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NHL: DADOUN – THE FANTASY WEEK AHEAD – Looking at teams with something to play for as season comes to close

Detroit Red Wings right wing Alex DeBrincat (93) (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire)

Barring any postponements, the final day of the 2023-24 regular season with be Thursday. There are just 26 total games remaining before the playoffs get underway, so naturally there aren’t many teams to highlight for the final week. With that in mind, instead of picking out the teams with the most favorable schedules, I’m going to focus on the teams who have something left to play for this week. So, let’s dive into what the final days of the campaign will look like.

Please note that this week’s article is heavily skewed toward the Eastern Conference because there are still two playoff spots open while there isn’t much left to be decided in the West.

New York Islanders – MON VS NJD, WED VS PIT

The Islanders haven’t punched their playoff ticket, but they’re very likely to advance to the postseason. They have a 30-27-16 record, which is good for third in the Metropolitan Division.

They’ll play in New Jersey on Monday and host the Penguins on Wednesday. The Islanders can guarantee their playoff spot by picking up two points over those two contests. However, New York has a three-point advantage over the next closest non-playoff adversary, so there are scenarios where the Islanders can make the playoffs even if they go 0-2-0.

The Islanders’ task will be made more difficult if Noah Dobson remains out of the lineup. The defenseman has 10 goals and 70 points in 79 outings, but he missed Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Rangers due to an upper-body injury. Robert Bortuzzo dressed Saturday as a result of Dobson’s absence, but he’s not a replacement for the star blueliner -- Bortuzzo has no points through 25 appearances between St. Louis and the Islanders this season.

On the bright side for the Islanders, Brock Nelson is ending the campaign on a positive note. He scored twice Saturday to extend his point streak to three games. That gives the 32-year-old forward 32 markers and 65 points across 80 outings in 2023-24. He’ll almost certainly finish behind his 2022-23 mark of 75 points, but this is still the second-best campaign of his career in terms of total points.

If goal, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin will likely split the final two contests. Assuming the Islanders make the playoffs, it will be interesting to see who starts in Game 1. It’ll probably be Sorokin, but Varlamov has earned consideration thanks to his 2.66 GAA and .916 save percentage in 27 games, which tops Sorokin’s 2.99 GAA and .909 save percentage. The Islanders have also used Varlamov quite a bit recently, deploying him in seven of their past 11 games.

Washington Capitals – MON VS BOS, TUE @ PHI (BTB)

The Capitals made things tough for themselves by going 0-4-2 from March 28-April 7, but Washington might still be able to salvage the situation after winning its last three contests. The Capitals have 87 points (38-31-11), which puts them in the second wild-card seed. Detroit and Philadelphia are tied with Washington in points, but the Capitals have the edge in the tiebreaker over the Red Wings and a game in hand compared to Philadelphia. Additionally, Pittsburgh is one point shy of those three squads. All that is to say, Washington’s hold on its playoff spot is by the narrowest of margins.

The Capitals will host the Bruins on Monday and play in Philadelphia on Tuesday to conclude the season. Washington will make the playoffs if it wins both games. If the Capitals lose against the Bruins, then Tuesday’s season finale becomes a must-win and even then, it’s possible for the Capitals to miss the playoffs in the scenario where they lose Monday but beat the Flyers.

Alexander Ovechkin has been a major driver of the Capitals’ playoff push, scoring 22 goals and 35 points over his past 34 outings. However, he has slowed a little recently, providing a goal and an assist across Washington’s past four appearances, so his hot run might be over. The 38-year-old star has had a season of extreme highs and lows, but he’s done well overall, contributing 30 goals and 64 points in 77 outings.

Interestingly, it was Sonny Milano who served as Washington’s hero Saturday, providing two goals en route to a 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay. He has just 15 markers and 23 points in 47 appearances this season, but the 27-year-old also had a hat trick versus Carolina on March 22 and a four-game goal-scoring streak from March 1-9, so he can on occasion be a major factor and perhaps that will hold true during Washington’s final stretch. Still, his limited playing time puts a damper on his potential. Milano logged just 10:08 of ice time Saturday and has averaged 12:34 this season.

A safer bet for production over Washington’s last two games would be offensive defenseman John Carlson. This has been a strong season for him with nine goals and 51 points across 80 contests, and looked solid recently, supplying four goals and 13 points over his past 15 appearances.

Detroit Red Wings – MON VS MTL, TUE @ MTL 

The Red Wings suffered critical losses to Washington and Pittsburgh, but Detroit still has an opportunity to make the playoffs after earning a 5-4 overtime victory over Toronto on Saturday. Detroit is at 87 points (39-32-9), which puts the Red Wings in a tie with Washington for the second wild-card spot, though the Capitals control the tiebreaker, so Detroit would need to finish one point ahead of them to make the postseason. The Red Wings are narrowly ahead of Philadelphia, which has 87 points but has played in one more game than Detroit, and the Penguins, who have 86 points in 80 contests (37-31-12).

The Red Wings will finish the campaign with a home-and-away back-to-back against Montreal on Monday and Tuesday. The upside is the Canadiens are wrapping up a difficult season in which they’ve gone 30-36-14, so Detroit has a good chance of winning both contests. The downside is the Red Wings’ fate itself isn’t entirely in their hands -- Detroit can still miss the playoffs even if it wins both contests. Additionally, because Washington and Philadelphia will play each other and both teams would control the tiebreaker over Detroit, the Red Wings need to claim at least three out of four points over their final two games to have a mathematical chance of reaching the postseason.

Lucas Raymond is doing everything in his power to thrust the Red Wings into the postseason. The 22-year-old has contributed four goals and eight points over his active four-game scoring streak. His linemate Dylan Larkin has been right there with him, providing five goals and 10 points over his last seven outings. Look for that duo to continue to shine when Detroit faces Montreal.

Detroit’s bigger question is in goal. James Reimer started Saturday for the first time since March 28. The Red Wings got the win, but it was a mixed bag for the netminder, who stopped 32 of 36 shots. Meanwhile, Alex Lyon allowed six goals on 27 shots in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Penguins on Thursday and has been inconsistent recently while posting a 2-2-2 record, 2.83 GAA and .915 save percentage over his last six outings.

Ville Husso (lower body) suffered a setback while on an AHL conditioning stint, so he probably won’t be an option for the remainder of the campaign. That leaves Reimer and Lyon to split the final two starts. On the plus side, Montreal ranks 27th offensively with 2.80 goals per game, so the back-to-back set will be a favorable series for the Red Wings goaltenders.

Philadelphia Flyers – TUE VS WAS

The Flyers were primed to make the playoffs before their 0-5-2 run from March 24-April 9. Philadelphia has rebounded by winning its last two games, though, leaving them with a 38-32-11 record. Philadelphia’s 87 points are tied with Washington and Detroit for the second wild-card seed, but the Flyers have played one more contest than either of them. The Flyers have also played one more game than Pittsburgh, which is trailing the main group by a point with a 37-31-12 record.

The Flyers’ final tilt is against Washington on Tuesday. They need to win against the Capitals to have a chance to make the playoffs, but even with a victory in that contest, Philadelphia will still miss the postseason if Detroit gets at least three points over its final two games or Pittsburgh wins its last two contests. Additionally, if Washington wins against Boston on Monday and then pushes the Flyers to overtime, then the Capitals would still finish ahead in the standings even if Philadelphia wins the outing.

Samuel Ersson is perhaps the biggest X-Factor going into Philadelphia’s final contest. He had a terrible stretch from March 14-April 9, posting a 2-5-2 record, 4.51 GAA and .829 save percentage in 10 outings, but he’s rebounded by stopping 44 of 45 shots over the Flyers’ last two outings. The Capitals aren’t a great team offensively, ranking 28th with 2.65 goals per game, so it’s plausible that Ersson will be able to extend his hot streak.

The Flyers will also be looking for Travis Konecny to continue his recent success. The 27-year-old has two goals and an assist over his past two outings and has set career highs this season with 33 goals and 68 points across 75 appearances. Noah Cates has done well too, collecting three goals and five points over his last six contests. He still has just 18 points in 58 appearances, which is down from 38 points in 2022-23, but at least the 25-year-old seems to be dialed in when it matters most.

Pittsburgh Penguins – MON VS NSH, WED @ NYI

The Penguins seemed destined to miss the playoffs when they dealt Jake Guentzel to Carolina on March 7, but Pittsburgh forced itself back into the postseason conversation with a 7-0-2 stretch from March 26-April 11. However, the Penguins suffered a setback Saturday with a 6-4 loss to the Bruins.

Pittsburgh is now 37-31-12, putting the Penguins one point behind Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia in the battle for the second wild-card position. The Penguins will host Nashville on Monday and finish the campaign with a road contest against the Islanders on Wednesday. With Philadelphia and Washington set to play Tuesday, the Penguins need at least three of four points over their final two contests to have a mathematical shot, and even then, they’d need help from the tiebreaker system. Realistically, Pittsburgh will likely need to win both of its last two games to get into the postseason.

Sidney Crosby is sure to do his best to push the Penguins the rest of the way. He’s been a huge factor in their surge, supplying eight goals and 21 points over his past 11 outings. Crosby is up to 41 goals and 90 points in 80 appearances, which is extremely impressive production for a player who is 36 years old. Evgeni Malkin, who is 37, hasn’t been quite as effective this campaign with 25 goals and 64 points through 80 games, but he’s also gotten hot down the stretch with seven goals and 12 points over his past nine outings, so look for him to also show up on the scoresheet over the Penguins’ last two games.

The question is who will start in net. The Penguins have used Alex Nedeljkovic in each of their last 12 games, but he’s posted a 4.21 GAA and an .854 save percentage over his past four outings. To be fair, Tristan Jarry didn’t look good when he stepped into Saturday’s 6-4 loss to Boston in relief of Nedeljkovic -- Jarry stopped 12 of 14 shots in 26:27 of ice time -- but it might be that Nedeljkovic is running on fumes at this point, so maybe Jarry is still the better option, at least for Pittsburgh’s next contest Monday.

Dallas Stars – WED VS STL

The Stars have secured home-ice advantage through the Western Conference Championship, but Dallas can still go one further by claiming the Presidents’ Trophy. Dallas has 11 points (51-21-9), putting the Stars one point behind the Rangers (54-23-4). Carolina and Boston are tied at 109 points over 80 contests, so either team has an outside chance of winning the Presidents’ Trophy by winning each of its last two games.

Dallas’ final contest will be a home match versus St. Louis on Wednesday. Note that the Rangers control the tiebreaker over Dallas in the Presidents’ Trophy battle, so Dallas only has a chance to claim the title if it earns a victory over the Blues.

Even though the Stars still have something to play for, it wouldn’t be shocking if they rest some players Wednesday. For example, backup Scott Wedgewood might get the nod, both to keep him fresh in case he’s needed during the playoffs and to give Jake Oettinger a breather after starting in four straight and seven of Dallas’ past eight. The Blues rank 24th offensively with 2.86 goals per game, so Wednesday’s tilt would be a favorable matchup for Wedgewood.

Tyler Seguin, who didn’t play April 6 because of workload management related to his lower-body injury, might also get the game off. It wouldn’t be shocking if others were rested too, but I don’t think Ryan Suter and Joe Pavelski will be among those who get the game off. It might seem logical to give the two 39-years-olds a breather before the playoffs, but Suter and Pavelski have active iron man streaks of 452 and 313 games, respectively. Perhaps they’ll get less ice time than usual, though. We also might see Dallas give significant minutes in its finale to Logan Stankoven, who has six goals and 14 points in 23 contests, so don’t be surprised if the 21-year-old rookie has a productive game.

New York Rangers – MON @ OTT

With a 54-23-4 record, the Rangers will secure the Presidents’ Trophy with a victory against Ottawa on Monday. If New York loses the contest, the Rangers will still claim the title if Dallas loses its season finale, Boston is held to three of four points over its last two outings and Carolina is limited to two of four points over its final two games. The reason why the Bruins would need to do better than Carolina, even though both squads have 109 points through 80 contests, is because Boston is in a worse position when it comes to the tiebreaker.

Like Dallas, New York might rest players despite its final game having some relevance. Jonathan Quick will probably get the nod against the Senators. Quick has done well this campaign with an 18-6-2 record, but he has struggled recently, allowing 12 goals on 92 shots over his past three starts. Meanwhile, Ottawa has won eight of its last 12 contests, so while the Senators won’t be making the playoffs, they might still give Quick some trouble.

Outside of starting Quick, some of the Rangers’ top players, such as Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox might be scratched. Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin have participated in 165 and 163 consecutive games, respectively, so both of them will probably be in the lineup. Panarin is also two goals away from hitting 50 for the first time in his career, so keep an eye out for that. Chris Kreider will also likely be in the lineup. He needs just one more goal to reach 40 and this would be his first 82-game campaign if he dresses.

Arizona Coyotes – WED VS EDM

I’m throwing the Coyotes in here even though they long since have been mathematically eliminated. Arizona did have a 23-19-3 record through Jan. 22, but a horrific 0-12-2 run from Jan. 24-Feb. 29 effectively ended any hope the Coyotes had of making the playoffs. Still, there is a grim reason to note them: When Arizona hosts Edmonton on Wednesday, it could very well be the franchise’s last game before moving to Salt Lake City (the move isn’t official as of the time of writing but seems all but certain).

To some extent, the Coyotes’ probable move felt inevitable. Since the then Phoenix Coyotes declared bankruptcy in May 2009, it’s been one saga after another with the team and never since that date, have they looked truly secure in their home in Arizona. The fact that the Coyotes have been playing in a college arena since 2022 has made the situation look particularly untenable unless a long-term solution was secured. Even still, this is a sad ending for the dedicated fanbase in Arizona. It might not be the end -- even now there’s talk that the NHL might put an expansion team in Arizona after the Coyotes move if Alex Meruelo, who will sell the Coyotes, can secure a new arena deal -- but it is the end of a chapter.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s otherwise meaningless game has taken on a new meaning. Barring one more twist in this saga that prevents the anticipated move from happening, the contest will stand as a chance for the players to say goodbye to a fanbase that has been with them through all the turmoil. I would expect the Coyotes to play with a lot of heart under the circumstances. In particular, I’m interested to see how Clayton Keller, who was drafted by Arizona in 2016 and now serves as the squad’s top forward, does. He has been held off the scoresheet for his past three games, but Keller has still contributed 33 goals and 73 points in 76 outings overall, and I think the odds are high he will make his presence felt in the finale.

Another player to watch will be Josh Doan. He’s the son of Shane Doan, who was the captain of the franchise from 2003-17 and remains the franchise’s career leader in games (1,540), goals (402), assists (570) and points (972), among other categories. The younger Doan has given Coyotes fans a taste of the future recently, scoring four goals and eight points over nine games. Given his deep family connection to this franchise, this might be an especially emotional goodbye for him. It is also worth noting the grim symmetry here. Like Josh, Shane Doan saw his franchise move, in his case from Winnipeg to Phoenix, after appearing in just one season.