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Analysis: Which Team’s Path to Playoffs is Easiest?



Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL trade talk, Arizona Coyotes relocation

Regardless of how much the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 overtime loss in Toronto Monday night stung — and it had to, quite a bit — they still have control of their fate in the Eastern Conference playoff race.


Win their final four games, and they’re in.

Well, sort of.

With nine days left in the regular season, that guarantee is certain to hold only if two of those victories — Thursday night against Detroit at PPG Paints Arena and on the road against the New York Islanders April 17 — are earned in regulation.

If either stretches past the third period, the point the Red Wings and/or Islanders would get might be enough to tilt the outcome of a playoff battle with the Penguins in that team’s favor.

The Penguins’ top priority, of course, is to squeeze every possible point out of their remaining games. Going 6-0-3 in their past nine games is impressive, but simply replicating something close to that pace probably won’t be good enough to get them in.

When they’re not playing — tonight, for example — the Penguins will be pulling hard for some clubs for which they generally do not have much affection.

The New York Rangers, for example, when they face the Islanders tonight and Saturday.

Washington, when it visits Detroit this evening.

And, yes, quite possibly even Philadelphia, which will take on the Capitals on its regular-season finale April 16.

There likely will be at least a little shuffling in the standings over the next week or so, as some teams surge and others sputter, so the Penguins’ playoff prospects could change on a daily basis.

Here’s a look at the games the other teams contending for third place in the Metropolitan Division and/or the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference playoff field have left:

New York Islanders

Remaining games: Tonight — New York Rangers; Thursday — Montreal; Saturday — at New York Rangers; Monday — at New Jersey; April 17 — Penguins.
Analysis: Rangers-Islanders is one of the NHL’s most ferocious rivalries. The Rangers won the first two meetings, one of which was played at MetLife Stadium, but both clubs have proven capable of winning in the other’s building. The Devils could be a dark horse to do the Pittsburgh Penguins a favor, but this really could come down to the regular-season finale on Long Island.

Detroit Red Wings

Remaining games: Tonight — Washington; Thursday — at Penguins; Saturday — at Toronto; Monday — Montreal; April 16 — at Montreal.
Analysis: Regardless of how Detroit fares this evening, the game Thursday will be hyper-critical for both teams. The Penguins were reminded Monday that Scotiabank Arena in Toronto can be a challenging place to play, especially when Auston Matthews is scoring goals at his current torrid pace. The Red Wings’ home-and-home series with the Canadiens to close out the season could get interesting if Montreal is still motivated to play, despite having been long since eliminated from playoff contention.

Washington Capitals

Remaining games: Tonight — at Detroit; Thursday — at Buffalo; Saturday — Tampa Bay; Monday — Boston; April 16 — at Philadelphia.
Analysis: Washington is 0-4-2 in its past six games, but trails the Penguins by just one point. While there’s not much reason to believe that the Capitals will pull out of their downward spiral, beating the Red Wings would be a good start. If they can do that and get by the Sabres Thursday, the Capitals would have real momentum going into home games against the Lightning and Bruins.

Philadelphia Flyers

Remaining games: Tonight — at Montreal; Thursday — at New York Rangers; Saturday — New Jersey; April 16 — Washington.
Analysis: The Flyers, who did surprisingly well for most of the season, have actually managed to outdo Washington in recent weeks, going 0-5-2 in their past seven games. Although few Pittsburgh Penguins partisans are likely to weep over Philadelphia’s self-immolation, they presumably are hoping the Flyers can muster enough motivation to deny Washington a point or two in the final game of the season.