How the East Will be Won: NHL’s Final Week will Force Odd-Man Out

Brad Marchand is tied for fourth in the NHL with 36 goals for the Bruins, who are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in entering the season's final week.Brad Marchand is tied for fourth in the NHL with 36 goals for the Bruins, who are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in entering the season's final week.

We are set to drop the puck on the final week of the NHL season. If you want to get technical, there will be two makeup games next Monday, including one potentially critical one, but this is the home stretch. And there are three teams fighting for two spots in the Eastern Conference.

A year ago, the Boston Bruins went from top Eastern contender to out of the playoffs. In 2016, the same story is beginning to unfold. A 2-7 stretch suddenly has the B’s on the outside looking in, while the Detroit Red Wings struggle to keep their 24-year playoff run going. The Philadelphia Flyers are in the mix, too. So who’s in, and who’s out?

In short, the Bruins are in. The schedule will likely determine whether it’s the Wings or Flyers who are out.

Entering play Monday (with all three teams idle),¬†Detroit has 91 points, Philadelphia has 91 points, and Boston has 90. Philadelphia, at 78, has a game in hand on both teams. And let’s not completely ignore the New York Islanders, with 93 points and only 77 games played, as they are not quite a lock either. But really, it’s a three-team race for two spots.

The schedule should be the difference-maker. The Bruins, who have struggled to a 16-22 record at home, finish with three at TD Garden against Carolina, Detroit, and Ottawa. Those are three average to slightly-above-average clubs, with only Detroit still in playoff contention. The Wings’ final three: home to the Flyers, at Boston, and at the New York Rangers. And the Flyers’ final four, which will be played in a five-day span: at Detroit, home against Toronto and Pittsburgh, and a makeup game¬†at the New York Islanders.

Two relative cookies help the Bruins immensely, even though Carolina won in Boston last month. Should Boston net four points to get to 94, you’d still have to like their chances. Beating Detroit could put the nail in the Red Wings’ coffin. If Detroit loses to Boston, unless they can gain four points in their other two contests, they are likely done. And with the Flyers playing in Detroit, unless that game goes to overtime, one of those clubs will come away empty-handed. That means the Flyers absolutely must be the bottom-feeding Maple Leafs, because Pittsburgh and the Islanders are a tall order.

My gut instinct is that the Bruins are a little too talented to suffer a second straight massive collapse to miss out on the postseason party. Despite their recent struggles, they are 25-16 on the road and have a +13 goal-differential, miles ahead of the Flyers (minus-5) and Red Wings (minus-13). It simply may be time for the Wings to miss the playoffs after two-and-a-half decades, and the Flyers have the game-in-hand that gives them the edge. Something tells me the Red Wings’ recent struggles against Boston will continue, and that game could ultimately push them to the outside.

Whatever happens, it will be a fun final week. And a nervous one in Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia (and maybe even New York).

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