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Is there really a playoff race in the east now?

And who is out for sure.

Washington Capitals v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

News came today that two of the Washington Capitals, Carl Hagelin and Ilya Samsonov, were hurt in practice yesterday. Hagelin has what might be a serious eye injury, and I wish him well. Samsonov was hit with a puck, and his near future is still being evaluated.

Hearing that, I wondered if there was any chance losing some players to injury would hurt the team enough to put the playoffs in jeopardy, and I realized I didn’t know. A few weeks ago, the Eastern Conference was solidly set with no one with a hope of even making the wildcard race from below. Is that still true?

Last time I looked at the standings, I made an effort to focus on points percentage because the number of games played varied so much from team to team. The Islanders have still played the least games — they are at 50, but the leader, Anaheim, is only at 56. Points and points percentage match in the Eastern Conference, but in the tighter races in the Western, the percentage is still worth looking at.

Let’s look at both for the east, since the percentage numbers make it easier to intuitively see unsustainable highs.

  1. Carolina - 79 - .745
  2. Tampa Bay - 76 - .731
  3. Florida - 75 - .708
  4. Toronto - 74 - .698
  5. Pittsburgh - 74 - .673
  6. NY Rangers - 71 - .670
  7. Boston - 68 - .630
  8. Washington - 65 - .591

The divisions work out evenly, with one Atlantic and one Metropolitan team holding the wild card spot. In the Metro, Carolina doesn’t show any signs their hot points rate is going to cool, but that’s the bleeding edge of normal for recent NHL seasons. Three points seems like a small amount with 30 games left to play for Tampa to potentially catch them for first in the east, but it is always harder than we think for teams to gain on a leader. The leader usually has to decide to helpfully fall a little.

The Rangers are a weak enough team that Washington should be worrying about catching them, not looking over their shoulder, but that’s a tough ask for them to make up that gap now.

In the Atlantic, the nasty tussle for the top three positions continues and will likely be decided very late in the season. With three teams all so close to each other only the very brave would name an order now. Boston seems well back, and certainly doesn’t have to worry about anyone in the Atlantic catching them. Detroit is next with an even .500 in percentage which puts them in contention for a top-16 draft pick and nothing else.

In the Metro, the Islanders with their extra games to play, might finish with something better than the .480 percentage they’re at now for sixth place in the division, but that’s all they’ll get. Columbus is the only other horse in the playoff race in the east, so are they a real threat?

They have 54 games played, sit in ninth place, with 57 points and .528 in percentage terms. That means they are eight points back with one game in hand. Is catching Washington mathematically impossible? No, obviously not, but it is very, very improbable. Washington having goalie issues will make the possibility seem a little more plausible — Samsonov was chased by the Leafs, so even if he’s not hurt badly, he’s got some other issues.

Moneypuck has the Capitals at an 87.7% chance to make the playoffs and Columbus at 4.8%. This is based, not just on points standings, but a predictive model as well. I don’t have too much trouble buying that Columbus’s chances are that small.

What do the Blue Jackets believe, though? Are they going to trade players at the deadline or hold out hope they make it in for a round? I don’t think they’ll do much early, because teams really like to leave off telling their fans they’ve thrown in the towel to the last minute.

Is looks like Washington can weather some losses of players to injury without too much trouble.

The Western Conference is completely different to the east still. Points percentage puts Dallas in the playoffs and Edmonton out, while points have it the other way around.

The teams who are out for sure are Arizona, Chicago, Seattle and San Jose.

Vancouver is in a similar position to Columbus — seemingly with a chance at 58 points, five points back of the Oilers, but really in no-hope-ville because they have to overtake Edmonton and Anaheim and Dallas to get that last playoff spot. Winnipeg, with 57 points is in exactly the same spot.

It’s very hard to tell what those teams actually think, though, because the Canadian media game demands we pretend they have a chance until they are formally out. They have no chance, though.

Moneypuck has Vancouver at 10.5% and Winnipeg at 5.9% chance to make the playoffs, with Dallas at 54.1%.

My personal opinion, painful as it is to say, is that the Islanders have a more realistic chance than either of those teams. Not that they should start selling playoff tickets on the Island.

Even with this race in the west, there are a larger than usual list of teams who know they should sell off some assets at the deadline. There’s also a good number who should have accepted that by the time March 21 rolls around. To that end, Elliotte Friedman reported today in 32 Thoughts, that the market for defenders has been described as soft. The theory is that prices for the actual high-end defenders as rentals will not be as high as in the past.

As Friedman likes to say, we’ll see where this goes.