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Who Wants To Be The Eighth Seed In The East?

Lucas Raymond celebrates his goal with his teammates
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This blog was 12.6 seconds away from being yet another story about the Red Wings driving off a cliff. But then Lucas Raymond hit the brakes. As Detroit captain Dylan Larkin sits with an injury, the giant gaping hole at the top of the lineup has been impossible for the Red Wings to paper over, and in a series of listless performances this month they've lost their way out of the playoff picture and weathered boos on home ice. The Columbus game on Tuesday threatened to be more of the same, as a miserable start dropped the Wings in a 2-0 hole that evolved into 3-2 in the final minute of the third. But with the goalie pulled and the crowd on pins and needles, Raymond crowded the net and put himself in just the right position to tap home a rebound.

Patrick Kane followed up with a strangely angled goal on a drive to the bottom of the faceoff circle in overtime, and play-by-play man Ken Daniels, with no sign whatsoever of the cynicism that's infected much of the fanbase this month, called just the second Red Wings victory in the last 10 games.

That Raymond-Kane combination punch is a small blessing, as is the prospect of Larkin returning possibly as early as Thursday's key clash with the Islanders. These two points against one of the NHL's worst teams only lifted the Wings into the nine-spot in the East (we use points percentage around these parts). For the small group of teams who have neither locked up their playoff trip nor their lottery guarantee, these are the most important games of the year. But the paradox of these races is that none of these teams are good enough to show competence on a consistent basis. Watching them fight for precious points can feel like trying to coax a cat out from under the bed: the more you want it, the worse things get.

In the East, a few teams are long-rotting roadkill: the Blue Jackets, Senators, and Canadiens. Above them are the squads with only the most ridiculously technical paths to the playoffs: the burned-out Penguins, the hungover Devils, and the too-little, too-late Sabres. Then, currently in eight, nine, and 10, we have these absolute weirdos: the Capitals, Red Wings, and Islanders. Which of you wants to come out from under the bed?

The Isles, after an impressive stretch around the start of the month, have crashed into a wall. A comprehensive loss to the Hurricanes, like they suffered on Tuesday, isn't in itself all that embarrassing, but it made for their fifth straight defeat. And while head coach Patrick Roy made headlines by saying he was "not 100 percent pleased" with the play of star goaltender Ilya Sorokin on Tuesday morning, the reality is that three of these recent losses also saw the Isles score just one or zero goals, and Sorokin's defense has allowed more shots against him than any other goalie in the league. So this team has a lot of problems. That's why they're in 10th place!

The Red Wings, though they've put together some discrete runs this season, are nothing like a playoff team without Larkin anchoring the lineup. The 21-year-old Raymond has heated up in his absence, but his goals haven't been enough. This is a Swiss-cheese roster that is not just losing but has also appeared mentally unready to face down even the league's easy-mode teams, and you could see that inward-facing dysfunction most obviously in this practice skirmish from a week ago.

The day before that practice, the Wings lost 7-3 to the Sabres. The day after, the Coyotes beat them 4-1. Even the course-correcting win that followed was immediately chased with humiliation against the Penguins. For all the emotion at the end of Tuesday's comeback, there are clearly some complicated issues dogging Detroit. That's why they're in ninth place!

Finally, there are the Capitals. Their golden era ended years ago, and their deadline trade of the struggling Evgeny Kuznetsov (who might be finding himself again in Carolina?) was a pretty on-the-nose symbol that the parties of 2018 were over. Their goal differential this year is minus-27, which primarily reflects the fact that once-great scorers like T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin are past their prime. Ovi in particular, a 50-goal guy as recently as 2022, is less dependable than ever. You can still see the genius on some nights, and still believe in his chances of supplanting Gretzky on the all-time goals list, but with an inadequate supporting cast unable to create opportunities, the Capitals keep needing him to do more while his body is begging him to do less. That's why they're in ... oh dang, they're in a playoff spot!

Three straight wins (which followed two losses by a combined score of 10-2) have somehow made the Caps the team to beat for these other slipping-and-sliding squads in the lower half of the conference, even though their very apparent flaws make them an inviting target. The last win, against Calgary, was pretty special thanks in part to Ovechkin's second goal of the night, which came on a one-time power play delivery to the top of the circle from John Carlson. Sounds a little like six years ago, doesn't it?

Plays like that goal, or the Raymond equalizer, are part of what makes this time of year so infuriating and invigorating for the teams still fighting. When every game matters, whatever game is happening right now can trick you into thinking it's the one that changes the whole outlook. Each night feels like a coin flip—its outcomes both absolute and unpredictable. Some thoroughly mediocre team is going to emerge with a spot in the postseason. Call it.

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