Now that we’ve passed the All-Star Break, all eyes will turn toward the playoff races in the NHL. At this point in the season, we pretty much know the teams we’ll be focusing on as top contenders for the Stanley Cup. When it comes to playoff contention, however, the season is still wide open. So here are three teams to keep an eye on who may surprise us yet and make playoff runs.
The Predators have been a little bit of a hard team to figure out this season with up-and-down swings, terrific play and troublesome lulls. Just this month they started the second half slowly before demonstrating their capabilities in a 6-2 destruction of the red-hot San Jose Sharks. However, they then lost their next game in discouraging fashion to the Washington Capitals.
This sort of inconsistency doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence that the Preds could wind up finishing among the top-three in the Central Division, but a wild card in the Western Conference certainly feels within reach. This is thanks in large part to strong and versatile defensive lines that, emerging from the All-Star Break, led the NHL in goals and points. If Nashville can keep up the effort on defense and find a little more scoring punch on a regular basis they ought to be able to find their way into the playoffs and present a sneakily dangerous front for whomever they face in the first round.
At a glance, this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins don’t seem up to par. Last year, the team led the league with 3.38 goals per game (allowing only 2.48 for a stellar 0.90 differential). This year, they’re averaging about 2.57 goals per game and allowing 2.52. Those are about the only numbers you need to see that the 2015/16 edition of the Penguins is not as threatening as what we’ve gotten used to in many of the most recent seasons.
Despite this troubling trend in goal differential, however, this Pittsburgh team finds its ways to win. As of the time of this writing the Penguins are 7-3-0 in their last 10, suddenly just a point out of the Eastern Conference wild card and with vast amounts of contending experience to draw upon. From what we’ve seen it’s probably not the year for another deep Pittsburgh run, but don’t be surprised at all if their second half continues more impressively than the first and we wind up seeing the Penguins in the playoffs yet again. They’re certainly not a 7- or 8-seed that a top team will want to play.
And then there’s the Carolina Hurricanes, often forgotten in recent years by most of the NHL but suddenly playing some strong hockey. Carolina has been looking to build with youth for some time now, and there’s a chance we’re seeing that transition begin to pay off before our eyes. Since starting the month with a few consecutive losses the Hurricanes have won nine out of their last 15, including some impressive results like a 5-0 drubbing of Chicago and a recent 6-3 win over the Islanders.
The recent surge has actually made Carolina one of the more interesting teams to watch this February, not only on the ice but also with regard to how they plan for the future. With eight players set to become unrestricted free agents and no certainty of a playoff berth, this will be a team to watch come deadline day. But particularly if GM Ron Francis can swing a favourable move or two, the Canes may find themselves back in the postseason.
Any or all of these teams could wind up storming the playoffs after all three were relative non-factors for the first half of the season. With each squad showing some flashes and potential, we’ll find out in the next month or so how good they really are.