The NHL’s Playoff Bubble Zone

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With the trade deadline passed and just more than one month left in the regular season, we’re officially into the Bubble Zone. That’s the section of the schedule where we obsessively chart the ups and downs of the various teams fighting for the final playoff spots.

How exactly do you define the bubble? In today’s NHL, with its loser points and fake parity, teams don’t actually move around all that much, and breathless declarations about how fascinating the playoff race will be often are an exercise in optimism. It’s basically a little fake excitement before the dust settles and we realize the same teams have been holding down spots since November.

But that kind of realism is no fun, so let’s pick an arbitrary number instead. How does 10 points sound? That’s a nice round number, so let’s go with that. Any team within 10 points of a playoff spot as of today is officially in bubble territory.

Based on that, we can go ahead and declare that any team more than 10 points clear of ninth place in its conference is a mortal lock, which means the following teams are in: Nashville, Montreal, Anaheim, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, both New York teams, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.1 And we can pour one out for the following teams, which are at least 10 points back of the final spot and therefore have no hope: Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton, Carolina, Toronto, and Columbus.

That leaves us with 14 teams fighting for six spots, which is pretty similar to what we’ve had in past years.2 Here’s how those teams would appear to shake out.

Group 1: Should Feel Pretty Safe

Washington Capitals

Current status: IN (35-20-10, 80 points, 11 points up on ninth)

Remaining schedule: They start a five-game homestand tonight, and nothing the rest of the way really stands out as especially difficult, with the possible exception of April, by which point they should have things wrapped up. They don’t have any games left against the ninth-place Panthers, but they do play the eighth-place Bruins twice.

The optimist’s view: The Caps have been rolling since December, and with a nine-point lead, it would take an epic collapse to cost them a spot. Those types of collapses do happen, but there haven’t been any signs that Washington is vulnerable.

The pessimist’s view: Braden Holtby has pretty much been a one-man show in goal, so if he ever got hurt, they’d be in trouble. That’s about all I can come up with.

Worth noting: While they’re sitting in a wild-card spot, they’re actually far closer to winning the Metro than they are to missing the playoffs.

Winnipeg Jets

Current status: IN (32-21-12, 76 points, four points up on ninth, although that’s a bit misleading)

Remaining schedule: It’s rough. They begin a four-game road trip this weekend that includes stops in Nashville, St. Louis, and Tampa, and they close the month with home games against Montreal, Chicago, and the New York Rangers.

The optimist’s view: Few thought the Jets would be a playoff team, and we’ve all spent the season waiting for them to drop out of the race, but they just keep banking points. Those points should come in handy now; with a four-point cushion and multiple teams between them and the last spot, they could survive a mini cold streak or two. As long as Michael Hutchinson keeps playing well (and getting starts), they should avoid the kind of losing streak that would drop them out of the race.

The pessimist’s view: The Wild are on fire, and if they pass Winnipeg, the Jets suddenly start to look vulnerable. Everyone still expects the Kings to find a way in, which would leave the Jets needing to fend off the Flames and Sharks, two teams that have been just about impossible to predict all season. And with Dustin Byfuglien getting hurt last night — at this point, we don’t know how badly — this whole thing doesn’t look quite so comfortable any more.

Worth noting: The Kings and Sharks are right behind them in the wild-card standings, but the lead is a little safer than it looks; both California teams would actually pass the Flames (and maybe Canucks) in the Pacific standings first.

Group 2: Would Need a Miracle

New Jersey Devils

Current status: OUT (27-27-10, 64 points, seven points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: Five of their next seven come against non-playoff teams, including games with the Sabres and Coyotes. They’ll need to bank those points, because after that it gets tougher.

The optimist’s view: Sometimes you just need to get hot at the right time, and they’ve been reasonably hot lately, including Tuesday’s win over the Predators.

The pessimist’s view: They’re seven back, they don’t have games in hand, they don’t play the team they’re chasing (Boston), and they have to pass two other teams. That’s … not good.

Worth noting: This would be the third consecutive year the Devils miss the playoffs. Since their first playoff appearance in 1988, they’d missed the playoffs only three other times total.

Philadelphia Flyers

Current status: OUT (27-25-12, 66 points, five points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: They face some tough teams, but with enough weaker ones mixed in that it all evens out. If they can somehow hang in until April, they finish with four straight at home.

The optimist’s view: They’re just five points back, and they only have to catch two teams, so on paper it’s not impossible.

The pessimist’s view: They’re done, and they should be focusing on the future rather than on a desperate playoff chase. Wait, sorry — that’s the general manager’s view, at least based on this week’s trade deadline. When your own front office isn’t even pretending you’re really in the race, you’re not in the race.

Worth noting: The Bruins also hold two games in hand.

Dallas Stars

Current status: OUT (28-26-10, 66 points, nine points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: March is tough, but April looks brutal, with the Sharks, Blues, Ducks, and a pair against the Predators.

The optimist’s view: There’s still lots of time to make up ground. (In this case, we’re assuming our optimist thinks the season is 120 games long.)

The pessimist’s view: This was a fun team and they made a run, but shaky goaltending pushed the Stars out of the race, and the injury to Tyler Seguin basically killed any comeback hopes. They’re done.

Worth noting: This could be the sixth year in the last seven the Stars finish .500 or better in terms of points earned, yet still miss the playoffs.3

Colorado Avalanche

Current status: OUT (28-25-11, 67 points, eight points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: March looks relatively tough, although they’ll face six tough games in April if they’re still in the hunt (they won’t be).

The optimist’s view: There’s still a ton of talent here, and they shocked everyone with a fantastic season last year, so maybe they can do it again (they can’t).

The pessimist’s view: Even during last year’s run, there was plenty of reason to suspect the Avs weren’t really an especially good team. They’ve largely confirmed that this year despite a handful of strong stretches. If and when the Avalanche are officially eliminated, here’s hoping the stats-based naysayers can resist the urge to take a victory lap (they won’t resist).

Worth noting: Look, I’m just going to throw it against the wall and see if it sticks: Patrick Roy, Team Canada coach for the world championships.

Group 3: The True Bubble Teams

Vancouver Canucks

Current status: IN (36-24-3, 75 points, three points up on ninth)

Remaining schedule: There are lots of theoretically easy wins, including three games against the Coyotes plus visits by the Leafs and Oilers. They also get the Kings three times, so they should control their destiny.

The optimist’s view: Despite an unimpressive record, they’re sitting in second place in the Pacific, meaning at least two division rivals would need to pass them. With the Flames reeling from the Mark Giordano injury and the Sharks spiraling off toward who knows what, that seems unlikely, so they’d be safe even if the Kings get hot again.

The pessimist’s view: Their starting goalie is hurt, the backup has been just OK, and their three-point lead looks nice but far from unshakable. They’re in good shape, sure, but not home free yet.

Worth noting: With 32 ROW,4 they’re in great shape for a tiebreaker.

Ottawa Senators

Current status: OUT (28-23-11, 67 points, four points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: Not bad. They get a chance to make up ground by hosting Boston twice in March, and they have a combined five games against the East’s weakling trio of the Sabres, Hurricanes, and Leafs.

The optimist’s view: After having been counted out just two weeks ago, the Senators caught fire and won five straight before Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Wild. Much of that streak was fueled by rookie call-up Andrew Hammond, who’s had one of the NHL’s best seven-game starts to a career. Every few years, it seems like some goalie comes out of nowhere to take the league by storm. Maybe Hammond is the guy this year.

The pessimist’s view: Hammond’s a 27-year-old career minor leaguer, so the odds the Senators have uncovered the next Ken Dryden seem slim. More importantly, their weak first half probably left them with just too much ground to make up. They’ve definitely got that pesky vibe going, though …

Worth noting: The Senators were the only team not to make a trade leading up to the deadline. They haven’t made a deal since sending Jason Spezza to the Stars last July.

Minnesota Wild

Current status: IN (34-22-7, 75 points, three points up on ninth)

Remaining schedule: There are two notably tough stretches coming up. The first, starting next week, sees them face the Blues twice along with the Ducks, Caps, and Predators over a five-game stretch. And their last seven games are downright brutal, including a season-ending three-game road trip through Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis.

The optimist’s view: Their overall record may not be impressive, but the Wild have basically been a different team since acquiring Devan Dubnyk in mid-January. At the time, they were struggling badly and looked like a sure thing to miss the playoffs. Since, they’ve gone 16-3-2, the best record in the league over that stretch. Anything even close to that pace over the last month gets them in easily.

The pessimist’s view: Dubnyk has started 21 straight games, and at some point you have to wonder if he starts to wear down. And of course, if he ever got hurt, they’d be right back to the goaltending mess that torpedoed the first half of their season.

Worth noting: The same caveats about the Kings and Sharks catching up to the Pacific teams first also apply to the Wild.

Calgary Flames

Current status: IN (34-25-4, 72 points, tied for third in the Pacific but hold the tiebreaker)

Remaining schedule: Mixed. There’s a five-game homestand this month that will probably feature only one playoff team, so that’s an opportunity to bank points.

The optimist’s view: Everyone’s already written the Flames off based on the news that Giordano will miss the rest of the season. Which is fine, since everyone wrote them off before the season started and kept on writing them off all year long. If you love an old-school “nobody believes in us” story, this is your team. Guts! Character! Determination! Also, any hockey fan with a heart will be cheering them on.

The pessimist’s view: All the guts in the world can’t make up for the loss of a Norris favorite, especially for a team that was never all that strong on paper. Giordano’s injury was probably the most devastating of the season for any team, and even a group as impressively resilient as this year’s Flames will have a hard time staying in the mix.

Worth noting: If they can stay in the race until the end, they may end up controlling their own destiny; they finish the season with games against the Kings and Jets.

Boston Bruins

Current status: IN (31-22-9, 71 points, two points up on ninth)

Remaining schedule: Middle of the road. Most notably, it still features three matchups with Florida, the team that’s chasing them for the last spot. They also hold two games in hand over the Panthers and Flyers.

The optimist’s view: They’re the Bruins, right? Even if injuries and depth issues mean they’re not the dominant team they’ve been in years past, they’re still a playoff team.

The pessimist’s view: We’ve been waiting for the Bruins to snap out of it all season, and it just hasn’t happened. The trade deadline was shaping up to be a turning point, with aggressive moves to bring in reinforcements expected. But they mostly came up empty, while the team chasing them was adding a Hall of Famer, and the one guy they did add, Brett Connolly, is hurt now.

Worth noting: CEO Charlie Jacobs has already said he’d consider it “absolutely unacceptable” if the team missed the playoffs.

Florida Panthers

Current status: OUT (28-23-13, 69 points, two points back of eighth)

Remaining schedule: It’s not all that daunting. There are tough teams, but they’re broken up by some weaker opponents like the Leafs and Hurricanes, and the Panthers finish with a five-game homestand.

The optimist’s view: With three games left against the Bruins, the Panthers control their destiny. Adding Jaromir Jagr was a nice show of confidence by management that could give the team a boost, and as long as they’ve got Roberto Luongo back there, they can beat any team on any given night.

The pessimist’s view: I wrote that line about Luongo on Tuesday; sorry, Panthers fans. We don’t know yet how serious Luongo’s injury is, but if he’s out for any length of time, they’re in big trouble. With backup Al Montoya also hurt, the team may be faced with either relying on Dan Ellis or airlifting in a free agent.

Worth noting: The Panthers have stayed in the race largely on the strength of a league-high 13 loser points.

San Jose Sharks

Current status: OUT (32-25-8, 72 points, tied for third in the Pacific but lose the tiebreaker)

Remaining schedule: On the tough side. There’s a tough four-game homestand coming up that includes the Penguins, Hawks, and Predators, and that’s followed by a seven-game road trip. But if they’re still in it by April, they get the Coyotes twice and the Oilers once in their last five.

The optimist’s view: The Sharks are a good team. It’s been easy to lose sight of that in all the weirdness that followed last year’s playoff collapse, but there’s still a ton of talent here. They just need to beat out the Kings and Flames for third in the Pacific, and if they can’t do that, there’s still a shot at a wild-card berth.

The pessimist’s view: It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a team just waiting for a wrecking ball. The goalie is on his way out. The coach probably is, too, barring a deep playoff run. They tried and failed to move their franchise player last offseason. They barely did anything at the deadline. And as they battle with Los Angeles for what could be the final spot, there’s a nagging feeling out there that the Sharks just can’t beat the Kings when it counts.

Worth noting: Their last game is against — who else? — the Kings.

Los Angeles Kings

Current status: OUT (30-21-12, 72 points, tied for third in the Pacific but lose the tiebreaker)

Remaining schedule: Not especially intimidating, although they play eight of their last 11 on the road, where they’ve struggled, including a tough five-game trip that features the Islanders, Rangers, and Blackhawks. The final weeks feature games with the Canucks, Flames, and Sharks, teams they could be battling with for a final spot.

The optimist’s view: This is just what the Kings do. First they struggle to make the playoffs. Then they win the Stanley Cup. We saw it in 2012, we saw it last year, and we’re probably seeing it all play out again. They’ll flip the switch. They always do. And in fact, they probably already have, with a recent eight-game win streak demonstrating just how good this team can be. Oh, and they bulked up at the trade deadline, adding Andrej Sekera to help a sagging blue line.

The pessimist’s view: That eight-game win streak didn’t really create any sort of cushion, so there’s not much margin of error to work with. And after last year’s Cup run, you have to wonder if fatigue is an issue down the stretch.

Worth noting: In a coaching career that stretches back to 1992, Darryl Sutter has never coached a full season and missed the playoffs.

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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