The 2015-16 season is essentially over and the Eastern Conference playoffs, outside of the Islanders potentially moving into third place in the Metro, are set in stone.
The NHL has two remaining regular season games this evening, both of which being make-up games that should have taken place earlier in the year. If the New York Islanders win, they’ll leap-frog the Rangers and face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. If they lose, they’ll head to Florida and face the Panthers. The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks is meaningless in the East.
So, how did we get here?
The last few months have been anything but calm in the Eastern Conference. We’ve watched teams go on historical runs while others faltered and fell apart down the stretch. The final two months of the season became a war of attrition and the playoff picture we see right now is far different from what we expected in January.
It’s a testament to just how much of a long, windy road an 82-game season can be.
Among all of the hustle and bustle, there are a few things that stand out more than most. Below, I’ll visit my three biggest surprises among those that have made the cut and earned their place in the tournament.
The Keystone State Surge
The Penguins and Flyers entered 2015-16 on completely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to expectations.
Pittsburgh, after a busy offseason that saw general manager Jim Rutherford re-tool the bottom-six and add sniper Phil Kessel, was widely viewed as an explosive offensive team that could easily contend for the Stanley Cup.
The Flyers, after finishing 2014-15 with just 84 points and missing the playoffs by a wide margin, made very few changes in the offseason and seemed poised for another disappointing year. They were strapped with bad contracts and had little wiggle room, leaving them in a tough spot when it comes to making impactful roster moves in the cap era.
To the surprise of many, the Penguins were just as disappointing and both teams faced what looked like an insurmountable uphill battle after the first two months of the season. The high-flying Penguins offense that everyone expected was 29th in the league in scoring and the Flyers were staring at a record of 9-10-5 heading into December.
However, both teams’ respective GM’s went to work, finding takers for the likes of Rob Scuderi and Vincent Lecavalier. Rutherford added speed with Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin while the Flyers received a shot in the arm from rookie Shayne Gostisbehere. The rest is history.
Philadelphia went 25-13-7 once the calendar turned 2016 and Pittsburgh went 30-11-4, including a 14-2 stretch to finish the season.
Next stop? The Flyers will face Washington in round one of the postseason and Pittsburgh will battle either the New York Islanders or New York Rangers.
Detroit Extends Franchise Playoff Streak
George Bush Senior was the President of the United States the last time Detroit missed the playoffs, which took place in the 1989-90 season. While Boston still holds the record for most consecutive years in the postseason, 25 years is extremely impressive.
However, their ability to sneak into the postseason this year is quite surprising.
The Red Wings finished the season ranked 22nd in scoring. They went 9-9 in their last 18 games, with losses in important match-ups against those they were battling for postseason spots. When it came down to the final game of the season yesterday, Detroit would have clinched with a win but forfeited three goals to the New York Rangers and lost by a score of 3-2. It ended up being irrelevant when the Bruins lost to the Senators but still, this is hardly the way you want to prepare for the playoffs.
Also interesting is that they made the postseason with a negative goal differential, with Philadelphia being the only other team to do so this season. Prior to this year, only one team has made the playoffs with a negative goal differential since the league changed their postseason format in 2012.
It was the 2013-14 Red Wings.
The Capitals’ Historic Season
Lets face it, everyone knew the Capitals would be a force to be reckoned with this season. However, no one expected this.
Washington finished the year with a whopping 120 points thanks to their 56-17-8 record. That total hasn’t been touched since 2009-10, when the Capitals finished with 121 points. But, you can argue that their point total isn’t the most impressive part of their season.
Alex Ovechkin tallied his seventh 50-goal season, passing the likes of Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne who all have six. In a season that saw average goals-per-game sink to levels that rival the dead-puck era of the early 2000’s, it’s unthinkable that someone could still net 50.
If that wasn’t enough, goaltender Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s record for wins in a season with 48. The Capitals will face the Anaheim Ducks tonight to close out the season, giving Holtby one last chance to claim that record for himself.
The Capitals finished second in goals-for with 252. But, they boast a league’s best plus-61 goal differential. They’ve struggled a bit down the stretch but have proved all season that they’re arguably the most well-rounded team in the league. Can they continue that success in the postseason and finally make a run?
What they accomplished in the regular season is truly something special. Now, it’s up to them to shed the reputation of regular season juggernaut, postseason disappointment.