There were a few more teams in it just a week or two ago, but it looks like the Eastern Conference wild card race is down to three teams. The New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers are the squads most likely to make those final two spots, and with 10 games left in the regular season, the most important games of the year for these teams start now. Let’s look at how these teams can make it into the postseason.
7th – New York Islanders
The Islanders have been stuck at 7th for a while now. The team is three points ahead of Florida and four ahead of Pittsburgh but has played more games than either team. With star forward Mat Barzal out of the lineup since February 18, it’s been a full team effort to make up for his absence recently. The team is playing well right now, too. In their last ten, they’ve gone 7-2-1. They also extended their winning streak to three games last night in a dominating win against Toronto. In their ten remaining games, New York will play four times against playoff teams, all of which will come in a five-game stretch. If they can get out of those five games with a few wins, the Isles should be looking at their fourth playoff berth in five years.
8th – Florida Panthers
If Connor McDavid wasn’t running away with the MVP this season, it would be hard to find a more deserving candidate than Matt Tkachuk. The newcomer has been putting on a show for the Panthers down the stretch and without him, there’s almost no way they would have climbed back into a playoff position given where they were just a few weeks ago. The team has played one more game than Pittsburgh and is just one point ahead of them, but it’s worth noting that they are currently the hottest team of the three. The Panthers are 9-4-1 in their last fourteen games and Tkachuk has 15 points in his last six. They do have five playoff teams still to play on the schedule, but if the Panthers can get some goaltending while keeping the offence rolling, they’ll be tough for any team to beat.
9th – Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s almost expected that a perennial contender like the Penguins will figure it out in the final stretch of the season, but we haven’t seen that yet. In fact, they’re actually the team going in the opposite direction right now in the wild card race. The Pens have lost four straight games and are at risk of losing another tonight heading into a matchup with the red-hot Avalanche. If there’s one thing this team does have over the others, though, it’s big game experience. Pittsburgh has the longest-standing trio of teammates in the league and hasn’t missed a playoff since the 2005/06 season.
Unfortunately, that won’t matter as much as it should if they continue to have issues in the crease. Tristian Jarry has been off his game since coming back from injury a few weeks ago, and with no solid option to take over, the Pens are letting in way too many goals. Even if they can sneak into the postseason, this is not a trend you want to see going into the first round of the NHL playoffs. The bottom line is that this team needs their goaltenders to step up right now.
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