NHL insiders debate biggest game this week, wild-card races

With about three weeks left of the 2022-23 NHL regular season, there are three teams that have clinched a playoff spot and four that have been mathematically eliminated.

Those numbers will both increase in the days ahead, as it’s another jam-packed week on the schedule. But which games will have the most importance when it comes to the playoff races? Which team will ultimately win the West’s No. 1 seed? What about the wild cards?

Our reporters and analysts are here to debate those very questions.

What’s the biggest game of the week?

Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+). The Penguins are trying to find ways to gain separation from the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference wild-card race, while the Predators are trying to gain ground to challenge for the wild card in the Western Conference. Both teams need points, and it’s what makes a game like this so potentially enticing.

Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: Tuesday’s Los Angeles Kings vs. Calgary Flames tilt (9 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+) is a biggie for me. If the Flames can somehow beat the sizzling Kings — or even wrestle a single point out of the affair — that should set the tone for a successful wrapup to the regular season. Seven of Calgary’s remaining games feature non-playoff-bound opponents, with the eighth scheduled against the team they’re chasing for the second wild-card spot, in Winnipeg. Meanwhile, two points for L.A. could significantly narrow the gap between themselves and the Pacific-leading Knights. Fun stuff.

Arda Öcal, NHL host: I’m locked in on the Eastern Conference wild-card race, so any game involving the Penguins, Islanders and Panthers interests me greatly — especially this week. The Toronto Maple Leafs-Florida Panthers game Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+) might be the dagger for the Panthers if they falter — or could be the one that propels them back into better shape in the wild-card race.

Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Edmonton Oilers vs. Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+/Hulu). A heavyweight tilt between two surging Pacific Division teams. Only a handful of points separate the Oilers from the Golden Knights; if Edmonton wants to potentially catch Vegas for the Pacific lead, this is a critical two points. If Vegas wants to add some insurance and ensure home ice to start the playoffs, Tuesday is a must-win game. You love to see it.

Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: The New Jersey Devils‘ game at the New York Islanders Monday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+) is an important one for both teams. The Devils have faint hopes of winning the Metro and avoiding a first-round smackdown against the New York Rangers. The Islanders currently have an 80% chance of making the playoffs in front of a fading Florida team — but they’re not in yet. These two haven’t seen each other since early December.

How will the wild-card races shake out?

Clark: In the East, the Islanders will get the WC1 while the Penguins get the WC2; out West, the Kraken get the WC1 and the Jets get the WC2. The challenge in predicting the Penguins is there’s no telling what will happen between them and the Panthers given that the margin is so tight.

Matiash: I’ve got the Islanders in the WC1 spot and the Panthers bumping the Penguins from the WC2 position in the East, with the Kraken settling in WC1 and Flames booting the Jets from playoff contention in snagging the WC2 out West. As mentioned, Calgary’s schedule down the stretch is too favorable to blow. Even for a team that has, in my view, made matters unnecessarily difficult for itself thus far.

Öcal: I’ve got the Penguins snagging the first wild card in the East, with the Isles holding off the Panthers for the second. Out West, the standings today will be the same as the standings on the final day, with the Kraken in WC1 and the Jets in WC2.

Shilton: Out East, it’ll be the Islanders in WC1 and the Panthers grabbing WC2 away from Pittsburgh. In the West, Seattle should hold on to WC1 and Winnipeg will stand pat in WC2. Which is too bad for the Jets, really. Their recent struggles created a missed opportunity to land a top-three position in the Central Division.

Wyshynski: I think the Penguins finish in the first wild card and the Panthers rally to secure the second wild card, with the Islanders on the outs. Florida has to take at least five points on this upcoming road swing before having four of their last five games in Sunrise, where they’re 21-12-4. In the West, the Kraken finish in the first wild card and the Jets snag the second. There’s basically the same percentage chance in favor of both happening at the moment.

Who will get the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference?

Clark: Either the Golden Knights or a team that is within six points of them. That’s not a flippant answer. It’s just that the West’s narrative this season has been that a team in first place one week could be in a wild-card spot a week later.

Matiash: Ahead of Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Blues, the Kings hadn’t lost in regulation since Feb. 26. I don’t see the wheels falling off now, not in light of how both Joonas Korpisalo and Pheonix Copley are pitching in dominating performances in goal. This justifiably confident squad will catch Vegas — arguably saddled with the more difficult concluding schedule — before all is said and done.

Öcal: Minnesota makes a run and somehow catches and exceeds Vegas by one point to take the conference. It has played nearly the most one-goal games in the NHL this season, which means it is always battling and rarely out of a game. These two teams also have a home-and-home coming up, which could be a massive eight-point swing with two regulation wins for either.

Shilton: Predicting anything about the Western Conference has been a fool’s errand — so what’s a little more chaos? The Kings haven’t earned nearly enough praise for their terrific season. And it’s the Kings who have the best chance of catching — and passing — Vegas to be crowned Western champs.

Wyshynski: The Dallas Stars look at all of those games between the Knights, Wild and Kings, and they proclaim “let them fight.” Dallas has the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Predators, Detroit Red Wings and two against the Blues left on their docket. Even if they give Jake Oettinger a rest, these are winnable games. It’ll take a small fade from Vegas, but it’s doable.