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On Sunday night, the New York Islanders lost their game to the Toronto Maple Leafs, which eliminated them from playoff contention. As a result, the Washington Capitals clinched a playoff spot and now all eight playoff teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference are set. The final two weeks of the regular season for the conference will focus on seeding and getting your team situated in the best possible spot entering the playoffs.
The Florida Panthers will win the Atlantic division, as they have an eight-point lead over the second place Maple Leafs. However, there is intrigue in the Metropolitan division, as the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers are tied atop the division with 104 points. Both teams have just six games remaining. Carolina has the tiebreaker at the moment (regulation wins) and the Hurricanes are -210 favorites to end the regular season as the division winner.
The remaining schedule for both teams
As mentioned above, both the Hurricanes and the Rangers have just six games remaining before their regular seasons wrap up in less than two weeks. New York will need to have a better record than Carolina over those six games to pass them in the standings due to the tiebreaker. The Rangers are +170 to win the division. These are the opponents remaining for both of these teams:
Carolina: @Arizona, vs. Winnipeg, @New Jersey, @NY Islanders, @NY Rangers, vs. New Jersey
NY Rangers: vs. Winnipeg, @NY Islanders, @Boston, vs. Carolina, vs. Montreal, vs. Washington
When looking at the remaining schedules, some notable things stand out:
Carolina does not face-off against a playoff-bound team for the remainder of the regular season.
The Rangers play four of their final six games at home, while Carolina plays four of six on the road.
These teams play a head-to-head game at Madison Square Garden which will likely be pivotal.
Both teams host the Winnipeg Jets and both teams visit Long Island to play the Islanders.
Carolina has a road game against the league's worst team (Arizona), while the Rangers host the league's second worst team (Montreal).
If we eliminate the head-to-head matchup, the two matching games on both team's schedule, and the game against the league's worst teams, the remaining schedule basically boils down to this:
Carolina: home-and-home series with the New Jersey Devils
Rangers: road game in Boston, home game against Washington
If you look at it from this perspective, the advantage goes to Carolina. The Devils are a bottom-5 team in the league while both Boston and Washington are playoff bound and are still playing for seeding. However, the Rangers play more home games down the stretch, including the pivotal head-to-head matchup next Tuesday. That certainly mitigates Carolina's advantage.
Current form and injuries
While the Hurricanes might have the slightly easier schedule down the stretch, that advantage could certainly be ignored if you consider the performance of these teams down the stretch. Carolina actually had a sizable lead in the division and was all the way up to -1000 at one point to win the Metropolitan division. The Rangers have come roaring back and turned this into a closely contested race that will likely come down to the final days of the season.
Carolina is just 7-8-2 over their past 17 games. During that stretch, they've lost games to Buffalo and Detroit. On the other hand, the Rangers are 13-4-1 over their last 18 games. These teams have met twice over this stretch, splitting the games with each team winning at the other's rink.
If you take a look at the advanced metrics, they paint a picture of the Hurricanes being the much better team. At MoneyPuck.com, Carolina's 55.2% expected goal rate ranks fifth best in the league, while the Rangers' mark of 47.3% ranks 23rd, the lowest among playoff teams. However, it'd be unfair not to mention that the Rangers are improving tremendously in this regard since the trade deadline. You can see their trend line moving up significantly. At the deadline, the Rangers added depth with the likes of Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and others and it appears to have made a difference.
Another potential advantage for the Rangers is on the injury front. Over the weekend, Carolina goaltender Frederik Andersen left the game early with a lower-body injury. He's getting an MRI, but even a short absence could be massive with less than two weeks to go in the season. Andersen has been tremendous for the Hurricanes. He has the second-best odds to win the Vezina at +500, behind only, coincidentally, Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers.
Do these teams even want to win the division?
You know a league's playoff system probably isn't great when teams might find it beneficial to not win their division and come in second place instead. Such is the case in the Eastern Conference this year.
The winner of the Metropolitan division will draw the top wild-card team in Round 1. At this point, it appears that will be either Boston or Tampa Bay. Both teams have better records than Pittsburgh and Washington. Tampa Bay is the two-time defending champion. Boston has gone 32-14-3 since the New Year and is the second best team in the league in terms of expected-goal rate according to MoneyPuck.
However, the team that finishes second in the Metropolitan will get the division's No. 3 seed, either Washington or Pittsburgh. Those are the two worst playoff teams in the conference based on record. They've also gone a combined 0-6 in first-round playoff series over the last three years. I think I know which teams I'd rather try my luck against.
While no team will ever come out and outright say they'd rather finish in second place, we have seen teams rest players late in the season to try and conveniently finish in a certain spot. Carolina is one of the more analytical teams in the league, so if there was going to be a team to do something like this, the Hurricanes would be one of my top guesses.
I do think Carolina is the better team than the Rangers, but there's enough value at +170 to take a shot on the Rangers to end the season on top of the division. It'll give us a good plus-money sweat over the final two weeks of the season as we head into the playoffs.