March to the Playoffs: An Eastern Conference NHL Round Up

By JAY BOEHMER
Staff Writer — jboehmer@highhopesblog.com
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Only one team can win the cuvveted Stanley Cup. Find out who has the best shot.

With most teams in the conference having about ten games left to play down the home stretch into the playoffs, it’s time to step back and see where each team stands, and how the events of the season have gotten them there.

So sit down, grab a cup of coffee, and get ready to get caught up on the playoff picture.  Here are our Eastern conference contenders in order of their current place in the standings, from last on up to first.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Four wins in their last five games, this is definitely a different Maple Leafs club than the one we saw early on, unable to register a win until more than four weeks into the season.  The difference is the rebuilding done by GM Brian Burke, who did a complete revamping of the roster.  The most important changes were the acquisition of Jean-Sebastien Giguere from Anaheim and young star defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Fredrik Sjostrom from the Calgary Flames.  Despite all of this, they remain dead last in the conference, though they will be an interesting team to watch in the future.

The next three teams currently sit with a three way tie at 68 points each.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts were once tight in the hunt for one of the final few playoff spots, but have since dropped out from the pack, with a five game losing streak extending across the Olympic break.  A few top scorers, especially the young Steven Stamkos, but little depth and a goalie whose playoff abilities are questionable mean that even if they manage to squeak in, they’ll be facing a first round exit to a team like Washington.

New York Islanders: The Isles have something good going for them in the form of rookie John Tavares, but they suffered a painfully slow start, only picking up one win in the first four weeks (not quite a week before Toronto broke the 0 mark).  Lately they’ve looked a little better, 3-1-1 in their last five games.  Eight points out of a playoff spot, they’re not out of the question, but once again, chances are slim to none.

Carolina Hurricanes: Coming off a Conference Final appearance in 2009, but playing with a mostly stripped down defensive roster, no longer sporting Andrew Alberts, Joe Corvo, and Aaron Ward, not to mention the fall of goaltender Cam Ward, the Canes have struggled this year, sitting eight points out with ten games to play.

Florida Panthers: Another team with no real playoff hopes, the Panters do sit in a position where a strong finish might land them in the 8th and final spot, but the outlook isn’t good.  They have a strong goalie in Tomas Vokoun, but the team in front of him leaves something to be desired, with only three players hovering around the 20 goal mark.

New York Rangers: With a lone scoring leader, Marian Gaborik, on a team without much support, the Rangers seem to be in a position where the playoffs are in sight (five points behind the 8th seed Bruins), but any hope of matching lines with the top tier teams is nothing more than a pipe dream.  It can’t all be left up to their star goaltender, “King” Henrik Lundqvist, who seems to have struggled given his team’s woes.

Atlanta Thrashers: Ten games left for Atlanta and only one point out, they certainly seem capable of making a push into one of those top eight spots.  However, things don’t look very good for them in terms of making any real impact on the playoffs; they even seemed to throw in the towel themselves, trading star Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey for younger prospects like Niclas Bergors, in an attempt to rebuild.  These recent acquisitions have looked strong, however, and they’ll be a team to watch going forward.

Stepping in from the outside, let’s take a look at those eight teams who currently hold the right to a playoff appearance.  Just remember, with more than ten games left, a Cinderella may sweep one of these teams out the door just before that second week in April.

Boston Bruins: Currently in possession of the eighth and final playoff spot, the Bruins have certainly scratched and clawed their way to earning it.  Tim Thomas’ numbers this year have been a far cry from the ’08-’09 season, coming off a run at the conference finals and winning the Vezina (best goaltender) and William M. Jennings (goaltender for the team with the least goals against) trophies.  He’s gone 15-17-8 this season, while his backup and Boston’s shining star Tukka Rask has earned a record of 17-10-4 and the position of playoff starter.  Unfortunately, for the team with the lowest goals per game average, now missing one of their top offensive weapons in the injured Marc Savard, Boston’s hopes at repeating last year’s run seem far off.

Montreal Canadiens: Having been in tight contest with the Flyers and the Senators for the fifth, sixth and seventh spots, the Canadiens are a team to watch for any Flyers fan.  They have a relatively weak offense when compared with some of the more powerful teams, and questions at goaltender – whether they commit to Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak, neither of which have stellar playoff numbers – contribute to skepticism surrounding their ability to make it past the first round when matched up against the likes of Washington or Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia Flyers: Philly, consistently inconsistent, has strung together long winning streaks, and equally long losing streaks.  Right now, they’re 5-5-2 since their four game winning streak going into the Olympic break.  While the offensive and defensive components needed for a run at the Stanley Cup are there, questions remain in net, as the two top goalies (Ray Emery and Michael Leighton) are both out injured as far as the eye can see.  If born-again Flyer Brian Boucher can keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot, he may well be the starter come playoff time.  However, the outlook is not good for a repeat of his 2000 run at the Conference Finals.

Ottawa Senators: Currently on a five game losing streak, the slipping Senators set themselves up to be overtaken by either the Flyers or the Canadiens.  Coming into the season, Ottawa acquired Jonathan Cheechoo from the San Jose Sharks, giving up Dany Heatley.  He’s turned out to be a bust, having cleared waivers and been moved to the AHL affiliate.  With only Daniel Alfredsson and Alexei Kovalev leading their offense, and a lack of star power in goal, the Senators don’t seem like a team poised to take the Cup.

New Jersey Devils: Currently second in the tough Atlantic Division despite a sweep of the six game season series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey is poised for a playoff run for sure.  They have the sureshot Martin Brodeur with a strong offense of Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk leading the way.  The only weakness seems to be at defense, which has had its share of collapses, but with the best goalie to play the game backing them up, you can’t worry too much.

Buffalo Sabres: With the most likely candidate for this year’s Vezina trophy Ryan Miller keeping the puck out of the net, the Sabres have the makings of a playoff contender.  However, the relatively lackluster offense in front of him won’t be enough for a showing in the Stanley Cup Finals, or even the conference finals.  They’ll likely be offed by the end of the conference semifinal round.

Pittsburgh Penguins: In constant contention with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division lead, the Penguins are the current bearers of the title and the 2nd seed that comes with it.  While still a strong contender and a team no one wants to face in the first round, they’re no favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.  A Crosby and Malkin led offense, backstopped by the reliable Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t look to be enough against a team like Washington, New Jersey, or Buffalo.  Look for a second round exit by the defending champs.

Washington Capitals: Last but certainly not least, the Capitals have exploded this season.  They strung together a 14 game winning streak through January and February that put them alone on top of the conference, where they still sit comfortably, aided by a 7-1-2 record since the Olympic break.  They still remain the undisputed offensive powerhouses of the league, averaging 3.88 goals per game.  The only uncertainty about them is the quality of goaltending from Jose Theodore, who is 27th in the league in GAA and sports a mediocre playoff record.  If he can hold, and their offense can continue to break down opponents the way they have, look to see a deep playoff run from the Capitals.

With all those teams continuing to play and battle for position in a tightly packed Eastern conference, it’ll be very interesting to watch how things change from here on out.  Teams may pull out a last minute push for the playoffs, while those teams currently on cruise control could easily slip and fall.  Stay tuned!

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