It is every sports fan’s favorite time of year: March. The madness is upon us, and the magnificent chaos is near. But not only will college basketball bring about beautiful thrills, as March is also the time when hockey begins to heat up.
In the NHL, the plot is thickening in each of the playoff races, as teams fight to secure one of their respective conference’s eight tickets to continue playing into the spring. That one overtime loss, one game that gets away could be the difference in whether a team gets the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup.
Those teams finishing right outside the playoff picture are left with a long summer to dwell on how singular moments could have changed the course of history. March becomes a month of desperation and a glorious race as teams want to avoid that empty feeling.
This year will be no different as the races are as close as ever. In the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are all on the outside looking in as of now with hopes of stealing playoff life away from either the Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Islanders. Each of those two teams sit at 78 points, holding the two Wild Card spots in the conference. With games at hand on Columbus, each team has a shot to catch up.
The Rangers had been soaring lately, allowing them to storm back into the race, but suffered a major setback this weekend when they dropped consecutive games against the Philadelphia Flyers. Much of their success was on the back of rookie goaltender, Igor Shesterkin, who has been one of the league’s best performers since the start of the calendar year.
Their path to the playoffs seemed clear, but a recent injury, suffered by Shesterkin in a car accident, complicates the picture. Alexandar Georgiev has stepped up in his absence, allowing the team’s surge to continue up until their past two games against the Flyers. Nonetheless, the injury brings to question whether the team will have enough firepower to push them ahead.
They sit four points behind the final playoff spot, no small margin when only a month of hockey remains. While the momentum is in their favor, the math is not. And if they let their performance in the home and home against the Flyers linger, their playoff hopes will instantly evaporate.
Meanwhile, Carolina, who once seemed like a lock to make it to the playoffs, is now trending out of the picture. The pressure is on after they added Sami Vatanen, Vincent Trocheck and Brady Skjei at the Trade Deadline. Ironically enough two of their big acquisitions cane from the teams they are competing against for those final spots.
Trocheck was acquired from Florida, while Skjei came from the Rangers. The duo will try to assist Carolina in righting the ship as they look to take down their former teams.
The Eastern Conference race should be enticing, but even closer than that race is the one in West. With seven teams separated by only five points in the standings, the finish will be a toss-up. The seven teams are fighting for four playoff spots, two of which are exclusive to second and third place in the Pacific Division.
The three teams currently on the outside looking in are all tied, or within one point of the final Wild Card spot. These three, the Winnipeg Jets, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild all hope to somehow work their way in.
The uncertainty of it all will create some madness this March. The teams will be flip flopping everyday, and the final results will likely come down to the final week of the year. If the tumultuous nature of the race persists, it may come down to the final day of the regular season to punch their tickets.
There will not be any busted brackets, crazy upsets or unbelievable buzzer beaters. But there will be plenty of excitement and uncertainty as so many of the league’s teams fight for their seasons to live on. Just to add to all of the madness, the NHL’s nail biting part of the season is just beginning.