There are five teams to focus on now in the Atlantic Division, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, as we enter the final week of the NHL season. For these five clubs, things haven't been locked up when it comes to playoff seeding. The final standings aren't set but they'll be ironed out in a more distinct fashion soon, possibly even after today.
We'll start at the top of the division with the Montreal Canadiens. Les Habs make up their game in-hand on Tampa Bay as they play the Florida Panthers late this afternoon in Sunrise. Montreal and Tampa are atop of the Atlantic, as you know, with 104 points each. Well Montreal has that game in-hand on the Lightning, the Bolts hold an edge over Montreal in regulation/overtime wins. If Montreal loses in regulation today, the Lightning will supplant them in the standings on that technicality (and the NHL has a whole load of them, just in case).
Montreal has the exact same schedule quirk as the Lightning going forward, with thanks to a scheduling botch-up; they're off after today until Thursday. Montreal was originally slated to play Tampa Bay early in the week at Amalie Arena but there's this little event at the Amalie that was already scheduled to take place. That game turned into the October meeting between the Canadiens and Lightning in Tampa. Montreal's Thursday game is against the Detroit Red Wings at home and the season finale is against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Detroit, the current #3 seed in the division, has 95 points on the season and puts them in a tie (points wise) with the Boston Bruins in the standings and could fall into a wild card slot instead... Actually, I think things are a little more complex than that.
Usually the Metro Division doesn't factor in one iota with the playoffs and what is going on with the Atlantic teams making it in. In this case it does because another team - a wild card team - has 95 points on the season: The Pittsburgh Penguins. All three teams need to play in fear of the Ottawa Senators - the last club in the Eastern Conference not in the playoffs but not out of contention.
Back to the Atlantic, back to the schedule, back to Detroit... The Red Wings are playing the flip side of back-to-back games against the Washington Capitals today and the schedule ahead for the Wings is probably the most bipolar of the five clubs in contention in the division. The Caps today, the Habs on Thursday, but the Carolina Hurricanes will be their opponent on Tuesday as well as on Saturday as the season finale opponent. That's two playoff bound opponents and a top-tier draft lottery team (meaning mediocre at best).
The Bruins are off until Wednesday before ending the season on the road with games in Washington, Sunrise and Tampa; the Caps and Panthers games are back-to-back.
The dark horse, the Ottawa Senators, have the most challenging path to sneak into the playoffs. It's also a path that made the Penguins more relevant in the overall playoff picture: Ottawa plays them on Tuesday. Every remaining game for the Senators is a must-win affair at this point. Today's game against the Maple Leafs concludes their Atlantic Division schedule for the season. Following Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the Sens play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday and close out the season at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday against the Flyers.
Ottawa doesn't control its own destiny though. While the club trails the back of the pack in the playoff hunt by 3 points, it needs at least one of those teams to close inconsistently. The Sens need to make up ground with their possible 8 points still on the table, but they need to see a team like Pittsburgh or Detroit run out of gas to have any sort of prayer. The Penguins are 3-6-1 in their past 10 games while Detroit is 3-5-2.
So what does Pittsburgh have left on their slate, for discussion sake? They're playing the Flyers today (the game should be underway by the time this article goes live) in the flip-side of back-to-back games. They played the Blue Jackets last night and lost 5-3. As was already mentioned, they play Ottawa on Tuesday and then face another playoff-bound team in the New York Islanders on Friday before ending the season (in another flip-side of back-to-back games affair) with the Buffalo Sabres.
The playoff are a sure thing for Tampa... who they're playing in the 1st round is still a curious question that hasn't been answered... but will be oh so soon.
UPDATE: Results from today -
- The Penguins lost to Philadelphia this afternoon, keeping open the window of both wild card spots going to Atlantic Division teams.
- Detroit lost 2-1 to the Caps
- The Canadiens dominated their contest with the Panthers, winning 4-1. This keeps the Canadiens in 1st place. Thursday's results will tell if the Lightning have any chance to win the division.
- The Ottawa Senators lost in the shootout, 3-2, to the Leafs. This has sharply dimmed their playoff hopes.