UNITED STATES—The qualification picture is steadily coming into focus for the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The playoffs begin in less than a month and the battle to qualify is intensifying. First place in three of the four divisions is still well and truly up for grabs, along with the playoff wild cards, which will guarantee plenty of intriguing match-ups in the final few weeks of the regular season.

The Lightning strike early to claim an easy playoff spot

There is only one team that has their place in the playoffs sewn up and that is the Tampa Ba Lightning. They have an insurmountable 17-point lead at the top of the Eastern Atlantic Division, leaving the Boston Bruins trailing in their wake. The Lightning are the real deal. If they can secure nine wins from their remaining 12 match-ups they will equal the record set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96 for the most victories in a single season (62).

A lot of the Lightning’s success can be attributed to the form of forward Nikita Kucherov, who is experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime season. Kucherov has contributed to 111 points in 70 games, with 33 goals and 78 assists thus far. It’s possible that he could also equal an NHL record by becoming the first forward to score 130 points in a team that also finishes with 130 points in its division. This was a feat last achieved by Guy Lafleur for the Montreal Canadiens in 1977.

Will the Blue Jackets’ brave last-minute trading pay off?

It promises to be a nail-biting season run-in for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team made some bold moves prior to the Trade Deadline, securing deals for forwards Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene from the Senators. Those deals were concluded despite retaining the services of big-earners Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Both Dzingel and Duchene were only signed on short-term trades, so they could become free agents in the summer if they don’t have a successful playoff run. Qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs is by no means a sure-fire thing for the Blue Jackets, but a recent 7-4 win over the Boston Bruins – including an inaugural NHL hat-trick for Boone Jenner – has put them back in good shape to challenge for at least a wild card spot.

The Hurricanes in control of their own playoff destiny

The Eastern Metropolitan Division is wide open, with the Carolina Hurricanes still hot on the heels of the Pittsburgh Penguins to snatch that all-important third place playoff spot and guaranteed entry. The Hurricanes have found a rich vein of form, having won four out of five matches in a recent five-game road trip, outscoring their opponents by an average of 3.80-1.80. Their destiny is very much in their own hands in the coming weeks, having got to play four teams that are currently in the playoff places, including a double-header with the current Metropolitan Division leaders, the Capitals. They are certainly well set for these crunch matches given that they are the second-highest scorers in the league and haven’t lost back-to-back matches in regulation since early January.

Looking towards the Western Conference, it’s hard not to be impressed by the individual form of rookie goalie, Jordan Binnington, who has been at the heart of the St. Louis Blues’ meteoric rise into Stanley Cup playoff contention. At the turn of the New Year, the Blues found themselves marooned at the foot of the Central Division and now find themselves in third place, looking to keep the likes of the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild at bay for the final guaranteed playoff spot. Binnington was very much thrown in at the deep end with the Blues, with his last appearance coming three years ago in January 2016. Whether he has the temperament to maintain such a high save percentage in the post-season showdown remains to be seen.

The Coyotes refusing to give up on a wild card despite mounting injuries

It is quite remarkable that the Arizona Coyotes still have a squeak of snatching a wild card in the Western Conference. They have suffered a host of injuries to key players, resulting in combined absences totalling 330 games lost to injury. However, they have somehow built some winning momentum of late, winning eight of their last ten matches to move within a single point behind the Minnesota Wild to challenge for the second wild card spot. It would appear that it is too late for both the Oilers and the Canucks to make a late charge for the wild card places.

Like the Coyotes, the Dallas Stars also appear to be peaking at just the right time. It was a somewhat turbulent and stormy first half of the season. Few could forget how club president, Jim Lites called out forwards, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn for their poor form and latest recruit, Mats Zuccarello sustained a broken arm 24 hours after signing from the Rangers. The Stars’ fans would have been forgiven for giving up on the season and thinking that it wasn’t their year, but on the rink the tables have well and truly turned in 2019. After a recent four-game winning streak, the Stars now hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and may even be able to charge down the St. Louis Blues to secure third place in the Central Division.

Last year’s surprise contenders unlikely to repeat 2018’s feat

Meanwhile the Colorado Avalanche shocked everyone to steal a march and claim a place in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, edging out the Blues on the final day of the regular season. However, it has been a more frustrating 2019 for the Avalanche of late, with injuries to star men such as captain, Gabriel Landeskog leaving them hamstrung. It wouldn’t take a great deal for them to snare the second wild card in the Western Conference though, given that they are just two points behind the Minnesota Wild with plenty of matches yet to be played.