Five on the Fly: NHL playoff races heating up in East

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Each week at Five on the Fly we’ll preview developing storylines for the NHL’s upcoming week, and take a look at who’s hot and who’s not.

Updating the Eastern Conference Playoff Races

With only three weeks left to play in the regular NHL season, we are starting to get some clarity in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But not a lot – the races are far from being over. There are four teams in play for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and another six teams are on serious life support. New Jersey and Detroit are finished for all intents and purposes (though not mathematically) and Buffalo, Philadelphia, Carolina and Florida would all need a miracle to get in.

That leaves the Lightning, Islanders, Maple Leafs and Bruins left to battle for the final two spots. The Islanders can only claim the last Wild Card spot, while the Leafs and Bruins are in running for third in the Atlantic, with just three points separating the Bruins and the Maple Leafs ahead of their Monday night battle at Air Canada Centre.

Here’s a Breakdown of the four teams that still have a very good shot to get in:

And here are three games with massive playoff implications this week:

Boston at Toronto, Monday night

Tampa at Boston, Thursday night

Bruins at Islanders, Saturday night

With so much at stake, and so much to gain from coming in third place in the Atlantic (avoiding the Caps and likely facing Ottawa), these games should be played with extra intensity. Stock the fridge, hockey fans, it’s going to be a fun week in the Eastern Conference.

Will Kucherov Get a Chance to Shine in Playoffs?

Nikita Kucherov has been the NHL’s most prolific postseason scorer over the last two playoff seasons with 21 goals and 20 assists, and the 23-year-old Russian appears to be hitting his stride a little early this season. Kucherov has been on fire, pouring in 12 goals in his last 13 games, thanks in large part to his success on the power play.

He has scored eight of Tampa’s ten power play goals since Feb. 21, a span that has seen the Lightning go 8-4-1 and emerge as a threat to reach the post-season after a season of disarray. That’s quite an accomplishment for Tampa Bay, given they were deadline sellers and have suffered so many injuries this season.

The Bolts are still on the outside of the playoff race looking in but with Kucherov heating up and Andrei Vasilevskiy carrying a 0.931 save percentage since the trade deadline, Tampa is looking like it could have the jam to leapfrog the Leafs and Islanders in the next three weeks.

Blackhawks Looking Formidable in the West

What a difference six weeks makes in the Central Division. Up until February the Blackhawks looked like a team that may never get their complicated roster issues sorted out. They were too top-heavy, and the rookies that head coach Joel Quenneville had thrust into key roles did not appear ready to shoulder that type of responsibility.

But since February, the Hawks have hit their stride, going 17-3-0 to jump the floundering Minnesota Wild and move within one point of the top of the NHL standings.

Patrick Kane has led the way with 17 goals and 30 points in his last 20 games, and Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin have been lights out as well. But had it not been for the contributions of rookies Nick Schmaltz (12 points and plus-14 since Feb. 1), Ryan Hartman (6 goals since Feb. 1) and Tanner Kero (5 points and plus-6 since Feb. 1), the Hawks might still be struggling to develop that winning chemistry.

Babcock Regrets Playing Marchand with Crosby at World Cup

Does Mike Babcock look back on his time with Brad Marchand at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto fondly? As coach of Team Canada team he helped Marchand elevate his game by placing him on a line with Sidney Crosby. Marchand scored the World Cup-winning goal for Canada and the rest is history.

The Halifax, Nova Scotia native is tearing it up in Boston this season, scoring a career-high 79 points which puts him just one behind Crosby and Connor McDavid in the NHL scoring race. How does Babcock feel about cultivating that formative experience for Marchand now? “I shouldn’t have [done it],” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “I should have played him on the fifth line, sucked a little life out of him.”

Of course Babcock was joking, but he got serious as the interview continued, pointing out how impressive the remarkable rise of Marchand has been this season. Babcock appreciates what Marchand has done this season, even if he’ll be enemy No.1 when the Leafs battle Boston tonight.

“Marchy’s a great guy… He’s all-in every day and he does a good job for his team,” Babcock continued. “He’s been a good player for a long time. He didn’t come into the league with the accolades of some other guys, he’s earned his way, he was a real good ***t disturber, energy guy, penalty killer, and then his offence has come. It’s amazing when you have a real good drive train and a lot of will and you love the game and you work hard at the game – You have to have the skillset obviously, but the guys with the determination and the extra drive, they find a way to get to the next level.”

Marchand’s been so good that he is starting to get consideration in this year’s Hart Trophy discussion. If he stays hot, leads the Bruins to the playoffs and ends up leading the league in scoring, he should have a legitimate shot.

Trending: Who’s Hot, Who’s Not?    

Hot: Conor Sheary has 37 points in his last 35 games for the Penguins, and 12 points in his last nine since missing February with an injury, including five multi-point games this month.

Not: The Anaheim Ducks have managed just four power play goals in their last 55 opportunities, dating back to Feb. 1.

Hot: Flames netminder Brian Elliott had racked up eleven straight wins, tying Mike Vernon for the franchise record

Not: The Minnesota Wild have gone 2-8-0 in March, and have the second-lowest points total in March, behind only the Devils.

Hot: New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri has 10 goals in his last 14 games, giving him 25 on the season.

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