A wild finish to come in the East?

If the Sabres get back into a playoff spot, who could be out in their place?

Derek Kramer
January 29, 2019 - 4:52 pm

Photo: Kevin Hoffman - USA TODAY Sports

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Back on November 29th, the Buffalo Sabres were at the top of the National Hockey League, first place amongst all of the teams, nine points clear of the final playoff spot and at what would be the end of a 10-game winning streak. Fans were more focused on what team the Sabres could be facing in the playoffs, rather than if they were going to even be in the playoffs. 

Since then, the Sabres have been on a 7-12-4 slide that has the team suddenly four points out of a playoff spot and has fans clamoring for some way to fix the team's issues. 

What's been ignored is a rather odd story: the other nine teams in the playoff conversation have been producing at a clip that is a bit uncommon. For reference, the Western Conference's two wild card spots are sitting at 52 points, and the final spot in the Central Division is sitting at 55 points. In the West, the Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes (54 points each) would be ahead in the Wild Card and off by one point of an automatic divisional spot. 

Sadly, the Sabres are in the Eastern Conference and, more problematically, the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay is on another level, but the Sabres are now eight points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs, seven back of the Montreal Canadiens and five back of the Boston Bruins. In addition, Buffalo is four points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

If the Sabres are to play better and make the playoffs, who is the most likely to start tailing off? Let's take a peek, in order of striking distance from the Sabres in the standings:

 

  • Pittsburgh Penguins (26-17-6, 58 points, second Wild Card) 

Case for the Penguins falling out: 

The Penguins seem to be a team that is still trying to recover from an early season slide that saw them closer to the bottom of the standings rather than their general spot among the top of the Metropolitan Division. It's strange to see a roster with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang fighting for a spot in the playoffs. The main problem has been goaltender Matt Murray taking another step back with a 3.00 goals-against-average and only a .908 save percentage. Murray has struggled with consistency and injuries, and has not been able to keep his No. 1 status in net. 

Case for the Penguins holding on: 

While Murray has struggled, Casey DeSmith has been able to play well in more action this season, with numbers far superior to Murray's. If Murray can steady up, DeSmith and Murray become a solid tandem that can do enough for a deep lineup in Pittsburgh. 

 

  • Boston Bruins (27-17-5, 59 points, first Wild Card) 

Case for the Bruins falling out: 

Injuries have been a massive issue for Boston, the latest coming to goaltender Tuukka Rask. Boston has also dealt with major injuries to defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, and center Patrice Bergeron throughout the season. In addition, the Bruins have a problem that Sabres fans can relate to: a top-heavy roster that boasts only five players over 20 points on the season (Buffalo has six). If the Bruins can't get their secondary scoring going, they could be on the outside looking in. 

Case for the Bruins holding on: 

While Rask has been banged up this season, backup goalie Jaroslav Halak has been a revelation in matching Rask's numbers for the second-best team in goals against this season. Their goaltending has been solid, which allows the likes of Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand to do enough with their stellar production to win enough games. 

 

  • Columbus Blue Jackets (28-17-3, 59 points, third in the Metropolitan) 

Case for the Blue Jackets falling out: 

Columbus is in a very awkward spot. They're a team that is a regular in the playoffs, yet has never won a playoff series and now has two unrestricted free agents to make major decisions on. Winger Artemi Panarin has told the Blue Jackets that he will not sign an extension in Columbus, which means that they will lose their best player after the season for nothing in return. The Blue Jackets, who are still just a playoff team but not a Cup contender, would be foolish to hold on to Panarin. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is also an unrestricted free agent, but has picked a bad time to see his numbers drop. With Bobrovsky playing up and down and Columbus heavily invested in the future of Joonas Korpisalo in net, a moderate losing streak could see the Jackets unload a top winger and a former Vezina winner. 

Case for the Blue Jackets holding on: 

Being in the Metropolitan helps, where they are still just four points off of first place. Columbus is a team that is balanced and able to get scoring help throughout the lineup. If their goaltending can steady up, Columbus could be back in the playoffs yet again. 

 

  • Washington Capitals (27-17-6, 60 points, second in the Metropolitan) 

Case for the Capitals falling out: 

The Capitals are in this piece simply due to their recent struggles, at a 3-5-2 record in their last 10 games, matching the Sabres current pace. The goaltending in Washington has struggled without their former coaching staff, as Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley are rocking a combined save percentage of only .904. The team's defensive structure that was prevalent with former coach Barry Trotz is now gone and Washington has suffered in the goals against department. 

Case for the Capitals holding on: 

Alex Ovechkin is a bad, bad man. The league-leader in goals is a main cog for the sixth-best scoring team in the NHL. Ovechkin is the big name in a deep lineup that includes John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. While the defending Stanley Cup champs are on a slide, their scoring is spectacular and deep enough to make a return to the postseason.

 

  • Montreal Canadiens (28-18-5, 61 points, third in the Atlantic) 

Case for the Canadiens falling out: 

The Canadiens are not a team that wows you with scoring. They have no players at a point per-game in production (Max Domi leads Montreal with 44 points in 51 games). Domi, in particular, has cooled off a bit after starting the season at a point per-game pace. Goaltender Carey Price has been solid this season, but Montreal has gotten little help from Antti Niemi in relief (.894 save percentage and 3.66 goals-against average). 

Case for the Canadiens holding on: 

Price has steadied his game after an off year last season, and has gotten scoring help throughout the lineup with nine players over 20 points. Montreal is not shy about being aggressive, if not questionable, at the deadline with general manager Marc Bergevin. 

 

  • Toronto Maple Leafs (30-17-2, 62 points, second in the Atlantic) 

Case for the Maple Leafs falling out: 

If only due to the fact that Toronto has been in a rut and is in the bunch with the rest of the East, Toronto should be included. The Leafs have seen players like Auston Matthews and William Nylander go cold as they head into their bye week. Like a pair of their star players, Toronto headed into their bye week with a 4-6 record in their last 10 games. If Toronto can't figure out their issues at home (14-11-1), the Leafs could make their fan base nervous. 

Case for the Maple Leafs holding on: 

Bad news is that Toronto took care of a need on their roster this week in the trade for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Muzzin allows the Leafs to finally drop Ron Hainsey off of the top pairing with Morgan Reilly, who is enjoying a career year. In addition, Mitch Marner has been Toronto's best player while teamed up with John Tavares on a line. 

 

  • Bonus - Carolina Hurricanes (24-20-6, 54 points, currently out of playoffs) 

Case for the Hurricanes falling out: 

Carolina has usually been plagued by terrible goaltending in recent years. While Petr Mrazek has been a free agent bust, Carolina has gotten good production from waiver claim Curtis McElhinney. This season, it's about a lack of scoring, which is fitting after Carolina dealt Jeff Skinner to Buffalo. While Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen have been revelations, they're the only two players over 30 points this season. Carolina is also rumored to be looking at potential deals for winger Michael Ferlund and defenseman Dougie Hamilton. 

Case for the Hurricanes to make it in: 

Carolina has a balanced group that the analytics community seems to love. Their expected goals and shot generation numbers are off of the charts for a non-playoff team, and the Hurricanes are finally getting semi-competent goaltending. However, Carolina, like the Sabres, have the most work to do as they sit on the outside looking in. 

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