NHL playoff races: Sabres trending up, Kraken fading after hot start
Here's the risers, fallers, and where each and every playoff race stands as we head into the stretch run of the NHL season.
The 2023 NHL trade deadline comes and goes on Friday (March 3), yet the biggest names keep dropping off the board. While those moves happen, some teams are collecting wins and strengthening their position heading toward the postseason, while others are watching their grip on a playoff spot slip away.
Want to catch up on the ever-changing postseason picture? Then you’re in luck with this post, which breaks down each playoff race as we head into the final few weeks of the regular season. You can check the standings for postseason scenarios that are already a certainty — such as the top three seeds in the Metro and Atlantic being all locked up — and for day-to-day movement up and down the table in both conferences as the stretch run looms.
(Editor's Note: Some teams are mentioned multiple times due to being involved in both division and wild card races. All standings are up to date heading into Feb. 27 games.)
Wild Card races
Islanders (69 points, 63 games played, .548 points percentage): Bumpy but slightly up 📈
Entering this past week, the Islanders lost four of five games, including only getting two of six points out of a trio of contests against the Canucks, Canadiens, and Senators. Maybe the lone win of that stretch provided a sign. On Friday and Monday, the Islanders pulled off two regulation wins against the Penguins.
Stretching back to Feb. 17, the Isles won four of their last six games and three of four. Not awful in the wake of a troubling injury to Mat Barzal, but the schedule isn’t especially merciful. The Islanders play six of their next nine games on the road, with next Saturday kicking off a key stretch: home against the Red Wings, hosting the Sabres, visiting the Penguins, and then a March 11 home game versus the Capitals. No team in the East wild-card race has played more than the Isles’ 63 GP, so they can’t waste chances.
Penguins (69 points, 63GP, .548%): Scary drop, then some weekend hope. 📉
This post paints a picture of the Penguins’ puzzle: whatever happens on their way in or out of the playoffs, this season probably isn’t going to end well for Pittsburgh. That’s especially true as East juggernauts only hardened their armor with Timo Meier going to the Devils and the Bruins bulking up with Dmitry Orlov. But responding to four straight regulation losses with back-to-back weekend wins ranks as a positive sign for the Penguins’ playoff hopes. A tough three-game road trip (Predators, Lightning, Panthers) awaits, and they probably need to win their next game against the Islanders on March 9. Do you think they’re cursing the scheduling gods for setting them up for three games in quick succession (March 12, 16, and 18) against a Rangers team revitalized by the trade deadline? For all we know, that scheduling quirk could doom them.
Sabres (66 points, 58 GP, .556%): Up, up, up, but not currently in playoff position. 📈
Many times, games in hand are the standings’ answer to the murky promise of a first-round pick or a prospect with tantalizing potential. You can talk yourself into your favorite team winning all of those games. In most cases, those dreams are unfounded.
Leave it to this already-dreamy version of the Sabres to win three games in a row, all against opponents fighting for a playoff spot or already there: the Lightning, Panthers, and Capitals. Even better, Buffalo beat Washington and Florida in regulation. With five of their next seven games at home, the Sabres could solidify their position (notice that their points percentage is stronger than that of the two current East WC teams above).
Red Wings (64 points, 58GP, .552%): Up, a lot. Not as much as Buffalo, but a lot. 📈
On Feb. 7, the Red Wings fell to a mediocre 21-20-8 record after losing 5-2 to the Oilers. Instead of folding, they rattled off a five-game winning streak, and have won seven of their last nine games. They beat the Capitals in regulation, and their two defeats were to two playoff teams in the Kraken and Rangers (playoff teams who aren’t a threat in the wild card races).
Are the Red Wings actually good enough to hang in there? Maybe, it boils down to getting the job done. Although they play five of their next seven games on the road, three of their next four matches come against teams they “should” beat (two games vs. the Senators) and one proof-of-concept game to prove they’re truly playoff material (March 4 showdown on the road against the Islanders).
Panthers (64 points, 61GP, .525%): Down, but not out? Clock is ticking. 📉
When you break teams down based on the sort of underlying stats that best indicate future success or upcoming disappointment, the Panthers grade out far better than any team in the East wild card race. While not perfect, the Panthers’ mix of monstrous offense and passable defense should work, at least before you nitpick among the best of the best.
But we’ve been saying that basically all season long, and the Panthers are losing crucial games — often during regulation. Truly, they need to make a long stretch of home games count. Starting on March 2, the Panthers enjoy a seven-game homestand, and also play nine of 11 in Florida. These Cats keep sleeping through key moments, but for real this time: they need to get it done.
Capitals (64 points, 62GP, .516%): Selling with distant dreams of a miracle. 📉
Every now and then, a team sells at the trade deadline but still makes modest noise during the playoffs. Maybe that’s the path for a Capitals team unwilling to totally liquidate as Alex Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky’s goals record. After losing six in a row and seven of eight in regulation, their hopes are dim enough to categorize them as a longshot.
Senators (60 points, 58GP, .517%): Holding onto faint hopes/potentially fooling themselves.
On the back of an 8-3-1 run, you could squint and believe that Ottawa has a shot. Beginning with two upcoming home games against the Red Wings, they could embrace their most likely role as spoilers. Ottawa holding a slightly better points percentage than Washington condemns the Capitals more than anything else.
Race for the Central Division's No. 1 seed
Stars (74 points, 59 GP, .627%): Leaking some of their advantage, but not fully collapsing.
Before diving into this, I expected to feel more robustly positive about the Stars; now I feel mixed. On the bright side, they’ve rarely lost in regulation lately, providing context for a mere three wins in their last 11 games (3-3-5). That’s not an inspiring run, especially considering a home-heavy schedule (nine of 11 in Dallas). This run leaves the Stars vulnerable to losing the Central if the Avalanche awake, but at least their playoff hopes look fairly secure. (In an ideal world, they’d use this as motivation to be trade deadline buyers, yet that seems more like an Eastern Conference thing these days.)
Wild (72 points, 60 GP, .600%): Probably not division title material, yet rising above WC fray. 📈
The chatter around the Wild isn’t always positive lately. Maybe that’s the result of people simply wanting the team to get the most out of a transcendent talent such as Kirill Kaprizov. Just look at the immediate situation, though, and the Wild are grinding out what they need to. After a tough month (mid-January to mid-February), Minnesota generated points in eight of nine games (6-1-2). That’s the sort of gritty stretch that can at least keep your head above water for a playoff berth.
Avalanche (71 points, 57 GP, .623%): Looking a lot like the Avalanche we keep expecting. 📈
As the defending champs struggle more than expected, people land upon a justified reason: injuries. It’s interesting, actually, how often this franchise has handled injury issues during its ascent. In previous years, they were simply set up better to handle those problems. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that a not-quite-full-strength Avs team is heating up. They’ve won five in a row, are riding a seven-game point streak (6-0-1) and only dropped one regulation loss since Jan. 28. Expect the Avalanche to stay hot with six of their next seven games in Colorado.
Jets (71 points, 60 GP, .592%): Struggling to the point that their longer entry resides in the West wild-card section of this piece, but their situation is close enough to that of the Wild to get a mention here.
Pacific Division's No. 1 seed
Golden Knights: (76 points, 59 GP, .644%): Mostly upward trend. 📈
After a rough month of January, the Golden Knights could end February with at least a point in every game (6-0-2). The biggest hurdles lie in a road-heavy stretch coming up soon. Starting on March 7, the Golden Knights face a five-game road trip, eight of 10 on the road, and 11 of 15 away from home. If that stretch doesn’t shake them from their throne, then these Knights truly are Golden.
Kings (74 points, 61 GP, .607%): Recent stumbles but hanging in there. 📈
With three losses in their last four games, you might get concerned about the Kings. Only two of those losses were in regulation, and all four of those opponents were either in playoff position or in a tight race, so it could be worse — at least in context of an 8-3-2 stretch since Jan. 22. Some upgrades would be nice, and a Pacific Division crown seems unlikely, but this bunch seems well-insulated to at least maintain a playoff spot.
Oilers (72 points, 60 GP, .600%): Recent stumbles but hanging in there. 📉
In other sports, winning just three of your last nine games would be a cause for greater concern. The Oilers keep carving out “loser points” though, making that run a stretch of 3-2-4. That up-and-down run doesn’t denote a division champion (even in a remarkably weak West), but it’s the sort of managed decay that maintains a playoff spot. If things progress further, the Golden Knights will create enough space between the rest of the Pacific Division that we’ll just be talking about other situations.
Kraken (71 points, 59GP, .593%): Mild worries for others are escalating concerns for the Kraken. 📉
Let’s be honest: it’s very hard to imagine this team winning the division, and home-ice is slipping out of its tentacles.
West wild card races
Wild: (72 points, 60 GP, .600%): Probably not division title material, yet rising above WC fray. 📈
Optimists may wonder if the Wild could hang onto home-ice in the first round, while pessimists wonder if they’re fated for wild-card contention.
Avalanche: (71 points, 57 GP, .623%): Considering games in hand, the Avs are probably above this conversation, but worth a mention for sheer points. 📈
Jets (71 points, 60 GP, .592%): Slipped out of Central race, now in wild card battle. 📉
It’s rarely a great sign when a call to action amid a slump is followed by a loss where the vibe is “could’ve been worse,” but that’s the Jets’ situation. In the modern NHL, there’s a big difference between losing five of six games in regulation (Winnipeg) and stumbling but carving out “loser points” (Edmonton). The Jets must hope that’s merely the difference between a better push for home-ice rather than making the playoffs or not. They at least made a solid addition at a cheap price by trading for underrated winger Nino Niederreiter during the weekend.
Kraken (70 points, 59 GP, .593%): Slipped out of Pacific race, now in wild card battle. 📉
With three straight regulation losses and a generally bumpy ride since February began, the Kraken lost serious ground if they hold higher aspirations for more than slinking into the playoffs. Naturally, that would still be an impressive feat for such a young NHL franchise, even with the Golden Knights ratcheting up expectations. At the moment, the Central’s third spot seed seems more plausible than a collapse out of a berth, but it’s also possible Seattle settles for a WC spot.
Flames (66 points, 60 GP, .550%): Not exactly turning up the heat on teams in playoff position. 📉
Is it fitting that the Flames feel like a weaker version of their memorable offseason trade partners, the Panthers? Both teams possess enough talent and clout (also sometimes underlying numbers) to make you think they’ll flip a switch. Time is running out on the Panthers, but the clock might have already struck on the Flames. Even after sprinkling in some loser points, the Flames’ recent 3-4-3 stretch doesn’t evoke visions of a surge out of the depths.
Predators (64 points, 57GP, .561%): Selling at the trade deadline, yet winning lately.
Wisely, the Predators are selling, sometimes to a shocking degree of success. It’s worth mentioning that they’ve won three in a row and four of five games, though the Panthers were the only playoff team in that bunch. Considering their higher points percentage, they’re at least worth mentioning alongside the Flames. More than anything else, that might be a way of cementing just how dim things look for the Flames, though.