The NHL Eastern Conference playoff race is a mess

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We’re halfway through the NHL season, which is now meant as a device to make everyone look stupid. Or really, to make me look stupid, which isn’t all that hard, because I’m stupid. After 41 games, we should have an idea of who is what and who’s going where. But in the Eastern Conference, we really don’t. There are arguably six to eight teams that are vying for two wild-card spots and one or two automatic playoff spots. And thanks to the three-point games the NHL loves to toss at fans, especially in the second half of the season when things tighten up, it’s only going to get murkier.

What can make the NHL more exciting?

Right now, only a couple of teams have separated themselves. The Rangers, Bruins and Panthers look to be the class of the conference, and have locked in automatic playoff spots. None are really perfect, though it’s scary that the Rangers are here without Igor Shesterkin playing all that well, and the Bruins don’t have any top-six centers worthy of the name. But they are where they are.

The rest? A blob. The wailing from Philadelphia can already be heard, as the Flyers’ gulag will scream that they’re four points clear of the wild-card spots right now and that pretty much cements them into the playoffs, and likely into the automatic spots. They’re still the Flyers, who aren’t supposed to be here and Carter Hart has been backing up since a hot start. We’re one Tortorella meltdown from true hilarity, and that’s always around the corner with him.

That leaves eight teams within six points of each other for the third spot in both divisions, as well as the two wild-card spots. Making this worse is there are two teams who have no business in the midst of this, but are gumming this up. And they are the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.

The Capitals are supposed to merely exist as a vehicle for Alex Ovechkin to chase down Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. Instead, Ovi isn’t scoring and the Caps are somehow good. Except both “somehow” and “good” need to be in quotes, because it’s unclear what they do well and how they are where they are. The Caps don’t carry play at all, and, in fact, are severely underwater in possession metrics of any kind. They have one of the worst power plays in the league, the penalty kill is merely average and they only get OK goaltending. They don’t generate much off either the rush or off the forecheck They have a -24 goal-differential and yet are one point out of a wild-card spot. They need to regress back into the predicted muck for everyone’s sanity.

The Islanders might be even worse, but at least they’re explainable. They get great goaltending at even-strength, which keeps games close enough that they can usually get to overtime thanks to the one line of competence they have in Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat. The Isles have 10 OTLs, the most in the league, and you can be sure most of those should be regulation losses that they stretched beyond 60 minutes thanks to Sorokin or Varlamov. Their goal difference is -20, they stink, they’re boring and they need to go away, too.

Clouding the picture more are teams that are good, but either through rotten luck or one particular aspect of their play, can’t seem to claw free of the clutches of the rabble. The Penguins are one of the best even-strength teams in the league and are getting way better goaltending than anyone would have thought. But the power play, despite sporting four Hall of Famers on it, keeps adding 2 and 2 and getting Elephant. They also can’t buy a bucket in overtime, which isn’t really anything other than dumb stupid luck, as they’re 3-6 whenever a game gets to OT or a shootout.

The Devils are barely holding off the Canadiens at this point, even though they have the fifth-most regulation wins in the East. Their goaltending has been horrendous and they can’t keep anyone healthy. Dougie Hamilton is out until the playoffs (if they make it), Jack Hughes has had two stints on IR, Nico Hischier has missed more than 10 games, Timo Meier and Ondrej Palat have both spent time on the shelf, and it feels like the Devils just haven’t played with a full deck at any time this season. And they’re running out of time,

The Leafs have the first wild-card spot, but only have more regulation wins than the Wild, Hawks, Sharks, Jackets and Senators. They’re on like their sixth goalie. Are they good? No one has any idea. The Lightning have a negative goal difference, too, while holding the second wild-card spot at the moment, but Andrei Vasilevskiy has not been good and every other metric is middling, at best, for the Bolts. How long are they hanging on? Or more to the heart of the matter, how long can Nikita Kucherov carry them?

Carolina is once again piling up the best metrics and looks very deep. But we’ve seen this movie. The Wings are holding onto the third spot in the Atlantic, thanks to shooting the lights out (11.9 shooting percentage, second-best behind Vancouver) and are counting on Alex Lyon in net. No, you don’t know who that is and don’t pretend.

Which means one of these goofus teams is going to have to catch fire to even get into the playoffs, which might set them up for a Panthers-like run having played do-or-die hockey for months. At the same time, all of these teams have huge flaws that might keep any of them from really putting an Oilers streak together. Meaning the race for the playoffs in the East might look like that snapshot of Homer Simpson’s sperm trying to get home.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @feslgate.bsky.social

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