The Stanley Cup Playoffs are around the corner and will begin on Monday, April 17. The quest for the Cup is one of the most polarizing of all the playoff formats and the NHL is perennially the most competitive professional League in the world. We’re seeing the Wild Card races in both the Eastern and Western conferences going down to the wire. Here we’ll rank the teams competing for the Wild Card spots from worst to best in each conference.
No. 5 — Ottawa Senators
The Sens likely won’t get in but are still mathematically involved, so we’ll include them. Ottawa made a big move for defenseman Jakob Chychrun before the trade deadline but now he and other top D Thomas Chabot are both sidelined. The Senators’ goalie situation is also very shaky. If by some act of God the Sens got in, they be heavy dogs and probably get demolished by the Boston Bruins in the first round.
No. 4 — Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres have a similar goalie situation to the Sens, though college standout Devon Levi was signed after his season at Northeastern and made 31 saves in a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers in his debut. Buffalo is really only a threat because of the top line and power play. If you avoid taking penalties, the Sabres are a relatively easy opponent. You’re also going up against an inexperienced lineup and potentially two playoff rookie goaltenders.
No. 3 — Pittsburgh Penguins
Say what you want about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. They’ve proven themselves and are Stanley Cup tested. The Penguins can also be an absolute sieve defensively and are weak in net and on special teams. Can they turn it on the postseason? Perhaps. Last season, the Pens were a goal away from defeating the Rangers in the first round with AHL-level goaltending. Facing that Rangers team vs. this Bruins team is a different animal. The goaltending difference is just going to be too great to overcome if you’re Pittsburgh vs. Boston or Carolina.
No. 2 — Florida Panthers
This is somewhat of a 1A-1B situation for the top two spots. Florida should have been much better than these results this season after essentially swapping Matthew Tkachuk for Jonathan Huberdeau. Regressions on defense from top players like Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, coupled with injuries, have made life tough for the Panthers this season. Still, the offense is formidable, ranking in the top-5 in the NHL in goals per game. Florida has also split games with the Bruins and Hurricanes this season so far. Say what you want about goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but he’s played over 50 playoff games and could steal a game or two. It’s hard to endorse a Paul Maurice-led hockey team but the Panthers may be an exception.
No. 1 — New York Islanders
This may be perplexing but if you’re a playoff hockey team, you probably don’t want to deal with the Islanders as currently constructed. It’s almost cliche, but the Islanders were very much built for the postseason. They’re led by one of the top goaltenders in the NHL in Ilya Sorokin, who can absolutely steal a series. The forward group is tough and battle-tested. Prior to last season, the Isles had made it to back-to-back Conference Finals. There are plenty of players from those teams still on the roster now. Plus, you’ve got Bo Horvat in the mix. Perhaps the one issue is how New York has played vs. the Bruins and ‘Canes, which would be described as “not well.” The Isles also have an above-average penalty kill. They’ll stick around when games get tighter in the postseason, which makes them dangerous.