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Eastern Conference Playoffs: Handicapping the Wild Card Chase

Because nothing screams successful season like a first round sweep

St Louis Blues v New York Islanders
The Islanders are no strangers to against-all-odds runs to the playoffs
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hey, how about we talk about something else for a minute, like hockey.

The second half of the NHL season is upon us and somehow the New York Islanders aren’t completely out of the playoff picture, but then again neither are the Canucks or Sabres, so grains of salt and plenty of them.

At the checkpoint, the lowly, dumpster fire Islanders sit at 51 points, just five behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. If you want to be optimistic, you may want to take that at face value and not look at any of the Islanders’ underlying metrics, because they aren’t very pretty. But we have Thomas Greiss and John Tavares, and I dare you to name a more iconic duo.

The German Sorcerer and our Thaumaturgic Captain have kept us in the picture for now, and for that we thank them.

To say things look good now would be downright fallacy, but there was a time not to long ago that we’d all kill to be just five points back of the last playoff spot at the All-Star Break , so let’s get carried away, shall we?

The Islanders are in a gaggle of teams sitting between 49 and 58 points. Some of these teams are good teams disguised as bad teams and other teams are bad teams who’s record makes you think they’re good.

I’ve listed the teams in order of where they currently stand in the table. Ottawa and Boston currently occupy the last two spots in the Atlantic and the Philadelphia Flyers are holding down the last wild card spot, despite having Andrew MacDonald on their team.

Ottawa Senators

26-15-6, 58 Points, 35 games remaining

Why they’ll make the playoffs: Over the past couple of years it seems like the Senators have figured out to be a good-bad team. A few years ago some dude dubbed the ‘Hamburglar’ morphed into Dominik Hasek for a spell and led Ottawa from 14 points out of the playoffs into the tournament. This is also the team that has Erik Karlsson, it definitely helps to have Erik Karlsson. Offensively, the Senators have a handful of really good players with generic names that nobody really pays attention to like Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman.

Why they won’t: Most of the players on this team aren’t good.

Boston Bruins

25-21-6, 56 Points, 30 games remaining

Why they’ll make the playoffs: If you fancy yourself a betting man or woman, taking a punt on the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup at 33/1 is not a terrible idea. The Bruins currently boast the best possession numbers at 5v5 in the entire NHL. So how are the Bruins not doing better? Well, for one thing they’ve had some bad luck. Also, they have had a devil of a time getting good goaltending from anybody aside from Tuukka Rask. Rask has started 41 games and won 24 times for Boston. The rest of their goaltending contingent has started 11 games and won just once. Maybe they’d be interested in a goalie at the deadline...

Why they won’t: Outside of injuries to Rask or Patrice Bergeron, there really isn’t any good reason to believe Boston won’t make the playoffs other than karma. Sure, they’ve had some ridiculously bad puck luck, but even that won’t make up for all the sheisty things that Brad Marchand has gotten away with over the years.

Philadelphia Flyers

25-19-6, 56 Points, 32 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: This is a weird, weird team. Coming into the season, plenty of people expected the Flyers to be cemented into a playoff spot this season. Alas, they’ve had to deal with slumping goaltenders and not-so-great production from Claude Giroux. Both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth are both decent goalies in walk-years, so it is fair to expect one of them to find their form. The Flyers are, rightly so, the favorites to capture the last wild card spot.

Why they won’t: Not only do the Flyers regularly give Andrew MacDonald ice time, every now and then their head coach decides to scratch their best defenseman — and you thought benching Shane Prince was naughty!

Toronto Maple Leafs

23-15-9, 55 Points, 35 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: The Maple Leafs are actually pretty good. While youngsters Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner get most of the attention, Toronto currently has six different forwards with 30 or more points (including Tyler bloody Bozak!). Their special teams are a strength, as the Buds currently rank third in the NHL in both power play and penalty kill percentage, must be nice. They also have one of the league’s best coaches and aren’t under constant threat of relocation.

Why they won’t: The lion’s share of Toronto’s offense comes from very young millionaires. These are the type of player so young that it makes you sick to your stomach when you think about where they are at 18 where you are now. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these young’ns hit a bit of a wall as the games grind on into the Spring. They also give Matt Hunwick way too much playing time.

Florida Panthers

21-19-10, 52 Points, 32 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: The Panthers are operating under expectations right now, but the fact that they’ve remained in contention is actually pretty impressive. Florida has dealt with some soul-crushing injuries to basically all of their best players except for Jaromir Jagr, who is made out of magic anyways. Before the season started they lost Jonathan Huberdeau and then they lost Nick Bjugstad, Alex Petrovic and their best player Aleksander “(I love it when we get to call athletes) Sasha” Barkov. Bjugstad and Petrovic are both back and Huberdeau and Barkov should be returning this month. When the Panthers get to full strength they’re going to be good and a run up the Atlantic Division is not out of the question.

Why they won’t: Speaking of karma, the Panthers probably lost all of the good will they’ve built up over the years by being the Florida Panthers when they stranded their just-fired head coach Gerard Gallant in the parking lot of PNC Arena. Even so, the Panthers are likely to be in the playoffs and taking a punt on them to win the cup at 50/1 is not a bad move.

Tampa Bay Lightning

22-22-6, 50 Points, 32 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: Tampa Bay has sort of morphed into this perennial power that you feel like they should just fast-forward the regular season and just get to the point where Nikita Kucherov scores a game-winning goal in double-overtime to send them to the Conference Finals. Even without Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have a chest-full of high-end talent up front and on defense who will always be tough to outgun.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: The Lightning are a bit funky this year. Usually, the Bolts are a squad without any real weaknesses, but this year the goaltending has turned from a strength into a problem and they haven’t found a way to just let Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman play 60 minutes every night yet.

Buffalo Sabres

20-18-9, 49 Points, 35 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: Because it would be so Islanders to see Anders Nilsson lead a team with Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson to the playoffs.

Why they won’t: The Sabres still have a lot of dead weight and thus, are one of the worst possession teams in the league and it’s just hard to fathom that Nilsson and his Swedish partner in crime Robin Lehner will continue to play to a .923 save percentage at even strength.

Carolina Hurricanes

21-20-7, 49 Points, 34 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: Watching the Hurricanes feels like the future. Carolina’s game is built around a smorgasbord of young, hip, and mostly European forwards with really cool names. They also have some really great young defensemen who also have cool names. Their coach, who’s name is about as generic as they get, is also pretty damn good. Why isn’t this team better?

Why they won’t: The Hurricanes goaltenders have the worst 5v5 save percentage in the league. It’s so embarrassing that at one point they decided to resurrect Michael Leighton. As well as Carolina’s front office has done in gathering some elite talent on both offense and defense, they have also insisted that Cam Ward — a man with a worst save percentage than Henrik Lundqvist — still gives them a chance to win more hockey games than they lose. It’s lunacy.

Detroit Red Wings

20-20-9, 49 Points, 33 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: If Detroit’s 132-year playoff streak ends on Frans Nielsen’s watch there is no hope for the rest of us.

Why they won’t: Because it’s about damn time.

New Jersey Devils

20-21-9, 49 Points, 32 games remaining

Why they will make the playoffs: Because the NHL decides to bring back the redline and teams revert back to the 1-2-2 trap.

Why they won’t: Because they have Taylor Hall and he is not allowed in the playoffs.