We wrote yesterday about the significance of being in a playoff position by Thanksgiving. At the time, the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Predators, Flames, and Canucks were all in that category after failing to qualify last season. And last night, the Jets leapfrogged the Wild into the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
What are the chances each of those six teams hangs on to a playoff spot? Click here for the standings, and let’s briefly run it down:
Islanders (15-6-0): Eight points up on the third-place Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, which is a pretty nice cushion to have built by this point in the season. The Isles have won nine of their last 10, responding as well as possible to a short spell in late November that had coach Jack Capuano in the critics’ sights. On paper, this is a much improved team, and it’s playing out that way on the ice. The Isles have been one of the NHL’s top possession teams, and goalie Jaroslav Halak has been outstanding in November, allowing just 11 goals in his last eight starts.
Toronto (11-8-2): Tied with Ottawa in points, but the Leafs have won more in regulation/overtime, so they get the nod. For all the negativity that’s surrounded this club this season, Toronto has beaten some pretty good teams, including the Islanders, Blackhawks, Bruins, and Lightning. It’s the Leafs’ inconsistency that makes them so hard to predict. One night they’re all on the same page, the next they’re getting smoked in Buffalo. The Leafs play in Pittsburgh tonight, then host the Capitals Saturday. That Washington game will be worth watching, since the Caps may be the team Toronto has to beat out when all’s said and done.
Vancouver (15-6-1): With last night’s win over New Jersey, the Canucks tied a franchise record for their best 22-game start, matching the points total they set in 1991-92 when they went 14-5-3 out of the gates. With improved depth up front, Vancouver is no longer so dependent on the Sedins to provide the offense, and new coach Willie Desjardins seems to have injected his players with some renewed enthusiasm. The caveat is that the Canucks have played a relatively easy schedule, with four of their wins coming over the Oilers. Add to the equation that defenseman Dan Hamhuis is expected to be out a considerable length of time and Vancouver can’t afford to let off the gas as it embarks on a seven-game road trip.
Nashville (14-5-2): One of the surprise teams of the season. (Though, as previously noted, not altogether unexpected.) A healthy Pekka Rinne is the major key to the Predators’ success, but certainly not the only one. Nashville, like the Islanders, has been one of the top puck-possession teams in the NHL. While you still wouldn’t call the Preds’ offense “potent,” and you do have to wonder how hot rookie Filip Forsberg can stay, with Rinne in goal and Shea Weber on the ice for almost half the game, it should only have to be capable to make the playoffs.
Calgary (13-8-2): The biggest surprise team of the season. You just wonder how long it can last. The Flames have been one of the worst puck-possession teams in the league, and that has a tendency to catch up to a group over the long run. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with admiring this team’s resilience. Five times Calgary has won games it’s trailed after the second period, with seven losses. Their Alberta neighbors to the north, meanwhile, have also trailed 12 games after two, but are 0-11-1 in that situation.
Winnipeg (11-9-3): One point up on Minnesota, though the Wild are playing very well and have three games in hand. The biggest difference between this Jets team and previous unsuccessful editions is that this one is getting solid goaltending. Backup Michael Hutchinson has been especially good (.947 save percentage in seven appearances), while Ondrej Pavelec (.917) has middle-of-the-pack numbers, which at least beats what he’s done in prior seasons. Still, even if one assumes the goaltending can hold up, the Jets are probably going to need to start scoring a bit more. Currently, only Buffalo has a less effective offense.