The battle for the last two playoff spots in the NHL’s Eastern Conference looks like a three-horse race.
The Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings held on as long as they could but petered out, while the Washington Capitals’ demise felt more like death by 1,000 cuts.
With those four clubs looking like severe long shots, we are left with the Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Florida Panthers fighting for the two wild-card spots in the East.
Entering play Monday, the Islanders sit in the first wild-card spot with 80 points but have played two more games than the Penguins, who are in the second wild card with 78 points, and Panthers, who are one point behind the Pens.
Interestingly, the bookies still see the Penguins as the team most likely to qualify for the spring fling. Pittsburgh is currently -350 to get into the dance at bet365, while the Islanders are -140 and the Panthers are -110.
That doesn’t seem right.
While the Islanders and Panthers are clearly flawed, it’s not like the Penguins are trending up and look to be on the cusp of some big run.
Pittsburgh has the shakiest goaltending situation of the three teams in the hunt and is going through a bit of an injury crisis at the moment.
The team’s depth was already an issue — especially on defense — and has been thrown into further flux thanks to injuries to Jeff Petry, Dmitry Kulikov and Nick Bonino.
The latter two were acquired at the trade deadline to address the aforementioned lack of depth.
And while the Islanders and Panthers have steadied themselves during the stretch run, the Penguins have gone the other way.
Pittsburgh is 5-4-1 in its last 10 games and just 10-9-1 with a -11 goal difference since the All-Star break.
Things get even bleaker if you go back even further.
After a great run of form through November and early December, the Penguins hit a wall during Christmas and never really recovered.
The Pens are just 15-16-5 since the holiday break, which puts them behind Arizona and Anaheim in that span. This is not just some blip.
Betting on the NHL?
So why are the Penguins’ odds so much shorter than the other two combatants in this tussle?
It’s not the strength of schedule.
The Islanders, Panthers and Pens have pretty comparable runs down the stretch when you look at their opponents points percentage.
In fact, if you look at the immediate term, it looks like Pittsburgh has the roughest ride of the three teams this week.
The Islanders have a tough game against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, but they’ve got a manageable back-to-back with Columbus and Buffalo into the weekend.
Florida plays Detroit and Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, before things get testy in dates with the Leafs and Rangers.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has Ottawa at home on Monday night and then travels for a back-to-back in Colorado and Dallas on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Pens then travel back home to play the Capitals for their fourth game in six nights. There’s a chance that the Penguins are in a much worse spot at the end of this week than they were at the beginning.
Which makes me wonder if the reason that Pittsburgh is a clear favorite is because this team hasn’t missed the playoffs in 16 seasons.
The betting market is giving the Pens the benefit of the doubt despite the fact that they’ve shown time and again that they’re a very flawed team this season.
These odds look wrong, and Pittsburgh to miss the postseason at +265 is good value.