The NHL trade deadline has come and gone, meaning teams are entering the homestretch of the regular season. The Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division could go down to the wire.
To determine which teams will qualify for the playoffs, we simulated the remaining schedule thousands of times using a team’s win-loss record; its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed, also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against, which takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was on a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play. Here’s how the playoff picture shapes up.
The Tampa Bay Lightning deserves to be the Stanley Cup front-runner: Tampa Bay is projected to end the season with 127 points and is outscoring opponents by 1.2 goals per game after adjusting for strength of schedule. The Boston Bruins (107 projected points) and Toronto Maple Leafs (105) should also represent the Atlantic Division in the playoffs.
The Metropolitan, meanwhile, is murky. The New York Islanders, even after Friday’s home loss to the Capitals, should cruise into the postseason (104 projected points), as should Washington (99) — four points clear of what projects as the postseason cut line of 95 points. From there, things get a bit tighter.
The Pittsburgh Penguins (97 projected points) are no sure thing, with the Carolina Hurricanes (95) and Columbus Blue Jackets (95) nipping at their heels. This is particularly true considering the Blue Jackets have gone all in with their trade-deadline acquisitions. The Montreal Canadiens (95) from the Atlantic Division are also a threat to snag one of the conference’s two wild-card spots.
Pittsburgh sitting on the bubble is something we haven’t seen in a while. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been fixtures in the postseason since 2007, and they have won the Stanley Cup three times. However, injuries to defensemen Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta could have them struggling to keep pucks out of the net going forward. And this season the Penguins haven’t been able to rely on goaltender Matt Murray to bail them out. The 24-year-old has a below-average save percentage for the second year in a row and a career-high nine outings featuring a save percentage under .850.
The one thing the Penguins have going for them is a favorable remaining strength of schedule. The average expected win rate of their opponents is .496. That’s the lowest among any of the potential playoff teams in the East. The Islanders (.501) and Maple Leafs (.505) also could be expected to finish strong; they have the next-easiest schedules going forward. The Capitals (.528) are at the other end of the spectrum with the toughest remaining schedule among Eastern Conference playoff contenders; their opponents should win 53 percent of their games from here on out.
The team with the most upside is Columbus. Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen was active at the trade deadline, acquiring center Matt Duchene, forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goaltender Keith Kinkaid while keeping pending unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky on the roster. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook was impressed enough by the moves to upgrade the Blue Jackets’ Stanley Cup odds from 30-to-1 to 25-to-1.
Perhaps a Cup run is a bit too forward-thinking, but Columbus has put itself in position to at least contend for the Eastern Conference title. Maybe the Blue Jackets aren’t able to match the potency of the Lightning or Maple Leafs, but they have amassed enough talent to warrant consideration when comparing them with the Capitals, Penguins and Islanders.