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An early look around the Eastern Conference playoff race

The Flyers, to the surprise of few of us, look like they’re going to be fighting for a playoff spot for most of the season. Who are they going to be fighting with?

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Philadelphia Flyers v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Believe it or not, we are solidly into the second half of the NHL season. Every team in the league has played at least 43 games, and the average team has played 46. Time flies when you’re having ... (/gestures at this Flyers season) ... whatever this is. And as of this moment (we’re not going to add “believe it or not” because we think you can believe this one), your Philadelphia Flyers ... are on the bubble of the playoff race. Their territory, as we know it.

Yes, despite some points earlier in the season where the Flyers looked like they were sitting pretty in the playoff race, we’ve since received a harsh reminder that looking at the standings is largely a feeble exercise until the calendar flips to the new year. If the playoffs started today, the Flyers would not be in them, just barely getting edged out by the Florida Panthers for the final spot in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, if the playoffs started today, a lot of folks who have tickets for games in the next three months would be very confused. Indeed, there are still nearly three months in the regular season, so pretending that a one-point lead in the standings for Florida is an insurmountable lead for the Flyers to overcome would be silly. But we’re getting to the point where the playoff race is really starting to take shape, and we’re certainly far enough into the year that we have a reasonably established understanding of who the teams fighting for these playoff spots are.

So let’s talk a bit about where the playoff race stands, and how the Flyers factor into it. If you haven’t been paying a ton of attention to the teams that were behind the Flyers in November and December that have managed to make this a race thanks to the Flyers’ Disney On Ice Trip From Hell, here’s your chance to catch up. We’ll divide the East’s 16 teams into five groups, spending a bit less time talking about the teams whose standings in or out of the playoffs are pretty well-established before diving in a bit more on the teams currently on the bubble. To help us handicap the race here, I’ve enlisted the help of two of my favorite playoff odds-tracking models: Dom Luszczyszyn’s over at The Athletic, and Micah Blake McCurdy’s at HockeyViz*.

* Note that, since HockeyViz’s model does not update to the public until 1:00 p.m. ET, the numbers shown at this time are through Saturday’s games rather than Sunday’s.

Definitely In

Washington (30-11-5, 65 points, +25 goal differential, playoff odds 99% via The Athletic/99% via HockeyViz): At some point, Washington will stop doing this. Evidently, this year is not that point. They’re very good once again and are most likely going to win the Metro for the 63rd year in a row.

Boston (27-8-11, 65 points, +41 goal differential, playoff odds 100% via The Athletic/99% via HockeyViz): A tough nut to crack, these Bruins. They don’t have amazing depth, and their 5-on-5 play-driving numbers are just OK. How are they doing this? (/checks notes) Ah, yes. They have maybe the best top line in hockey and their goaltending is bonkers. As they do. Moving on!

Tampa (27-14-4, 58 points, +31 goal differential, playoff odds 100% via The Athletic/95% via HockeyViz): Hey, remember those two or so months where the Lightning looked mortal? That was fun. Why couldn’t the Flyers have played any of their games against the Lightning during that time?

Definitely Out

Detroit (12-31-3, 27 points, -75 goal differential, playoff odds 0% via The Athletic/0% via HockeyViz): There’s a decent chance this teams ends up going down as the worst team in the salary cap era. NHL dot com is telling me that they’re 3-7-0 in their last 10 games, and I’m not going to bother to check this, but it seems possible that that’s the best 10-game stretch they’ve had all season?

Ottawa (16-22-7, 39 points, -30 goal differential, playoff odds 0% via The Athletic/0% via HockeyViz): Then there are the Senators, who are kinda just garden-variety bad rather than the total abject trainwreck that I think most of us expected them to be. They’re a little frisky and have some fun young talent, but they’re bad and certainly do not factor into the playoff picture in any way.

New Jersey (17-21-7, 41 points, -34 goal differential, playoff odds 0% via The Athletic/1% via HockeyViz, recently fired both their coach and general manager): hahahahahahahahahahahaha HAHAHAHAahahahahhahaaahahahaahahahahahahaha HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH LMAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO they’re bad.

Probably In

Pittsburgh (28-12-5, 61 points, +29 goal differential, playoff odds 98% via The Athletic/93% via HockeyViz): The Penguins have been without Sidney Crosby for about two months now and in that timeframe they lead the NHL in standings points. You could probably put them in “Definitely In” and feel safe — much like the Capitals, they’re at a point where we should probably not assume they’re going away until we actually see it happen no matter how many injuries they have.

NY Islanders (30-11-5, 65 points, +26 goal differential, playoff odds 86% via The Athletic/89% via HockeyViz): Look, I get it. I don’t understand why this team is still good, either. Other than goaltending and good coaching. They definitely have those two things. I really don’t think they have a ton else, but I’ve been saying that for a year and a half now and they’re basically in the same spot in the standings as the Penguins are in that timeframe, so if I’m waiting for some kind of a collapse here that’s going to knock this team down to its “true talent” (whatever that means), I’m probably going to be waiting a while.

Toronto (24-16-6, 54 points, +15 goal differential, playoff odds 81% via The Athletic/79% via HockeyViz): Ah, another team that we all knew was good that nonetheless spent the first two months of the season with its head up its ass before finally figuring it out. But unlike the other team in this list that fits that profile (Tampa), which did so more or less organically, Toronto did it by getting rid of the bad man who hated fun in Mike Babcock, and now Sheldon Keefe (doesn’t hate fun) is making them good at hockey again. Yes, I too would have liked to see the pandemonium (and content) that would ensue from the Toronto Maple Leafs missing the playoffs this year, but it feels like the ship has probably sailed on that. Oh well. Enjoy Tampa in the first round. (That all said, it was nice of the league to put all of the Flyers’ games against this team in the early part of the season.)

Probably Out

Montreal (19-20-7, 45 points, -6 goal differential, playoff odds 4% via The Athletic/6% via HockeyViz): Of the teams in this section of the breakdown, they’re probably the one with the most talent, and their 5-on-5 numbers on the season are downright good. Yet they’re also the team in this group with the worst record, and what had the chance to be a promising season for them has gone down the tubes. They would need a lot to go right at this point to even get on the bubble — it would primarily require Carey Price turning it around a bit in what’s been an overall unimpressive season for him. Which could happen! He has the ability! But it’s a lot to count on.

Buffalo (20-19-7, 47 points, -11 goal differential, playoff odds 2% via The Athletic/7% via HockeyViz): Second straight season where the Sabres get out to a really hot start and things then fall apart almost immediately. So it goes. A shame, too, because Jack Eichel probably deserves some Hart Trophy accolades even with his team likely to miss the postseason for the ninth year in a row.

NY Rangers (21-19-4, 46 points, -1 goal differential, playoff odds 8% via The Athletic/16% via HockeyViz): Artemi Panarin is really really good! So is Mika Zibanejad! Their goalies (all ... three of them?) are also very good! And ... that is about it. Their defense is mostly dreadful (remember when I really wanted the Flyers to trade for and sign Jacob Trouba? You don’t? Good, let’s pretend it never happened), their young players other than Adam Fox have kinda just been OK, and their on-ice numbers at 5-on-5 (while somewhat better lately) are among the worst in the NHL for the season. It would not be stunning if the Rangers hung around on the fringe of the playoff race for most of the season — there are certainly worse formulas out there than “star power at the top of the lineup and good goaltending” — but it seems like what this team has shown to date may kind of be its cap on this season unless some guys take big steps forward in the second half.

The Bubble

All of that brings us to the four teams that can, in our opinion, most reasonably be considered “on the playoff bubble” — in other words, teams for which we really don’t know if they’re going to end up in it or not. If our above tiers are correct, and all six of the teams in the “Definitely/Probably In” sections make it into the playoffs and all six of those in the “Definitely/Probably Out” sections don’t, then two of the four teams in this section here are going to end up in the playoffs. So let’s talk a bit more about the final contenders here.

Carolina (27-16-2, 56 points, +25 goal differential, playoff odds 92% via The Athletic/76% via HockeyViz)

How are things going? About as well as one would expect for a team that’s on the bubble. Truthfully, one could reasonably argue here that Carolina belongs in the “Probably In” section. The playoff models have them in a much more comfortable position than the other three teams here and even some of the teams we’re already talked about, they’ve actually got a better record and goal differential than a couple of the teams in the above sections, and their 5-on-5 numbers are excellent as per usual. Still, they play in the tougher of the East’s two divisions and they’re one potential bad week away from finding themselves in the ninth spot in the East, so they end up on this part of the list.

The case for them: They’re good. Seriously — their goal differential is up there with Washington’s, 60% of their games have been wins, they’re top-5 in most 5-on-5 play-driving metrics, and even their goaltending (long the Canes’ bugaboo) has been ... fine, which should be more than enough for them to be a playoff team. Frankly, the only thing that’s probably kept them from pulling away is that they have a league-fewest two OT losses; they haven’t played in many OT games, and they’ve won most of the ones they’ve played. (Must be nice.) Also, they just added Justin Williams back to their roster.

The case against them: We need to at least keep in mind that Petr Mrazek is their main goalie and no amount of objective evidence that is shown to me will convince me that he is good, and not bad. But in all seriousness, given that they don’t have a huge margin in the standings over the likes of the other teams in this group, the most likely path that ends in them missing the playoffs probably involves a goaltending implosion and some bad shooting luck. And we certainly have years’ worth of evidence suggesting the Hurricanes are capable of getting both of those things, even if they don’t seem terribly likely this time around.

Florida (24-16-5, 53 points, +14 goal differential, playoff odds 52% via The Athletic/56% via HockeyViz)

How are things going? Up and down. Flyers Legend Joel Quenneville’s squad has kicked around between the top-3 of the Atlantic and the bottom half of the standings, and they’ve now settled in to the position they’re in now. Jonathan Huberdeau has been awesome, anchoring one of the top lines in the league, and Aaron Ekblad has continued to really round the corner and become the guy Florida thought they were getting when they took him first overall. Which they’ve needed, because big offseason acquisition Sergei Bobrovsky has been ... bad. He’s been bad. Things were looking up a bit for him in December, but the new year so far hasn’t treated him well, nor did the first two months of the season. Simply put, it is hard to win a lot when your goalie who plays three quarters of your starts has been solidly below average.

The case for them: Their top-end talent is very good. Huberdeau and his linemates (Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov) have been walking around on fire, and the guys anchoring their defense (Ekblad, Mike Matheson, and Keith Yandle) are holding up their end of the deal. The depth here isn’t great, but as we know here in Philadelphia, a top line and a couple of good defenders can pull a team to the finish line sometimes. Plus, chances are Bobrovsky did not magically become bad at hockey, and at some point he’s going to really get back on track. If the Panthers are on the bubble with their $70 million man being bad for most of the season, where are they going to be if he pulls it together?

The case against them: Bobrovsky is probably going to pull it together at some point, yes, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to happen this year. And even if he does, their team-wide shooting percentage is top-5 in the NHL on the season, and it would not be shocking to see that drop a bit; if it doesn’t, can they get by with what have been very mediocre 5-on-5 play-driving numbers? Also, their schedule to date has featured a fairly home-heavy split — they’ve played five more home games than road games so far, and obviously that balances out over the rest of the season and will make it tougher for them to keep their current pace.

Philadelphia (23-16-6, 52 points, +4 goal differential, playoff odds 47% via The Athletic/53% via HockeyViz)

How are things going? Come on, don’t make me type this. You’re here. You know how things are going.

The case for them: It seems impossible that a power play that was generally effective for the past decade suddenly became one of the worst power plays of this decade and that the Flyers are the worst team in the NHL on the road, right? I mean, imagine if those things change.

The case against them: Imagine if they don’t, though.

(We’ll talk more about the Flyers elsewhere on this site, we promise.)

Columbus (22-16-8, 52 points, -1 goal differential, playoff odds 30% via The Athletic/31% via HockeyViz)

How are things going? As well as one could probably have expected of them coming in to the year. Columbus, which famously went all-in last year at the trade deadline and upset Tampa and then lost all of their players in the offseason, is staying afloat under John Tortorella. Things dragged a bit for them early in the season, but a red-hot stretch since early December has pulled them back into it — they had a 12-game point streak that ran into the New Year, and they just won three out of four on the road against the Pacific Division to pull nearly-even with the Flyers. (WINNING GAMES ON THE ROAD OUT WEST IN DECEMBER/JANUARY. WOW. WHAT A CONCEPT.) They’ve also managed to do all of it despite a significant rash of injuries; as of this writing, they’re without Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Murray, and Joonas Korpisalo. They’re going to get at least some of those guys back at some point, and that’s a lot of reinforcements for a team to get in the thick of a playoff race.

The case for them: They’re a legitimately good play-driving team at 5-on-5 — 10th in the NHL in adjusted xG% as of this writing — and that’s largely on the strength of strong team defense. They’re fifth in the NHL in xG allowed per 60 at 5-on-5. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski headline a fairly solid group of defenders. Also, their goaltending — largely expected to be a problem with Bobrovsky gone — has held up, as Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have been downright respectable. And again, if they’re right here with all of the injuries they’ve suffered lately, are those other guys’ returns going to be enough to push them over the edge?

The case against them: Is the offense there? Columbus is sixth-worst in the league this season in goals scored per 60 at 5-on-5, and fifth-worst in all-situations. And while they’re likely due for some luck to turn there — they’re just slightly-below-average in xG produced, and only Detroit and Los Angeles have worse shooting percentages as a team this season — are there a ton of scorers on this team to help bridge that gap? Columbus seems good enough to hang around the bubble, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to score more if they want to grab a playoff spot unless their goalies, who have already been a pleasant surprise, have another gear.

So, there you have it. With almost three months left in the season, there are only really two playoff spots left up for grabs, with four teams fighting for them, and your Flyers are one of those teams. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We’ll check back in on the playoff race again as the season continues.

Note: “Goal differential” numbers above do not include “goals” awarded/removed for shootout wins/losses. Any references to 5-on-5/on-ice numbers are via Natural Stat Trick.