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Taking Stock of the East Playoff Picture as the Stretch Run Arrives

With 20 games to go in the season, we reset and take a look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture and where teams are trending.

NHL: MAR 05 Devils at Coyotes Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Devils head into the season's final 20 games, they are all but guaranteed to land in a playoff spot when the season closes. The Devils are in the same boat on that front with a few of their Eastern Conference peers, as Boston, Carolina, Toronto, and, to a lesser extent, Tampa and the Rangers all are sitting pretty comfortably in the driver’s seat as well. Below that threshold, the Wild Card race has devolved into chaos, with six teams battling for the two remaining spots in the Eastern playoff picture. So where are the Devils likely to land and who what does their potential path through the playoffs look like?

Since the Devils are essentially locked into the playoffs, the questions for them are mainly down to final seeding and potential opponents. For a while, the Devils appeared to be headed toward a near-guaranteed first-round date with those guys wearing blue across the Hudson River, but a couple of recent developments have opened the door to some other possibilities. First, the Devils have kept on winning, and are now in striking distance of Carolina. And second, the Rangers have stumbled a bit and are flirting with getting dragged back down into the Wild Card picture if one of the Metro teams behind them like the Penguins heats up. The most likely first round opponent for the Devils remains the Rangers, but with other options becoming more of a possibility, it’s a good time to take a look around the conference to see where everyone is at. Here’s a peek at the full standings picture in the East:

Standings after 3/5/23

There are essentially three distinct zones that teams are in in the East right now. There are the teams pretty comfortably positioned in the Divisional spots, which include Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic, and Carolina, New Jersey, and New York (Rags) in the Metro. The group below them includes the six teams (seven if you’re inclined to keep a fading Detroit in there) locked in a battle for the Wild Card spots. That second group includes New York (Islanders), Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Ottawa, Florida, and Washington. The third are the also-rans and basement-dwellers who are done with their meaningful hockey this season. Columbus, who has been cooked for months now, brings up the rear with Montreal and Philadelphia both far out of the playoffs. Detroit, who sold at the deadline and has lost 7 of 10, is also making a beeline for this group.

Race for the Metro

Carolina has had a pretty firm grip on the lead in the Metropolitan Division since the Devils went on their skid in December. The Devils, even in spite of some inconsistent performances, have been winning a whole lot of hockey games in the calendar year 2023, though, and they have been slowly creeping up on the Hurricanes of late. They now sit just two points back of Carolina for the lead in the Metropolitan Division, though the Hurricanes have a game in hand. Carolina is playing some great hockey, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to expect them to slow down (and they just pasted their last two opponents by a combined 12-1 score), but they just can’t shake the Devils, who keep on winning in their own right and also seem to be playing a more complete game of late (though with some shakiness appearing on the goaltending front). Carolina is still the best bet, but it’s hard to count the Devils out at this point, given how resilient they continue to be this season.

The Rangers have slid back a little bit after creeping up on the Devils themselves for a while. The Rags sit at 79 points, nine back of New Jersey and one fewer game remaining on their schedule. It’s looking pretty likely now that if the Devils and Rangers do meet in round one, the Devils will be the team with home ice. The Rangers still have a solid cushion over the Wild Card bunch, but do need to be careful as they are now closer in points to the Isles (7) and Penguins (8) than the Devils. Still, if they play passable hockey the rest of the way, they probably cruise to the third Metro slot.

Wild Card Mess

The Wild Card picture is incresingly muddy in the East, with a bunch of flawed teams rising and falling depending on the week. Right now, six teams are separated by just four points in the standings, and the Isles “lead” in that bunch is very precarious, since they’ve played more games than anyone in that group. Of the four teams knotted up at 68 points, Ottawa and Buffalo appear to be on the rise, and Florida and particularly Washington are stumbling. These vibes have been ebbing and flowing for all of these teams, though, and it’s pretty tough to predict who ends up in the two open slots once the dust settles. The Penguins are probably best positioned right now, with 71 points and 62 games played, but they have been as much of a roller coaster as any other team in the group, so it remains to be seen if they can extend their playoff streak to 17 years.

The Boring Atlantic

In the Atlantic, there’s not much of any drama remaining, other than whether or not the Bruins will break the NHL regular season wins/points records by season’s close. Boston could clinch a playoff spot as soon as next weekend with how things are going. Meanwhile, Toronto and Tampa appear to be headed to a foregone conclusion of a first-round matchup that has seemed pretty much locked in since November. Even with Tampa going somewhat catatonic of late, including a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Carolina last night, they are still 11 points clear of any team catching them for third and are mostly going through the motions waiting for the postseason. Toronto seems to be headed toward home ice in that matchup with Tampa’s stumble, though.

The Path Through

While the East could be argued to have the top 5 or 6 best squads in the league, the good news is that they can only see one of Boston/Tampa/Toronto if they manage to make it to the Conference Final, which I think everyone around here would be pretty okay with. The real drama remaining (aside from who is left standing from the Wild Card bedlam) is whether or not the Devils can overtake Carolina to grab the division. The Rangers have looked a bit uneven recently, but the bunch in the Wild Card are certainly more flawed and would represent an easier first round matchup. If they can’t catch the Canes, it’ll be a Devils-Rangers matchup for the first time since the 2012 Conference Final and we’ll all be extra stressed for the duration of the second playoff series we’ve witnessed in a decade. The most likely path to ECF probably includes the Rangers and Carolina in the most-likely scenario, which should make for some low-stakes, drama-free entertainment for sure.

No matter what happens, though, it’s just nice to be looking ahead to the playoffs again in New Jersey.