The 82 game regular season of the NHL is played to determine which eight teams from each conference earn the right to play in the real season – The NHL Playoffs. Since I cover the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers, this exercise will be limited in scope to the Eastern Conference. It is understood that since the 2004-05 lockout year, the other conference has won seven of the ten Stanley Cup Finals, including the last four straight.
Taking that into consideration and one could ask why even bother trying to predict the NHL Playoffs participants from the Eastern Conference? It isn’t as if they have a chance against the conference that shall remain nameless. Your indulgence is requested as perhaps this could be the year for the Eastern Conference Champion to begin a new trend. Stranger things have happened in the world of sports.
As things currently stand the Washington Capitals are the Beasts in the East. They are the odds-on favorite to win the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points in the regular season. There is little doubt that Coach Barry Trotz has communicated to his players that while this accomplishment is noteworthy, this isn’t the hardware that they are playing for this year.
The Capitals have the league’s most prolific goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin and one of the better young goalies in Braden Holtby. Washington has had a reputation over the last few years as being regular season princes and playoff paupers. To avoid an early round knockout, they added several postseason veterans such as Mike Richards and Justin Williams who have five Stanley Cup championships between them and T.J. Oshie who has 30 games of playoff experience in the other conference. To bolster their blue line, the Caps added defenseman Mike Weber from Buffalo in a trade deadline deal. Barring a complete collapse, Washington should be the number one seed in the East.
The rest of the Metropolitan division is up in the air with less than a month left in the regular season. That said, both New York teams should be in as the Rangers and Islanders are fighting for second place. Both of these teams have a few points on the rest of the division and appear to be more contenders than pretenders. Having played in the playoffs last season, the Rangers and Isles both know what it takes to finish strong and battle for the postseason.
After that, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Carolina are battling for the Wild Card spots. Carolina is the surprise here especially behaving as sellers during the recent trade deadline. Trading three solid NHL veterans in longtime captain, Eric Staal to the Rangers, forward Kris Versteeg to Los Angeles and defenseman John-Michael Liles to Boston. The Hurricane find themselves four points out of the last Wild Card spot with 14 games to play yet they may have traded themselves out of the playoffs.
Although Philadelphia is getting hot at the right time of year, the Penguins would be the team to beat after the top three spots in the Metro. After a slow start, Sidney Crosby has had a monster second half and now that Evgeni Malkin is back from injury, the Pens have the experience, talent and will to secure a playoff berth.
The top three spots in the Atlantic have changed more often than some players change their socks in the last two weeks. Boston now occupies first place after taking over from Tampa Bay this past week. The Lightning took over from Florida after they went on a nine-game winning streak. At this moment, one point separates the three teams and it should continue to go down to the wire the rest of the season.
Ultimately, I believe it will come down to Boston and Tampa Bay. Both have the recent playoff experience that Florida lacks. Both the Bruins and Lightning have been surging recently while the Panthers been treading water. While Florida should make the playoffs, it should be the other two in the Atlantic fighting for the top two spots.
The only other team in the division that has a shot at the playoffs is the Detroit Red Wings. Since they seem to be playing themselves out of the top three divisional spots, their streak of 24 consecutive post-season appearances could be in jeopardy. Fans in Hockeytown may not be willing to utter these words but April tee times might just be a reality this year for the Wings for the first time since the George H.W. Bush presidency.
The push in the last 10 – 15 games begins in earnest now in the NHL. For the Eastern Conference teams, that means that the jockeying for position for seven of the eight spots is on assuming there won’t be a Washington collapse. The marathon of 82 regular season games is in the home stretch and the final standings will determine opening round match ups.
The remaining games will have playoff implications as the Rangers play 11 potential playoff teams in their 14 remaining games. For the Islanders, it is 13 contenders in 16 games. For the Bruins, it is nine of 12 and for the Lightning, who may have the best shot at the Atlantic title with only six potential playoff opponents in their remaining 14 games.
Between now and the second week in April, it will all come to a head. The real season will be upon us. Playoff beards will be in full bloom. It will be time to play for the toughest trophy to win in all of sports – The Stanley Cup.
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