A year ago, Philadelphia put on a clinic in momentum, turning their late surge into a season that played into June.
In 2011, the Flyers may put on a clinic in upsets, thanks to a stretch of poor play – a stretch of no momentum – heading into the postseason.
It’s a very legitimate scenario, and folks are taking lessons from past seasons and applying them to their Cup predictions for 2011. Many see the Flyers dropping in an early round if they can’t get themselves back into form, while San Jose may have their best chance at the Cup after enjoying a months-long stretch of white-hot play.
The Sharks struggled midway through the season, but seem to have learned from their hardships and have turned the lessons into a playoff-ready style of gameplay. The Capitals, too, have turned a soft first half into strong, playoff-style performances. Many analysts would point to those struggles and subsequent recoveries as the proper training for a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, while citing Philadelphia’s recent fall from grace as a cause for serious concern.
And why not? Last year, Pittsburgh and Washington walked into the postseason with relative ease, and each was handed an early exit thanks partly to uninspired play. Philadelphia and Montreal had to spend the final weeks of the season clawing their way into the dance – Philadelphia once sat last in the East in 2009-10 before Peter Laviolette’s hire – and those teams eventually met in the conference finals.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are the East’s last three Cup representatives, and in each of the last two seasons had to climb from a non-playoff position to get into the dance. In both instances, the clubs found themselves upsetting higher-seeded teams on their way to Finals appearances.
San Jose has spent a number of years breezing through the West during the regular season to find themselves bounced early by a motivated, battle-tested lower seed. Only last year did they finally make it to the conference finals, where they were swept by the eventual champion Blackhawks. Pundits are pointing to this season as the one where the Sharks can fly into the playoffs in the shadows – and everyone is under the shadow being cast by the Vancouver Canucks – and finally make some noise.
Likewise, the atmosphere in Philadelphia has reached Defcon-5 after the Flyers have gone into a shell over the past month. Washington has passed them for first in the East and has the inside track to keep the top seed, while Pittsburgh is within a point of the Atlantic title.
After spending three months at the top of the conference, a four-game losing streak puts the Flyers in real danger of finishing in fourth place. While fourth represents home ice for at least one round and is four spots better than their finish of a year ago, its a far cry from where the Flyers sat this time in February.
Teams which dominate the early parts of the season and limp into the playoffs haven’t enjoyed a great deal of success. New Jersey, Buffalo and Washington were last season’s Eastern Conference division winners, and each was bounced in the first round by a lower-seeded team which had entered the second season on a tear.
At this point, would anyone really bet the farm on the Flyers to quash the Buffalo Sabres, their current and likely first-round opponent?
In each conference, there are clubs who are roaring into the playoffs, and there are those who are limping in with nary a whimper.
Only Boston and Tampa seem set to enter the postseason while maintaining their season-long paces. As mentioned, Philadelphia is running dry at the wrong time. After dropping Pittsburgh at home in what was deemed a ‘statement game,’ the Flyers have choked out four straight losses to let the Penguins crawl back into things. Philadelphia has played about .500 hockey for the last month or so, no good after running with the conference lead during the first half of the regular season. Chris Pronger’s return could galvanize the team, but talk of ‘flipping the switch’ for the postseason is the sort of jargon that earned the Penguins tee-times last May.
Montreal and New York are two more clubs who are having a hard time down the stretch. The Canadiens have been ravaged on the blueline, and Carey Price is beginning to look tired after carrying the club all season. They don’t seem to have another miracle run in them. The Rangers have been wildly inconsistent. While they are 7-2-1 in their last 10, they’ve endured long scoreless streaks during that time. The loss of Ryan Callahan is devastating. It will take a Halak-like performance from Henrik Lundqvist to keep the Rangers alive past the opening round, should they make it that far.
Meanwhile, Washington, Pittsburgh and Buffalo are teams entering the dance at the right pace. Washington has been extremely consistent since coming out on the right side of Bruce Boudreau’s defensive experiments. The eight-game losing streak was bettered by a nine-game winning streak, and the Caps have moved to the first seed after ranking as low as sixth. Pittsburgh is 7-2-1 in its last ten games, winners of two straight and six of their last eight. Pittsburgh’s consistency has been remarkable given the slew of injuries. Pundits love to point to their consistency in the absence of the big two, but Crosby and Malkin represent only about 15 percent of the Penguins injured scratches since January.
Buffalo has been on a streak similar to Washington’s, moving from the deep lower-half of the Eastern Conference into a playoff position with a few days left. Buffalo hasn’t had a non-winning record in any month since December, going 24-10-5 in January, February and March. Winners of two straight and seven of ten (7-1-2), the Sabres have beaten Washington and Tampa Bay in recent games and have a match with the Flyers on Thursday. Even the loss of Ryan Miller hasn’t tempered their momentum.
Though they may well miss out on the dance, its worth mentioning Carolina’s recent hot streak, which has seen them win two sets of back-to-back matches and includes victories over Tampa Bay, Washington and Detroit.
In the West, nearly every playoff club could be called hot. A cold streak of any measure would leave a club on the outside looking in. Cold streaks on the left coast can be as short as one game. Such is life in hockey’s better half.
Everyone’s favorite sleepers, the San Jose Sharks seem set to make a deep playoff run (in spite of what Corey Perry managed to do to Antero Niittymaki earlier tonight). Vancouver seems likely to enter the postseason in the same fashion as the Bruins – consistent, playing very well, but not particularly hot or cold given their season-long tendencies.
Detroit, uncharacteristically, is finishing the home-stretch with perfectly lukewarm play. Wednesday’s loss a shutout defeat at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Red Wings’ recent record has been marked by high-points like the near-comeback against Pittsburgh and crushing lows as provided by the Nashville Predators. Los Angeles is in the same boat as Detroit – a strong club, playing reasonably well, but ripe for an early exit thanks to injuries. Anze Kopitar’s extended absence and Henrik Zetterberg’s new injury are the kinds of blows that can turn favorites into underdogs, especially given the top-to-bottom strength of the Western Conference field.
Chicago is an anomaly. The Blackhawks have been grossly inconsistent all season, running off stretches of non-playoff seeding, then reaching as high as fourth, and dropping to near-playoff misses again. The Hawks currently sit in the final spot and are very close to eliminating Dallas, but their play of late cannot be inspiring confidence in a fanbase looking to repeat.
On the other side of things, Nashville is enjoying hockey’s quietest 8-1-1 stretch. The Predators have been impossible to score on, ranking third in team defense and featuring one of the game’s best goalies in Pekka Rinne. As for statement games? No team in two decades had landed a ten-spot on the Wings until the Predators did it last week. Anaheim, too, is playing extraordinarily well. The Ducks have won seven of ten, their latest a 6-2 dismembering of a very hot San Jose club. Corey Perry has kept the league’s post-lockout streak of 50-goal scorers alive, and the offense looks to be among the best in the league – their fifth-ranked power play landed four man-advantage goals against the Sharks Wednesday.