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NHL Playoff Picture 2017: Analyzing Postseason Races, Standings and Bracket

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are the NHL's best regular-season team.

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are the NHL’s best regular-season team.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2017

Winners and still champions—at least in the regular season.

The Washington Capitals have done it again. They defeated the New York Rangers 2-0 Wednesday night, and that victory allowed them to clinch the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy. That honor goes to the team with the best regular-season record, and the Capitals will consequently have home-ice advantage in the postseason for as long as they remain alive.

The Caps did the same thing in 2015-16, but it did not lead to a long run in the postseason that would include a Stanley Cup. Instead, the Caps had problems in a first-round victory over the Philadelphia Flyers and lost their second-round series to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Head coach Barry Trotz is not interested in what happened last year. He is only interested in making sure the journey is successful this year. The Caps have no guarantees, but back-to-back brilliant regular seasons mean Washington has a powerful team that should be capable of getting the job done in the playoffs.

Trotz was happy with his team’s effort against the Rangers. “This was going to be a tough one coming home from a long road trip,” Trotz said, per Katie Brown of NHL.com. “I thought we got stronger. The first [period] was so-so. I thought we got stronger and stronger, and I thought we managed it much better in the second and third.”

The Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens did not fare as well Wednesday. They dropped a 2-1 decision on the road to the Buffalo Sabres, but that loss did not hurt their positioning since they had earlier clinched the division title. The Habs also found out that they would be playing the New York Rangers in their first-round series.

The Rangers are locked into the No. 1 wild-card position. The Caps will face the No. 2 wild-card team, and that will most likely be the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators or the Boston Bruins. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders are alive, but both of their chances of returning to the postseason this season are slim.

The Senators and the Bruins meet Thursday night in Boston, and that game is likely to go a long way toward determining playoff positioning in the Atlantic Division.

Both teams have 94 points entering the contest, and while the Senators are technically in second and the Bruins in third, Boston will have the advantage if the two teams remain tied at the season’s conclusion because they have the edge in ROW (regulation and overtime wins). That category is the first tiebreaker in regular-season standings.

Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs can clinch a playoff spot Thursday night.

Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs can clinch a playoff spot Thursday night.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Toronto hosts Tampa Bay Thursday night, and a Maple Leafs win will see them clinch a playoff spot and eliminate the Lightning from consideration. The Leafs lost Tuesday night to the Capitals, while the Lightning suffered a 4-0 defeat to the Bruins that hurt their playoff chances.

The eight teams in the Western Conference playoffs have been set since Sunday, but the positioning that will determine the playoff matchups is still evolving.

The Thursday night matchups that matter the most include a meeting between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks in California. Those teams are tied for second place in the Pacific Division and are likely playoff opponents.

The first-place Anaheim Ducks will clinch the Pacific Division title if they beat the Chicago Blackhawks and the Sharks beat the Oilers. They go into Thursday night’s action with a four-point lead over Edmonton and San Jose.

The Blackhawks have clinched the Central Division title and the best record in the Western Conference, but they have lost their past two games, and head coach Joel Quenneville would like to establish some momentum going into the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators remain in a battle for third place in the Central Division, with the former holding a one-point edge going into Thursday night’s action. The Blues travel to face the eliminated Florida Panthers, while the Preds travel to challenge the Dallas Stars, who have also been eliminated from postseason contention.

If the Blues hold their lead, they will face the Minnesota Wild in the first round and the Preds would face either the Blackhawks as the No. 2 wild-card team or the Pacific Division champions if they finish in the top wild-card spot.

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