The two best teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference have been the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins this season.
As those two teams battle it out for Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and Presidents Trophy honors, it’s best not to forget the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Neither of those teams have had overachieving regular seasons, but the postseason is different. Obviously, the two-time defending champion Penguins have proved their mettle with back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, and they clearly will have a chance to do it again as long as goalie Matt Murray is healthy and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can avoid injuries and stay in the lineup.
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The Capitals have known nothing but postseason disappointment throughout the Alex Ovechkin era, but what happens if they get past the Penguins in the second round this year?
If they can defeat their long-time tormentors, there may be no stopping Ovechkin (600 goals), Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson.
The Penguins are in second place in the Metropolitan Division. They will most likely play the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets or the New Jersey Devils in the first round, and a healthy Penguins team would be favored over any of those opponents.
The Lightning are trying to hold off the Bruins for first place, and those two teams still have three games remaining. The Bruins also have two games in hand on the Lightning.
However, if Boston remains in second place, a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs is quite likely. Once the Bruins get back Patrice Bergeron (foot) and rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy (MCL sprain), they probably have enough to get by the Leafs, but it might take seven games. If either of those players don’t come all the way back, the advantage could swing to the Leafs.
Columbus is likely to make one of the wild-card spots, and surging Florida has a shot at picking off the No. 2 wild-card position, leaving the Devils on the outside looking in.
Here’s a look at the up-to-date NHL standings.
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights will win the Pacific Division barring a late-season collapse. The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames are battling for second and third place in the division.
The two teams that don’t reach those automatic qualifying spots will still be in contention for the wild-card playoff spots.
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The Nashville Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year, and they are in first place in the Central Division. The Winnipeg Jets are securely in second place and in position to make the playoffs with home-ice advantage in the first round.
The Minnesota Wild is in third place, and they are trying to hold off the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues.
Dallas is currently in the No. 1 wild-card spot, but its position is hardly secure as the Stars are being chased by Colorado, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Calgary.
The Flames are currently on the outside looking in, but if they can improve their play on home ice at the Saddledome, they have a chance to secure a playoff spot—either in the division or as a wild-card team—because they have played sensational hockey on the road. Calgary has a 20-10-6 record when playing away from home this season.
Look for the Lightning to win the Atlantic Division, followed by the Bruins and Maple Leafs. Washington will hold off Pittsburgh for the Metropolitan Division title, and the Flyers will finish third.
Columbus will take the No. 1 wild-card spot, while the surging Panthers will break the Devils’ hearts and take the No. 2 wild-card position.
The Predators should cruise to the Central Division title, with the Jets in second and the Wild finishing third.
The expansion Golden Knights will not have a problem hanging on to the Pacific title, and we see the Sharks and the Flames taking second and third place, respectively.
Tyler Seguin and the Dallas Stars will earn the No. 1 wild-card position, while the Kings will get into the playoffs as the No. 2 wild-card team.