Eastern Conference Playoff Contenders and Pretenders

As the All-Star break approaches, the NHL playoff race is beginning to heat up. A bad streak of losses, such as the Minnesota Wild are enduring, can effectively ruin the season and book a date for an extra month of golf. It’s the time of the year where each game begins to carry extra importance. For example, a home win versus the division-leading Tampa Bay Lighting for the Boston Bruins provided not only an emotional boost, but gave 2 them two more points in the race to catch Steven Stamkos and company. While many teams are still realistically in the hunt, there are some that are ‘pretenders’, and either won’t make the playoffs or don’t have the ability to contend once the tournament begins. ‘Contenders’ are teams that not only will make the playoffs, but will be a tough team to beat once the postseason begins. With that said, let’s dig into who has the chops to contend, and who will peter out

Pretenders

Pittsburgh Penguins

I’m sorry. I really am. Pittsburgh is destined for another playoff disaster. And the blame will be placed on the shoulders of Marc-Andre Fleury.

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Marc-Andre Fleury’s porous play could lead to another long offseason for the Penguins (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports).

I don’t believe in Fleury. He owns a career 2.68 goals against average in the playoffs, which shouldn’t inspire confidence in anyone rooting for the Penguins when the game is on the line. Who could forget when Fleury was pulled for Tomas Vokoun in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs? In 93 playoff starts, Fleury has posted 34 quality starts, good for 43%. 53% is the league average, according to Hockey-reference.com, so Fleury isn’t holding his own in that department. ‘Really Bad Starts’ are qualified as starts where the goaltender’s save percentage dips below .850. Fleury has 13 of those under his belt. Fleury is below his counterparts when it comes to Goals Saved Above Average, which is defined as the amount goals prevented given the save percentage and shots faced versus the league average on the same number of shots. The netminder’s career number is a disgusting -25.85. When all the marbles are up for grabs, Fleury tends to fall flat on his face. Over the course of his career, he hasn’t played the same in the playoffs as he does in the regular season. A timid Marc-Andre Fleury will all but guarantee another playoff plateau in Pittsburgh.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite being an electrifying offensive team, the Leafs won’t be battling for the Stanley Cup playoffs come April 12th. They have allowed 1168 shots on goal, third most in the league, trailing only the possession-starved Buffalo Sabres and notoriously defensively loose Colorado Avalanche. Allowing 32.9 shots per game, the Leafs -5.3 shot differential won’t win games against tougher opponents. Their lack of defense will come back to haunt them, no matter who lines up between the pipes.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Phil Kessel tries to lead the Leafs on the quest to catch P.K. Subban and the Canadiens (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports).

Another factor hurting the Leafs is the firing of Randy Carlyle. The coaching change has sparked controversy, with reports of a division in Toronto’s locker room. The team needs to unite together for the stretch run, not split into two separate parties. Looking up at who they are trailing, the Leafs are in for an uphill climb if all of the troops aren’t 100 percent on board.

Chasing traditional Eastern Conference powerhouses in the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, not to mention the upstart Florida Panthers, is no easy battle. Add in a mediocre 14-12-2 record versus Eastern Conference foes, and the Maple Leafs are in trouble. The pride of Toronto are fourth in the league in goals scored, and offensive slugfests are extremely entertaining, but they don’t win titles. As the old saying goes, “Defense wins championships”. Offense simply sells the tickets. The multiple problems will be too much to overcome for the Maple Leafs.

Contenders

New York Rangers

Even though they are jockeying for position in the middle of the Eastern Conference, the Rangers are a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs. Fresh off of claiming the Prince of Wales trophy last season as the six seed in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers are largely the same squad that challenged for the Stanley Cup.

Rick Nash is lighting the league on fire, having scored 27 goals on the season (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr).
Rick Nash is lighting the league on fire, having scored 27 goals on the season (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr).

Henrik Lundqvist and company ooze with playoff experience and mental toughness. They can roll four forward lines and their top four defenseman are very solid. They have the overall experience and talent to make another deep playoff run.

The Rangers, who jumped into the third seed in the Metropolitan division with a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, boast an impressive 13-3-1 record versus divisional foes. This, combined with a +27 differential over the course of the season, entrenches the Blue Shirts as a team that no one would enjoy facing. They can play at home or on the road, evidenced by nearly identical records at the Garden as away from it. The overall depth of this team is not to be understated, and the Rangers have a real shot at challenging teams when April and May roll around.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are stocked with playmakers. From the magic of Pavel Datsyuk, to the seemingly ageless Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings are loaded with veterans who can contribute. Add in Gustav Nysquist, who has more handles with the puck than a Rachel Ray kitchen set, and offensive capabilities abound. Despite the capabilities of the offense, the Red Wings are a disgruntling 1-7 when the game is decided in a shootout. An extra seven points have been left on the table. Even a few more shootout wins, not necessarily all seven, would put the Wings in first place in the Atlantic division. The amount of points does not directly indicate how good this team is, or more importantly, can be.

Henrik Zetterberg (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)
Henrik Zetterberg leads a potentially potent Detroit offense (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr).

While Detroit ranks 16th in shots for per 60 minutes, they are don’t give up many. They pace the league when it comes to keeping attempts away from the cage, allowing a mere 906. By limiting opponent’s opportunities, the Red Wings are putting themselves in a good place when the playoffs come calling. Air-tight defensively, the Wings will irritate even the mightiest of attacks. After consecutive games of limited time and space, opposing forwards will grow frustrated with the constant pressure that they have to endure. A tough team to play against, opponents need to bring their very best against Motowns finest. But even that might be enough.

 

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