NHL Playoff Push: Last gasps; incentive to tank?

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With the 2017-18 regular season winding down, the highs and lows will feel extremely dramatic for the teams fighting for their playoff lives.

There also might be some quibbling regarding teams who aren’t mathematically eliminated, but realistically speaking, have little-to-no chance at making it. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon with certain seeding battles. For instance: the Capitals haven’t clinched the Metro title, but last night’s win makes it difficult to imagine anyone passing them by.

It’s possible that the Stars and especially the Hurricanes are already doomed, but Tuesday could really drive the point home for both teams if they lose.

East

The Hurricanes face the one East team they have a somewhat reasonable chance of passing: the Devils, who currently reside in the second wild card spot. Of course, the Panthers are the most legitimate threat to New Jersey, and might have better odds of grabbing that spot overall. Florida is idle after winning last night:

Speaking of remote chances, the Penguins are the one team with a far-flung chance of surpassing the Capitals for the Metro crown. Beating the Red Wings tonight would improve those slim odds. As you’ll see later in this post, Detroit would benefit from that happening, even if they’re unlikely to roll over against a team they faced in consecutive championship rounds in 2008 and 2009.

The Bruins actually have a very real chance of edging the Lightning for the Atlantic title after Tampa Bay was upset by Arizona last night. Boston faces a Jets team with little chance of winning the Central, though maybe Winnipeg feels differently.

The Blue Jackets and Flyers continue to vie for positioning, and most importantly, to solidify a playoff spot. Each team is at 89 standings points, with Columbus standing at third in the Metro with more wins. The Blue Jackets face the Oilers, who are ranked lowly but are an upset threat in part because of Connor McDavid‘s Hart/Art Ross push, while the Flyers take on the Stars. More on that …

West

With eight consecutive losses, the Stars don’t enjoy much better chances than the Hurricanes. Sports Club Stats gives them a .5 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Blues, on the other hand, have to like their chances. In fact, that same site gives them better odds to land a spot than Colorado, who slipped to the second wild-card spot after losing to Vegas last night. The bad news for St. Louis is that they face a red-hot Sharks team that’s won eight in a row. The good news is that they have a rest advantage, as the Sharks needed a shootout to beat the Blackhawks on Monday.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Speaking of slippage, if the Ducks lose to the lowly Canucks, the Kings would overtake them for the third seed in the Pacific. From a big picture standpoint, Anaheim beating Vancouver is best for each side’s future, much like with the Penguins besting the Red Wings.

While the Predators are positioned to cruise to a Central title, the Wild have some incentive to pad their lead for third in the division. They have a healthy edge over the Blues and Avalanche, yet a losing streak could make things far more snug.

Tank wars

It seems like there’s more incentive to suffer a steep drop, even beyond the lure of winning the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the 31st-ranking team will have an 18.5-percent chance to win the draft lottery, up from 17.9 last year (Buffalo currently sits last). The second-worst team’s odds will be 13.5 compared to 12.1 in 2017 (Arizona is second right now). For more, click here.

The Canadiens are sixth from last with 68 points and five games remaining. They don’t have any real chance to slip to last, but they might dip a bit. Moving on, the bottom five:

Red Wings: 65 points, 76 games played, 22 ROW
Senators: 63 points, 75 GP, 24 ROW
Canucks: 63 points, 76 GP, 27 ROW
Coyotes: 63 points, 76 GP, 24 ROW
Sabres: 60 points, 76 GP, 23 ROW

The Red Wings face a hungry opponent in the Penguins tonight, while the Senators take on the up-and-down Islanders. The Canucks face what’s likely to be a desperate Ducks team.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning – New Jersey Devils
Boston Bruins – Toronto Maple Leafs
Washington Capitals – Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets

Nashville Predators – Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets – Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights – Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks – Anaheim Ducks

Biggest games

Hurricanes at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Penguins at Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Sharks at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Bruins at Jets, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.