And if Thomas Vanek, injured Thursday in Boston, is out for any length of time, it will become an even bigger challenge.


(Matt Slocum/AP)

Why they’ll make it: Of their remaining 16 games, only five are against opponents that were in a playoff position as of Friday morning. Six, in fact, are against bottom feeders Carolina, Montreal, Edmonton, Columbus and the New York Islanders.

Why they won’t: Because they’re struggling to score and keep the puck out of their net. Since losing leading scorer Kris Versteeg to a lower-body injury five games ago, they’ve been shut out twice and held to a single goal once. Goalie Jose Theodore, meantime, has yielded three or more goals in three of five starts.


(Rob Carr/GETTY IMAGES)

Why they’ll make it: After Thursday’s overtime loss in Washington, Steven Stamkos (league leading 48 goals and 82 points) and Co. are 7-3-1 in their last 11 games and open a seven-game homestand Saturday against Carolina.

Why they won’t: With goalie Mathieu Garon expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a groin muscle injury, Coach Guy Boucher must choose between 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson (league-worst 3.82 goals against average) and rookie Dustin Tokarski (three NHL games). That’s not much of a selection.  

Washington Capitals
Outlook:
With 15 games to go, there are three options for a franchise that entered the season favored to hoist the Cup: sneak in as the eighth seed, surpass the scuffling Panthers and claim their fifth straight division title or miss the postseason altogether and risk a potential messy offseason roster overhaul.  


(Nick Wass/AP)

Why they won’t: Their 11-18-3 record away from Verizon Center is the second worst in the conference. And they play six of the next seven games on the road, including stops in Boston, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.  


(ERIC MILLER/REUTERS)

Why they’ll make it: In those 10 contests, Kane has seven goals and 15 points and Wheeler has six goals and 17 points to ignite an offense that’s averaged 3.8 goals in that span.   

Why they won’t: The Jets enjoy arguably the best home ice advantage in the league at raucous MTS Center. On the road, however, they’re only slightly better than the Capitals at 11-18-4. And that’s where they’ll play eight of their final 14 games.


View Photo Gallery: Tarik El-Bashir assesses the top teams in the National Hockey League this week (March 9). Records are through Thursday’s games.

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