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'The reality is we’re still in it:' Eastern wild-card race remains wide open after deadline

Evgeni Malkin Evgeni Malkin - The Canadian Press

One week after the NHL's trade deadline, the Eastern Conference wild-card race is wide open, with five teams within five points of the New York Islanders for the final playoff spot. 

A sudden fall for the Detroit Red Wings, who have lost seven straight games, has allowed the field to catch up. Detroit is tied with New York at 72 points, with one more game played.

The Washington Capitals, who also have a game in hand on Detroit, moved to within one point of the two teams with their 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken on Thursday.

The suddenly surging Buffalo Sabres are three points back with more game played than the Red Wings after earning a crucial 4-0 win over the Islanders Thursday night. 

The New Jersey Devils, who added goaltender Jake Allen in their deadline roster shakeup, crushed the Dallas Stars 6-2 on Thursday to close within four points of the final wild-card spot.

Lastly, the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose playoff hopes appeared to be gone when the team traded winger Jake Guentzel last week, remain in the hunt, five points back of the Islanders with the two teams equal at 65 games played.

In the top wild-card spot, the Tampa Bay Lightning are four points ahead of the Islanders with one more game played as they hope to distance themselves from the field. The Lightning picked up a key 6-3 win over the New York Rangers on Thursday to improve their odds of making the playoffs for a seventh straight season.

The Lightning had a quieter trade deadline than in some past seasons, but did add to their roster by acquiring winger Anthony Duclair and defenceman Matt Dumba

"This is a group that wants to make the playoffs and they believe they can," Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said after defeating the Rangers. "Earlier in the year, I think with this group and so many new faces we had, we probably find a way to lose that game. But under 20 [games] left this team is finding a way to win these games."

The Islanders did not make a single trade at the deadline, electing to stand pat as they chased the Red Wings in the standings. The team has lost two straight games, missing out on the opportunity to distance themselves from Detroit amid its freefall. A loss to the Sabres on Thursday has suddenly further crowded the playoff race.

“I think we're starting to find our game, our full 60,” Sabres forward Dylan Cozens said after his team's win. “And I think we have confidence. We know we can beat any team. We know that every game matters a lot right now, and we're kind of buckling down and doing whatever it takes.”

The Sabres, who are 6-3-1 in their past 10, traded captain Kyle Okposo and veteran Erik Johnson at the deadline. The team also made a major move in sending Casey Mittelstadt to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenceman Bowen Byram. Byram has made an instant impact for his new club, posting three goals and five points four games. 

The Capitals were also largely deadline sellers, moving winger Anthony Mantha to the Vegas Golden Knights, Joel Edmundson to the Toronto Maple Leafs and shipping forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to the Carolina Hurricanes. Washington bounced back on Thursday after ugly losses to the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers to start the week.

“That was a huge win for us,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “It’s pretty crazy to think about it. The last two games didn’t go how we wanted to at all, and this was a huge response for us. We’ll just focus on one game at a time.”

The Devils reworked their net at last week's deadline, adding Allen and sending Vitek Vanecek to the San Jose Sharks for goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen. The team also worked as a seller, moving Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller to the Jets in two separate deals. 

Allen made 35 saves in Thursday's win over the Stars, bouncing back after allowing a goal just 15 seconds into his first start with the team.

“Not a good first seven minutes, but I wanted to dig in for this group, make a good first impression, try to do the best I could do for them,” Allen said post-game. “They gave me some goal support there in the second, but ultimately, I was impressed with the way we played with the lead. I thought we played very defensively, very mature. Got pucks out, didn’t make too many mistakes, too many errors. We tried to simplify the game.

"The win was obviously crucial for us here in the standings, but I was really impressed with the way the guys played with a lot of maturity in their game.”

The Penguins’ focus appeared to be on the future as president and general manager Kyle Dubas traded Guentzel and defenceman Chad Ruhwedel ahead of the deadline. Despite a 3-6-1 record in their past 10, the Penguins still hold an outside shot at the postseason after a 6-3 win over the San Jose Sharks Thursday.

“The reality is we’re still in it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the victory. “I think that’s the conversation that we’ve had with the group almost daily. We’ve got to control what we can. We’ve got to stay in the race. We’ve just got to keep fighting, control that one game in front of us, and see where it takes us.

“I believe it’s not insurmountable. I believe we have what it takes to continue to push and give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs.”

With just a month remaining in the season, the race will only heat up from here. The betting odds favour the Lightning to lock up a spot, while the Philadelphia Flyers – who sit four points ahead of the Islanders for third in the Metropolitan Division with two more games played – are considered less of a lock. 

Odds to make the playoffs, per FanDuel:

Tampa Bay Lighting -1200
Philadelphia Flyers -310
New York Islanders -120
Detroit Red Wings +128
New Jersey Devils +470
Washington Capitals +470
Pittsburgh Penguins +750
Buffalo Sabres +1200