Wild Card Race: East Contenders and Pretenders One Week From The All-Star Break

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WINNIPEG, MB NOVEMBER 16: Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds (17) is stopped by Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Philadelphia Flyers on November 16, 2017, at the Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, MB. (Photo by Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa only seven days away, let’s separate the contenders from the pretenders in the race for the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots.

Before we get to the wild-card races, it is good to start with how each divisional race is shaping up. The top three teams from each of the four divisions make the playoffs.

Three teams — the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and the Boston Bruins have eclipsed the 60-point mark in the East. Baring a collapse of epic proportions, all three are locks to contend for the Stanley Cup.

The Atlantic Division is cut and dry. The Florida Panthers are the closest team to the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who have 57 points, and they are 13 points behind them with 44.

The Metropolitan Division has been tight all season and will likely come down to the final day of the regular season. The last place Carolina Hurricanes are only three points out of a wild-card spot and six points from eclipsing the third-place Columbus Blue Jackets.

The biggest question is how many contenders are really in the Atlantic, or should we assume that both wild-card spots will come from the Metro.

Philadelphia Flyers: 23-16-8 (54 points)

Much like the Penguins, the Flyers got off to an uninspiring start that had people calling for the team to sell and start over.

But also like the Penguins, Philadelphia has rebounded as a veteran team with playoff experience should. They are 8-3 in their last 11 games and boast two of the most productive skaters in the NHL this season — Claude Giroux (4th, 55 points) and Jakub Voracek (1st, 45 assists).

They also have great depth on defense and are the league’s top faceoff winning percentage team (53 percent). This team has an identity and are better than the Rangers.

Verdict: Contender

New York Rangers: 24-18-5 (53 points)

Prior to Tuesday, a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the last time the Rangers won in regulation was Dec. 19 against the Anaheim Ducks.

In between those two games, the Blueshirts had lost to bad teams and blown plenty of leads. This team has a decent power play, one of the league’s best penalty kills and one of the best goaltenders in the league in Henrik Lundqvist.

Yet, nothing about this team screams playoff team. They are simply too inconsistent, lack an identity and have dealt with too many major injuries. The latest being Kevin Shattenkirk, who is out indefinitely after deciding to have knee surgery.

So while New York is currently tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top wild-card spot, there are teams below them that are better.

Verdict: Pretender

Pittsburgh Penguins: 25-21-3 (53 points)

It is not smart to count the Penguins out until they are mathematically eliminated.

They are the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions for a reason. But counting out is exactly what a lot of people did in the early part of this season.

The Pens did lose to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday but are 6-3 in their last nine games and have looked more like the dominant force they usually are.

The Penguins have the league’s top power play, and Sidney Crosby has finally hit his stride. The Pens’ captain has recorded at least a point in his last seven games and scored the 400th goal of his career against San Jose.

Pittsburgh has dealt with a number of injuries to key players, but it appears all it took was for them to get healthy. This team will make the playoffs and contend for another Cup. Their experience will be huge down the stretch.

Verdict: Contender

New York Islanders: 24-20-4 (52 points)

The Islanders recently announced plans for a new arena, hoping that will entice franchise player John Tavares to stay with the team.

Really what will convince Tavares is the Islanders performance on the ice. On paper, this team is in contention for a wild-card spot.

But things are rarely as they seem.

Yes, the Islanders can score at will on anybody. In fact, they lead the NHL in goals scored with 165. Anders Lee and Tavares rank second and fifth respectively in goals scored this season and Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey have been offensive forces too.

Now, if only the Islanders, specifically the goalies, could stop the other team from scoring. In addition to leading the league in goals scored, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have allowed 165 goals, the most in the NHL.

They have to outscore teams most nights to win. That formula will not work consistently in the playoffs.

Verdict: Pretender

Carolina Hurricanes: 21-17-8 (50 points)

Towards the end of 2017 and into the beginning of 2018, the Hurricanes were surging and making a bid to join the list of playoff contenders.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, they have been a great story, and there are certainly reasons why a postseason berth could happen. Carolina has two veterans in particular in Justin Williams and Jeff Skinner who have experience and have one of the top young players in the league in Sebastian Aho, who leads the team in points and goals.

But Aho is out indefinitely with a concussion and a lower-body injury. That is bad news for a team that relies on his production in the offensive zone.

When you combine that with bad goaltending (Scott Darling ranks 31st in save percentage among goalies who have played at least 25 games) and porous team defense (20th, 3.00 goals allowed per game), I do not see a way Carolina makes up ground to catch the teams in front of them.

Verdict: Pretender

Bottom Line

To answer my big question in the intro, I believe the two wild-card spots will come out of the Metropolitan division. Simply put, there are no viable contenders in the Atlantic.

The Atlantic team with the best chance is the Panthers, but they are nine points behind the leaders and have been a bad team for most of the season.

Expect the Penguins and Flyers to grab the final two playoff spots.

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