The NHL calendar indicates that the post-season officially begins this year on April 15. An unofficial calendar, however, tells us that the prelude to the playoffs – A.K.A the stretch drive – is well underway.
The league would be wise to generate some additional hype by giving the stretch drive a clever moniker, such as The Drive For 95, with 95 being the number of points it will take to assure a team a playoff spot.
I realize 95 points is a rather arbitrary number and by no means guarantees a club a berth into the second season. Two years ago, the Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs in the Western Conference with 95 points. With three points available for every game, it's impossible to predict with certainty how many points a team needs to get into the playoffs. Since the shootout was introduced following the lockout, the eighth place teams have recorded 92, 95, 92, 96, 94, and 91 points, for an average of 93.3 points.
For the sake of making projections, we'll use 95, mainly because The Drive for 95 sounds cool. And, you know, cool is everything nowadays.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins (97 points) New Jersey Devils (91 points) and Washington Capitals (90 points) are going to make the playoffs, and only a complete collapse would prevent them from winning their respective divisions.
From there, it gets crowded. Through Thursday's games, only seven points separated the fourth-place team from the tenth-place squad.
The Philadelphia Flyers have 82 points and 16 games remaining – with nine of those being away from home. The Flyers can afford a bit of a stumble and still make the playoffs.
Prediction: Philly makes it.
The Montreal Canadiens have 80 points and 14 games left. The Habs' have a favourable schedule with nine games left at home, where they've amassed an impressive 21-6-5 record. Any concern in Montreal about missing the playoffs altogether is overblown. If the Canadiens win half their remaining games – and grab one point in a loss – they'll get to 95 points.
Prediction: Montreal makes it
The Pittsburgh Penguins sit with 79 points and play nine of their remaining 13 games at home. The Pens are the hottest team in the conference (8-1-1 in their past ten). An 8-5-0 run gets them to 96 points, but they're in tough if they cruise around the .500 mark.
Prediction: Pens talent will shine through and they'll make it.
In seventh place sit the New York Rangers, who have 78 points with 14 left to play, split evenly home and away. Of all the bubble teams, the Rangers have the best goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist.
Prediction: Coaching change, additions at deadline, and Lundqvist are enough to get the Rangers in. They make it.
The Carolina Hurricanes have 78 points with only 12 games remaining – although eight of those games are at home. With only 12 games, it doesn't take a statistician to determine that Carolina's margin for error is slim. Quite simply, the pressure is on them to win the three point games.
Prediction: Running out of games. Canes will miss playoffs.
As of Thursday, the Florida Panthers sat in ninth place with 77 points. The Panthers schedule is to their liking as they have nine home games left. In their last 10 games, the Cats are middling around the .500 mark – that just isn't going to cut it down the stretch.
Prediction: Solid goaltending, great coaching and a never-say-die attitude will propel the Cats into the playoffs.
The Buffalo Sabres are still in playoff contention, but let's be honest: they're a long shot. The Sabres have 75 points with 14 games to play. Without a healthy Ryan Miller in goal, the necessary hot streak needed to make the playoffs is highly unlikely.