Predictions for the final two weeks of the NHL season

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The 2023-24 NHL regular season concludes April 18, with the Stanley Cup playoffs beginning April 20.

But before we get there, there are some races with runway remaining, including for two spots in the Eastern Conference bracket, and for the Presidents' Trophy and No. 1 overall seed.

So to help dissect those situations -- and help us locate the key matchups remaining on the calendar -- we've gathered a roundtable of NHL analysts to serve up takes on the biggest questions right now.

What game will you be watching most closely in the final two weeks?

Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter:Washington Capitals at Philadelphia Flyers on April 16. One could argue that watching any Caps, Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Islanders game will be worth it over the final two weeks. Caps-Flyers has a chance to be compelling because it could determine which team gets into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. But that's assuming the races for the final Metropolitan Division and/or Eastern Conference wild-card spots haven't been decided yet.

Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: If the stars align perfectly, the tilt between the Penguins and Islanders on April 17 could serve as a playoff ticket for the winner and a knockout blow for the loser. Fun stuff. And it appears entirely possible, depending on how the Detroit Red Wings, Capitals and Flyers also manage before then.

Arda Öcal, NHL broadcaster:Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Florida Panthers on April 16, because that's likely a first-round matchup preview and I'm a fan of maximum bedlam in regular-season meetings between teams facing off in the postseason. Give me all the chaos in that one.

Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: How about the game I hope to be watching most closely, and that's Penguins-Islanders on April 17. It might be perfect chaos: the last day of the East's regular season, with two Metro Division rivals still battling it out for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Penguins and Isles have been written off too many times to count this season. It's only fitting they're pitted against each other with their playoff hopes on the line. That's tremendous theater.

Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: The Red Wings travel to face the Penguins on April 11. Granted, by that time, we might have a really clear picture on whether the Wings belong in the playoff conversation. But if they are, I love this test for a burgeoning contender on the road against a Penguins team that has clearly heated up down the stretch. If Detroit does make the playoff cut -- and thus doesn't fumble its spot away -- it's going to be with two points in a game like this.

Who's going to take the East's second wild-card spot?

Clark:I have to go with the Islanders or Penguins. They've certainly looked like the two most consistent teams in that particular race of late. Even then, the hard part about making any predictions involving the final East wild-card spot is everything about those teams has been unpredictable.

Matiash: While perhaps in rare company -- at least outside of Michigan -- I think the Red Wings pull this off. They're essentially healthy, including captain Dylan Larkin, and goalie Alex Lyon is looking like his better self again. Plus, there's a lot of belief in that room. I also smell a star turn from Patrick Kane in the season's waning days. In grand scope, the Flyers and Capitals seem to be running out of gas, the Islanders' face a tough closing schedule, while Pittsburgh is playing well enough to secure third in the Metro Division.

Öcal: Nobody. It will end up in a five-way tie, and the top seed in the East will just get a bye to the second round. Just kidding! At least that's what it seems like should happen. It's pretty chaotic, but if the Penguins do take it, Sidney Crosby deserves Hart Trophy votes. If it's the Flyers, same thing with John Tortorella for the Jack Adams.

Shilton: It has to be Pittsburgh. And that's purely because of Sidney Crosby. It would be foolish to bet against him after how the Pens' captain has dragged them to this stage and continues to nightly put their playoff hopes proverbially on his back. Granted, it won't be easy and there are other terrific contenders, but it truly seems like Crosby will not be denied an opportunity.

Wyshynski: Give me the Penguins finishing third in the Metro and the Red Wings finding a way to take the final wild card. I'm a bit nervous for the Islanders with the New York Rangers twice on their schedule and then a game against the Devils. Late in the season as it is, and with those teams clearly in different head spaces as the playoffs arrive, local rivalry games are always unpredictable in spots like these. I could see that last game against Pittsburgh as an elimination game for the Islanders. They currently have a tiebreaker problem on the rest of the East contenders.

Who wins the Presidents' Trophy?

Clark:I'll take the Dallas Stars, allowing that the Boston Bruins or Rangers also have good chances. It's hard to really predict one team over the other because of the schedules. Three of the Stars' final four games are against teams that are out of contention for a playoff spot. As for the Bruins and Rangers, they each have three games against teams that are either playing for seeding or trying to get into the playoffs.

Matiash: The Rangers will be hard to catch, even if they give some key players a game or two off. There's no chance they roll over against the Islanders -- whom they play twice in their final four games -- while a slated matchup with the fumbling Flyers also appears favorable. Maybe the Rangers lose to the Ottawa Senators to close out the regular season April 15? But with five days off (minimum) before New York's potential playoff opener, there's no reason not to wrap up with a bang.

Öcal: Let's go with the Bruins for the second straight season, but it seems like it won't be a repeat of their shocking first-round exit this time around. Maybe there will be less pressure than having the best regular season of all time, and that will set them up for a solid playoff run.

Shilton: The Rangers have an inside track. Dallas will give them a run, though, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Stars get -- and stay -- ahead of New York down the stretch. That said, the Rangers have been more consistent throughout the season, and that's why I'd give them an edge. However, these races can also be impacted by who's resting who in the final weeks, as well, especially once playoff seeding is settled. It'll be curious to see if teams at the top keep pushing for the Presidents' Trophy or focus on rest and recovery.

Wyshynski: The Rangers take it. They were projected for 114 points entering Sunday's action and have a number of winnable games down the stretch. I do think it could be close with the Stars in the end, but the Rangers hold a good lead in points and have tiebreaker advantages.

The most impressive team right now is ___________.

Clark: The Tampa Bay Lightningaren't the most impressive but are the most dangerous right now. It has been that way since late February. They've won games in commanding fashion and have been able to win close contests, too. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos have been dangerous, while Nikita Kucherov is playing like someone who could win his second Hart Trophy. Meanwhile, this has been the most consistent Andrei Vasilevskiy has looked all season. It's starting to look like the Lightning could hurt someone's feelings in the playoffs.

Matiash: How 'bout them Stars? Unparalleled scoring depth -- exemplified by eight players with 20 goals and counting -- disciplined defense and a starting netminder who's playing his best when it matters most. Then there's that 13-3-0 record since Feb. 29. Pete DeBoer's crew is quietly scary.

Öcal:The Islanders are on a four-game win streak, just like the Pens. The Pens seem like the direct answer to this question, but I will note that the Isles have the opportunity to go on a run to end the season, which would make them the most impressive team.

Shilton: It has to be Pittsburgh. Putting a pin in the Crosby of it all, the Penguins have gotten excellent goaltending from backup Alex Nedeljkovic, their depth scoring has come alive at last, the veterans are thriving, and there's a clear sense of belief in the entire squad that they belong in the playoffs. And, Pittsburgh is resilient. Just look at their win Saturday against Tampa Bay. The old Penguins might have allowed that blown lead to end in defeat. Instead, they stayed on a good Lightning team and came away with two points. That's impressive.

Wyshynski: The Penguins are winning games, but the Stars are playing more impressive hockey down the stretch. They have the league's second-best points percentage in the past two weeks, and the NHL's best expected goals percentage in that span. Few teams boast their depth at forward. Now that Jake Oettinger has returned to form, the Stars are a downright scary team in the Western Conference.

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