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Sizing up the Eastern Conference playoff race at the All-Star Break

The bubble on the East is starting to take shape as we get into the unofficial second half of the season.

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Philadelphia Flyers v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Last week, with the entire league past the halfway mark in its schedule, we took a first look at where the Eastern Conference playoff race currently stands. We said in that post that we’d continue to keep an eye on this race throughout the rest of the season, so hey, let’s do that as we head into the All-Star Break.

As we did then, we’ll break the East’s 16 teams into five tiers. We’ll also handicap the race a bit using two playoff odds models: Dom Luszczyszyn’s at The Athletic, and Micah Blake McCurdy’s at HockeyViz.

Eastern Conference Standings (as of the All-Star Break)

Team Record Goal Diff (Non-SO) Points Points over ".500" RW Playoff Chances (Athletic) Playoff Chances (Hockeyviz)
Team Record Goal Diff (Non-SO) Points Points over ".500" RW Playoff Chances (Athletic) Playoff Chances (Hockeyviz)
Washington 33-11-5 32 71 22 24 100% 100%
Boston 29-10-12 41 70 19 26 100% 99%
Pittsburgh 31-14-5 29 67 17 21 98% 94%
NY Islanders 29-15-5 10 63 14 19 78% 79%
Tampa Bay 29-15-4 36 62 14 24 100% 93%
Florida 28-16-5 20 61 12 23 74% 80%
Carolina 29-18-3 24 61 11 21 69% 63%
Columbus 27-16-8 10 62 11 21 61% 54%
Philadelphia 27-17-6 8 60 10 18 56% 58%
Toronto 25-17-7 14 57 8 20 56% 58%
Buffalo 22-20-7 -7 51 2 17 3% 7%
NY Rangers 23-21-4 1 50 2 20 2% 9%
Montreal 22-21-7 -4 51 1 15 4% 6%
Ottawa 17-23-8 -30 42 -6 13 0% 0%
New Jersey 17-24-7 -45 41 -7 13 0% 0%
Detroit 12-35-4 -90 28 -23 10 0% 0%

A quick look at the standings — and the odds associated with them — suggest that we’ve basically already cut our race down to 10 teams, four of which can feel very confident and six of which will have to duke it out a bit. Let’s see who stacks up where. We’ll quickly make our way through the teams whose fates are mostly known, and save the meat of the discussion — for the teams on the bubble — for the end. If a team has an arrow next to its name, that means it’s moved to that tier from another one since the last edition of this post.

Off the Bubble (for now)

Definitely In

Washington (playoff chances: 100% on The Athletic/100% on HockeyViz)
Boston (100%/99%)
Tampa Bay (100%/93%)
↑ Pittsburgh (98%/94%)

Yes, the Penguins got dunked on by your very own Philadelphia Flyers just a few days ago, but they’ve still gone 7-3 in their last 10 games and are inching back towards something resembling health. They’re closer to Washington in first place than they are to the first team out of the race, and they’re one of the only teams on this list that isn’t a three-game losing streak away from falling out of a playoff spot. It’s hard to see them missing the postseason here, honestly.

Probably In

NY Islanders (78%/79%)

A category that had three teams in it last week now has just one. The Islanders stumbled a bit last week, but rallied with a win on Tuesday over the Rangers to head into the break with a step up on the teams in the next group. As it has for a while now, this team feels like one that could be ripe for a slip-up, but the smart money is still on them making it.

Probably Out

NY Rangers (2%/9%)
Buffalo (3%/7%)
Montreal (4%/6%)

All three of these teams come into the break having won either four or five of their past 10 games, and when you’re there and hovering around .500 it becomes pretty tough to catch up on teams that are ten points above .500, like the ones we’re talking about on the bubble. Montreal’s got a bit of a boost from picking up Ilya Kovalchuk (as Flyers fans saw first-hand in their game last week), but it seems more likely that he’s going to be sold off prior to the trade deadline than it does that he’s going to the playoffs with the Habs. And it’s anyone’s guess how the Rangers, who are mostly still rebuilding and have some sell-worthy pieces but also probably don’t want to totally squander a near-Hart Trophy-caliber season from Artemi Panarin, handle the next month or so.

Definitely Out

New Jersey (0%/0%)
Ottawa (0%/0%)
Detroit (0%/0%)

Hahahahahahaha the Devils went all-in on this season and are terrible it really does warm your heart.

With that, we get to the heart of the program. If our tiers above are correct, then three of the five teams in this group will make it into the playoffs.

On The Bubble

↓ Toronto (56% / 58%)

WELL, WELL, WELL, LOOK WHO HAS JOINED THE PARTY. This deserves two paragraphs. When we initially checked in last week, we acknowledged that the Toronto Maple Leafs — who have played fairly well under new coach Sheldon Keefe — were most likely going to make the playoffs despite an early-season swoon that seemed to legitimately put their chances at playing beyond 82 games in peril. Since we hit publish on that article, the Leafs lost two out of three games and their best defenseman, as Morgan Rielly is expected to be out until March with a fractured foot. That left their already fairly unimpressive defense in a rather precarious situation, and when you couple that with the fact that their goalies have been floundering lately, what felt like a pretty safe bet to make the playoffs now finds itself 10th (!) in the Eastern Conference.

There is still a lot of plainly obvious talent on this team, particularly up front, and that’s why the projection models have not given up on them and have them with a better-than-50-percent shot at making the playoffs, even though they’ll still need to jump either Florida (to get to third place in the Atlantic Division) or two of the Metro teams in this section (to get to the final Wild Card spot). But Toronto is going to need a big run soon if it doesn’t want to be spending the rest of the season fighting for a spot.

Philadelphia (56% / 58%)

I reserve the right to not spend more than two sentences talking about this team since you can read about them at literally any other place on this very website, and plus I don’t think you really need me to tell you what they’ve been up to lately, but I would like to point out that hey, those numbers are above fifty percent! That’s cool!

(A minor point worth noting about your Philadelphia Flyers: as of now, they trail most other teams mentioned here in regulation wins, which is the NHL’s new tiebreaker in the standings. All of the other teams in this section have between two and five more regulation wins than the Flyers do, which makes it unlikely that the Flyers would beat any of them in a tie — they’re probably not going to make up that ground on most of these teams unless they win enough games to jump them in the standings anyways.)

Columbus (61% / 54%)

Since we last checked in on the Blue Jackets, all they’ve managed to do is win five games in a row (on top of the one that they had already won before that). They head into the All-Star Break winners of six straight games and having picked up at least a point in 20 of their last 22 games. The loss of goalie Joonas Korpisalo just before the new year has not deterred them, as Elvis Merzlikins has pitched three shutouts in January while playing in nearly every game. If you’re a pessimist (from their perspective, not from ours as Flyers fans), you could point out that all of that rallying has got them just barely into a Wild Card spot in the East and that Merzlikins is probably not going to keep playing like Dominik Hasek; if you’re an optimist, you would mention that the Blue Jackets are slowly starting to get healthy and that we probably haven’t seen their best hockey yet.

Carolina (69% / 63%)

Like the Leafs before them, the Hurricanes also received bad news regarding a defenseman this week, as top blueliner and potential Norris Trophy nominee Dougie Hamilton out indefinitely with a broken fibula. And while they’ve got the defensive depth for that loss to not be a death blow, it’s a tough break for a ‘Canes team that is clearly good once again but can’t quite seem to pull away from the pack behind it. They took three straight losses last week before coming back with two wins to head into the break.

Florida (74% / 80%)

Perhaps, based on those percentages, you could make a case that Florida doesn’t even belong in this group. Like Columbus, they haven’t lost since we did the initial version of this post last week, and they’re also bringing a six-game winning streak into the break. They’ve been a streaky team this year, so some sort of fall back to earth is likely coming at some point in these last 33 games, but they’ve put themselves in a good situation and they only need to beat out Toronto to get that third spot in the Atlantic. They’ve been on fire offensively — they scored at least four goals in every game they won this month (which is all but two of the 10 games they played).