3 NHL Teams Fight to Fill Up the Eastern Conference

It’s a Tight Race in the Eastern Conference

It’s less than a week until the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, and the Eastern Conference playoff picture is yet to be complete. As of April 14, three teams are fighting for the last Wild Card spot. The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals are all in the hunt. Who will end up with the golden ticket to the playoffs, and what will the first round look like for each team if they clinch?

Detroit Red Wings Put in the Work

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The Detroit Red Wings (39-32-9) are coming off a 5-4 OT victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. However, that did not come easy for them. The Red Wings led 4-1 at the end of the first period, yet the Leafs tied it up in the second while neither team scored in the third. Pushing overtime, it was crucial for Detroit to snag both points if they wanted to get closer to that second Wild Card spot in the East.

The overtime goal scored by Dylan Larkin was his 33rd of the season and his ninth game-winning OT goal of his career. Larkin’s big goal helped the Red Wings secure their two points in the standings, now totaling 87. However, they sit one spot behind for the second Wild Card entry which is currently held by the Washington Capitals, who are tied with the Red Wings in points.

It was not just Larkin’s gritty goal that helped advance Detroit in the standings. Having a three-goal lead erased in a single period could easily cause frustration and throw a team off their game. But the Wings attributed their ability to stabilize the game throughout the third to their positive and resilient attitude.

By putting in the hard work not only physically, but mentally, they could defend their zone effectively and not allow Toronto to score any more goals. The Red Wings had an end goal, and even though the road was rocky, they locked in and eventually got there. This boosted their already high morale even higher.

Although their fate is not completely in their hands. Washington would need to lose one or both of their remaining games to help the Red Wings break the tie. But having locked-in physical and mental strengths certainly contributes to Detroit’s playoff push in the Eastern Conference. If they clinch, they would be facing off against the New York Rangers in the first round.  This is the team that star Patrick Kane played for during last year’s playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s Not Going Down Without a Fight

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Although the Pittsburgh Penguins (37-31-12) are coming off a 6-4 loss against the Boston Bruins Saturday night, they are still very much in the running for that second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. In a gritty and highly physical game (also defenseman Erik Karlsson’s 1,000th), the Penguins, especially their first line of Drew O’Connor, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust, put in the effort to get pucks to the net.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, weak goaltending by Alex Nedeljkovic (which led to Tristan Jarry taking the net for the first time in two weeks), a mediocre power play, and several penalties hindered their chances of taking the W against the B’s.

However, not all hope is lost. Of course, it needs to come from them. Crosby is certainly locked in, with seven goals and ten assists in his last ten games. Thankfully, we saw an example of this effort rubbing off on his linemates, as Rust scored his 28th goal of the season against Boston, tying his career high. This needs to trickle down throughout the entire roster, though. Especially, the goaltending. Nedeljkovic and Jarry need to play on the level of determination that the top offensive line is on, and the same goes for the D-pairs.

It is an uphill battle for Pittsburgh and one that will end in great triumph if they take advantage of these last two games or in great disappointment if they don’t. Being one point behind Detroit and Washington, they are counting on losses from both of those teams in order for to get the chance to squeeze into that WC2 spot in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, however, they need to win those two remaining games decisively since they would be facing off the New York Rangers in a highly competitive first-round matchup.

Washington Sits in the Second Wild Card Spot

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The Washington Capitals (38-31-11) are currently the closest of the three teams to clinching a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They sit in the second wild card spot with 87 points. However, that spot was held by the Pittsburgh Penguins just a day ago, and their 6-4 loss to the Bruins vaulted Washington ahead of them. This proves how close the race truly is, and how Washington has just as much of a fight ahead as the other two teams in the Eastern Conference.

Their 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday was not an easy one. With a minute and a half remaining in the first period, defenseman Nick Jensen had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher after suffering an injury caused by Lightning forward Michael Eysssimont sending him into the boards. The first period ended prematurely with the score being tied 2-2. This tie continued until the third where the Caps added two more to the board to finish the game 4-2. Goaltender Charlie Lindgren made 32 saves.

The Capitals this season have been a very competitive team, and that competitive and tough attitude and playing style has definitely shown throughout their recent playoff push. However, the push has been inconsistent and full of highs and lows. Washington won eight out of 11 games in March, yet went 1-5-2 before their game against Tampa.

Certainly, this kept everyone on their toes as to whether or not the Caps would be in the playoffs this year. To secure both a playoff spot and the hearts of fans, they must remain consistent in their play like they did earlier in the season.

If they succeed, this consistency must also continue into the postseason if they want to top the New York Rangers in the first round. Washington has two games left in the regular season and currently hold the edge over Detroit despite being tied in points. Should they win both those games, they would clinch that final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

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About the Author

River Caraballo (she/they) is a hockey writer for Total Apex Sports. She is a big fan of the New York Rangers and the Minnesota Wild, despite being based in Connecticut. They are the host of a weekly podcast and radio show, Round the Rink, where they talk hockey from the NHL to the PWHL and college hockey. You can follow River on Twitter/X to keep up with her sports content.

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