This article is part of our The Daily Puck series.
Three teams, one spot. That's what the Eastern Conference playoff race is shaping up to be. The Maple Leafs hold the last wild card spot but the Islanders are just one point behind and the Lightning two points behind. All three teams lost Saturday night and they must be disappointed they couldn't improve their position in the standings, but also feeling lucky that the status quo has been maintained.
The Leafs are in the most precarious position. They have one game in hand but must face the Bruins, Capitals, Lightning, Penguins and the Blue Jackets twice before the end of the season. Four of their last five games will be back-to-backs, and some of their young players seem to be losing steam already.
The Islanders have a slightly more favorable schedule, and even though they have to face the Rangers and Penguins next, will play non-playoff teams five times over the final nine games, including two against the lowly Devils and one each against the Sabres and Hurricanes. These are games they can and should win, but two things need to happen: Thomas Greiss needs to be outstanding and someone other than John Tavares has to do some scoring.
That leaves the Lightning – despite being sellers at the deadline – as the prime candidate to take the last wild card spot when making the playoffs seemed more like a dream a few weeks ago. They've won six of their past 10, and despite losing two straight entering Sunday, will face the Coyotes, Stars, Sabres and the Red Wings twice in their final 11 games. Bubble teams like the Bruins and Leafs won't faze such an experienced squad, especially with Nikita Kucherov putting in MVP performances and Steven Stamkos not so far away from returning.
Wild (PP: 9, PK: 7) at Jets (PP: 22, PK: 28), 5:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Darcy Kuemper (7-4-3, 3.21, .904), Connor Hellebuyck (23-18-4, 2.86, .907)
Key Injuries:Victor Bartley (triceps), Christian Folin (arm), Gustav Olofsson (upper body), Toby Enstrom (concussion), Shawn Matthias (shoulder), Tyler Myers (lower body), Ondrej Pavelec (knee), Jacob Trouba (upper body)
Patrik Laine is worth the price of admission alone and the Wild have been one of the best teams all season, so even if the Jets aren't in the playoff race, it'll be a hell of a matchup to see. It'll be an interesting test for the Jets to see how they stack up against one of the best teams despite the Wild's four-game losing streak; it wasn't too long ago that people believed the Jets were one of league's best young teams, and that was even before they drafted Laine. The Jets obviously still have a long way to go, but they have all the necessary pieces. The key in this matchup could be Mark Scheifele, who will likely go head-to-head against Mikko Koivu.
Senators (PP: 21, PK: 12) at Canadiens (PP: 14, PK: 17), 7:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Mike Condon (18-12-6, 2.49, .914), Al Montoya (8-6-3, 2.71, .910)
Key Injuries:Alexei Emelin (illness), Brian Flynn (upper body), Nikita Nesterov (undisclosed), Clarke MacArthur (concussion), Chris Neil (finger), Mark Stone (lower body)
It's Round 2 of a back-to-back home-and-home series, with the Habs prevailing Saturday night in a shootout win. In a potential battle of the back-ups, Condon has the slight edge over Montoya, but overall the Habs should have the advantage with slightly better special teams, last change on home ice and a deeper lineup. Max Pacioretty has gone cold recently – excluding a two-goal effort against Edmonton last week, he's gone without a goal in his past seven games. It won't be easy beating Condon, either, but the good news is that Pacioretty has recorded at least four shots in five of his past six games. Thanks to the asinine playoff format, the winner of the Atlantic Division will likely have to face the Rangers in the first round, which makes finishing first a lot less desirable than it should.
Kings (PP: 15, PK: 3) at Flames (PP: 13, PK: 14), 9:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Jonathan Quick (5-1-1, 2.02, .928), Brian Elliott (22-13-3, 2.47, .911)
Key Injuries:Matt Greene (undisclosed), Jordan Nolan (leg), Nick Shore (upper body)
By all accounts, the Kings are probably not going to make the playoffs. They're six points back of Nashville for the last wild card spot and nine points behind Calgary in the Pacific Division. The defense remains solid, but the lack of scoring continues to be a problem, especially when Dean Lombardi did a questionable job of addressing the problem by acquiring an aging Jarome Iginla. Elliott is aiming for his 11th win in a row, and in his previous start against the Kings at home allowed just one goal on 29 shots for the win. Even though Mikael Backlund has been the Flames' best center this season, he's up against two guys much bigger than him in Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. How he fares may be a good indicator of how effective he can be in the playoffs when coaches are stricter with their matchups and space on the ice becomes a premium, especially if Sean Monahan can't get going.
Blue Jackets (PP: 7, PK: 10) at Devils (PP: 19, PK: 16), 1:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Sergei Bobrovsky (38-13-4, 2.06, .930), Cory Schneider (19-22-10, 2.72, .911)
Key Injuries:Ryan Murray (hand), Michael Cammalleri (shoulder), Blake Coleman (upper body), Jacob Josefson (upper body), Devante Smith-Pelly (lower body), Miles Wood (undisclosed)
Schneider may very well stand on his head, but a bad penalty here and there and it won't matter who's in net because the Blue Jackets will make them pay. A win will give Bobrovsky his 39th in just 56 games, solidifying his case for the Vezina as the league's best goalie. His .930 save percentage is tops in the league among goalies with at least 50 appearances, and the Devils have scored a conference-worst 163 goals.
Panthers (PP: 24, PK: 1) at Penguins (PP: 4, PK: 21), 1:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:James Reimer (14-13-5, 2.59, .918), Matt Murray (27-9-3, 2.41, .923)
Key Injuries:Aaron Ekblad (concussion), Roberto Luongo (lower body), Denis Malgin (concussion), Trevor Daley (knee), Carl Hagelin (lower body), Ron Hainsey (upper body), Kris Letang (upper body), Olli Maatta (hand), Evgeni Malkin (upper body), Bryan Rust (arm)
The Panthers are just six points out of a playoff spot but have just three wins in their past 10 games and are still without Luongo. Sure, having Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov is a huge boost, but outscoring the Penguins is a hefty challenge. The Panthers' road to the Stanley Cup in future years will depend on how well their centers can stack up, so it'll be interesting to see how Barkov does going head-to-head against Sidney Crosby.
Avalanche (PP: 30, PK: 25) at Blackhawks (PP: 16, PK: 24), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Jeremy Smith (1-4-0, 3.12, .898), Scott Darling (17-5-2, 2.08, .933)
Key Injuries:Artem Anisimov (lower body), Marian Hossa (lower body), Matthew Nieto (knee), Semyon Varlamov (groin), Nikita Zadorov (ankle)
What's the over/under on the margin of victory? The Avalanche have a mountain to climb if they want to win against Chicago, and they'll have to give Smith some help at both ends of the ice, but they've been terrible on defense all season and Darling is one of the league's most underrated goalies – underrated enough that it wouldn't be all that surprising to see teams toy with the idea of signing him to be a potential starter.
Hurricanes (PP: 23, PK: 5) at Flyers (PP: 12, PK: 22), 7:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies:Cam Ward (23-20-10, 2.69, .904), Steve Mason (20-20-7, 2.76, .905)
Key Injuries:Jay McClement (lower body), Valentin Zykov (upper body), Nick Cousins (upper body), Brandon Manning (shoulder), Michael Raffl (lower body)
The Hurricanes and Flyers' pipeline is stocked with some intriguing prospects, but many of them are still in the minor or junior leagues, so here's hoping this matchup will be a marquee one a few years further down the road. Sebastian Aho and Jeff Skinner are players to watch here, since their hockey IQ and quickness allows them to feed off turnovers, something that has led to Shayne Gostisbehere getting benched a few times this season. Also, Mason is posting the worst numbers of his career as a Flyer.
Jake Guentzel, LW, PIT – He's been a fixture on Sidney Crosby's left wing since Mike Sullivan gave him a chance, and the Penguins simply love what they've been seeing. Over the past seven games, Guentzel has scored four goals and three assists, bringing his season total to 22 points in 33 games. After spending years trying to find the right linemates for Crosby, the solution has presented itself in Guenztel, a third-round pick in 2013 who only turned pro after three years with Nebraska-Omaha. The Penguins have never felt the need to rush their prospects, and it seems like their patience has paid off.