With just over a month left in the inaugural BEARD Hockey season, who will emerge from the pack to secure a place in the chase for the Cup?
There are five teams as things sit right now in BEARD Hockey that can relatively bank on being playoff-bound at the conclusion of the 2020-21 campaign at the end of June.
That means Montreal (94 points), Washington (92 points), Vancouver (89 points), Arizona (88 points), and Los Angeles (88 points) can rest easy - you won't be featured in this article, other than right here (and congrats on a fine season thus far!).
There are four teams at least 12 points or more outside of a playoff spot. With 15 or so games remaining on the schedule, that means Vegas (53 points), Florida (60 points), Minnesota (62 points) and the NY Rangers (63 points) also won't be featured.
However, for 23 other teams, the dream of competing for the first ever BEARD Hockey championship is still a real possibility. Some are further along towards that achievement than others, but there's still enough runway to make the next month's worth of games highly entertaining and plenty intriguing.
Let's start in the East, and work through to the West.
Sure-fire contenders: Detroit (82 points), Buffalo (80 points), New Jersey (80 points)
Unless one of these teams totally collapses over the next 13-16 games, there's a better than average chance these three clubs will be playing hockey in the postseason. The Red Wings (8-2-0) and the Devils (6-4-0) have both solidified themselves nicely over their past 10 games, while the Sabres (3-6-1) have struggled, particularly after their deadline day acquisition of Claude Giroux.
Probable contenders: Ottawa (79 points), NY Islanders (77 points), Tampa Bay (75 points), Carolina (74 points), Philadelphia (72 points)
The Senators are definitely the strongest of the probables, having gone 7-3-0 in their last ten while outscoring their opponents 38-27 in that span. They are also a point away from third place in the Atlantic Division (and three points from second) and have a clear path forward to make it to the dance.
The Metro Division probables, though, have a murkier path before them. It's possible that only three teams from this division will make it in, meaning the Hurricanes and Flyers need to catch the Islanders to have a sure-fire shot.
At the midway point of the season, who had Tampa Bay in a wild card spot? GM Tyler Hetherington has done a yeoman's job bringing his club back from the brink, and if they can continue their momentum, could be a force in the playoffs.
Probable pretenders: Boston (68 points), Toronto (68 points), Pittsburgh (67 points)
The Penguins might be the most intriguing team here and have the most runway at 16 games remaining to pick up enough points to sneak into the postseason dance. With 14 points in their last 10, that's a solid pace - but it might not be enough to make up the eight-point gap between them and Tampa Bay as it sits now.
The Bruins and Maple Leafs have been too inconsistent to call them anything but probable pretenders here, though if one of them gets hot (like, say 12-13 wins in their last stretch of games), it's not impossible to see one make the playoffs. More than likely, it'll be regroup and plot-out-the-offseason time for these clubs.
Sure-fire pretender: Columbus (64 points)
Perhaps better days are ahead for the Blue Jackets, who would need a Christmas-in-July type of miracle to climb the ladder needed to reach the postseason.
So...who makes it in?
1-A Montreal vs 2-WC Tampa Bay
2-A Detroit vs 3-A Ottawa
1-M Washington vs 1-WC Buffalo
2-M New Jersey vs 3-M NY Islanders
Let's head to the West, shall we?
Sure-fire contenders: Winnipeg (83 points)
Things are far less settled-ish in the Western Conference, where Winnipeg currently sits as the only sure-fire contender for the post-season among those not mentioned at the top of this article. With some separation between them and third place in the Central Division, continued strong play (7-3-0 in their last ten contests), and an offense that's really firing on all cylinders (28 goals in their last six games), the Jets are all but a lock to compete for the Cup.
Probable contenders: Chicago (77 points), Colorado (77 points), Edmonton (75 points), St. Louis (74 points), Calgary (74 points), Dallas (73 points), Seattle (71 points), San Jose (70 points)
Will the real slim shady please stand up? A lot of back and forth positioning has happened between these eight clubs, and no one seems to be able to break from this pack. The Central still has six teams that have legit shots at the playoffs, and yet only three could still technically get in. It's gotten so stagnant that a 7-2-1 run from the Kraken has put them within three points of the second wild card spot, an absolutely ludicrous thought at the midway point of the season.
There's plenty of games left, which means anything can and will happen here. A few teams will need better than .500 stretches to break away, so give an edge to the Oilers and Blues, perhaps, for having better than ten points in their last ten games.
Toss some darts at the board here - you'll have as good a shot as any to predict who comes out of this group and makes the dance.
Probable pretenders: Anaheim (68 points)
It's hard to call a club just six points out of a playoff spot with 16 games left on their schedule a probable pretender, but there are some underlying items here that give us pause when it comes to the Ducks.
Anaheim has been steady in their results this year - a little too steady - but haven't been able to weather the storms on defense very well. Couple that with inconsistent scoring from their top six forwards, and there's just too much that would have to go right for the Ducks to make it. But hey, with the logjam ahead of them, who knows.
Sure-fire pretender: Nashville (63 points)
The Predators have shown some life lately, emerging from the Western basement into a semi-comfortable 14th position in the conference. GM Scott Davidson has let it be known he'd love to play spoiler for the team who has his club's first round pick in the upcoming Entry Draft (howdy St. Louis!) - but how high can the Predators truly climb?
Getting out of the basement in the Central Division would be its own miracle, to say nothing about the five clubs ahead of them in the conference. But with 15 games left and 11 points to make up, it's not impossible...is it?
So...who makes it in?
A total stab in the dark here - this whole thing could literally change inside a week.
1-C Arizona vs 2-WC Chicago
2-C St. Louis vs 3-C Winnipeg
1-P Los Angeles vs 1-WC Colorado
2-P Vancouver vs 3-P Edmonton
How off or on does this sound to you? Sound off in the comments or on Slack!