The only sport I’m not interested in is horse racing. That’s because I don’t know the horses personally — Nat King Cole
With a half-season under their belts, the horses in the 2013-14 NHL playoff race are in the middle of the back stretch, sprinting toward the far turn. Much like a typical horse race (granted, I consider racing one step above jai alai on the entertainment hierarchy), each conference has a few favorites out in front, with the majority of the entries smack-dab in the middle, jostling for position. Sure, it’s still early, but the pack is beginning to separate. Before long, they’ll be galloping down the home stretch.
Ok, now I’ve officially overdosed on the racing metaphors. Cue the hockey talk.
The conferences’ playoff positioning as of today
Were the season to end today, the playoff participants would be as follows:
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But the season doesn’t end today, does it? In fact, the odds of each and every one of these sixteen teams making the playoffs are pretty long, especially with a total of nine clubs within six points of the playoffs. So what three teams are the most primed for a second-half run? Glad you asked.
New Jersey Devils
With 22 playoff appearances in 26 years, five finals appearances and three Cups, there are a zillion fans out there that consider General Manager Lou Lamoriello a living legend. Well, there would be if “zillion” was an actual number, but you get my drift. His teams make the playoffs.
Why the Devils will make the playoffs
As of today, the Devils are tenth in the East, tied with the Rangers and Flyers with 40 points apiece. As you scurry to check the stats, you’ll find that it’s true: they score less often than a (insert your favorite joke line here). However, Ryan Clowe was just activated from the IR and scoring winger Damien Brunner will be back in about four weeks, both of which should give the offense a much-needed boost. Meanwhile, Travis Zajac can’t be in a scoring slump forever, and Adam Henrique may be just on the cusp of breaking out. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Lou Lamorello doesn’t miss the playoffs. Period.
Who the Devils would unseat: Watch out, Toronto. The Leafs are -3 in goal differential, are terrible on the penalty kill and the draw, have a bunch of road games left to play and don’t have hordes of reinforcements coming off the injury list.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Surprise! As the polar opposites of the Devils, I bet you didn’t see this one coming. The Jackets have made missing the playoffs a science, having done so all but one year since the franchise was founded. As of today, they stand 12th in the East, with their heads barely above water. Given that they’ll have to leapfrog over four teams, how on Earth can they make the playoffs?
Why the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs
The Jackets have had, both literally as well as figuratively, quite a few tough breaks this year. Nathan Horton is still recovering from offseason surgery; however, according to the Columbus Dispatch, may make his Blue Jackets debut in early January. Last year’s Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky has been out almost a month. And Marian Gaborik is out — again — this time with a broken collarbone.
Despite all that, the Blue Jackets have the eighth-best goal differential (-7) in the East, are respectable offensively (13th in the league) and aren’t terrible in any other area statistically. They are also warming up at the right time, going 7-4-1 over their past dozen games. They’ve got work to do, but they’re worth a sawbuck in Vegas, especially with their 65:1 odds to win the Cup.
Who the Blue Jackets would unseat: Philadelphia’s grasp on the final seed seems more than a little tenuous. It’s as good of a guess as any other team.
For some reason, Dallas teams are easy to dislike. Maybe it’s the ten-gallon hat thing, or because no matter what their record, the Cowboys always get too much prime time airplay. America’s team, my rear end. In any event, I can’t really say the same about the Stars, because although I wouldn’t call their team young (Ray Whitney skews the average team age all by himself), I think they are rebuilding the right way: youth in key positions, taking their lumps, and supplementing with veterans along the way. Besides, you have to feel for them: they have missed the playoffs five straight years.
Why the Stars will make the playoffs
The Stars have the league’s ninth-best offense. The defense is the dictionary definition of ‘pedestrian’, but Kari Lehtonen has stood on his head all season, so there’s that. The net result is a ninth-place position in the standings despite Dallas having played at home less than all but two other teams in the West. They are poised to squeak into playoff position if they can get Trevor Daley and Sergei Gonchar back relatively soon and take advantage of the remaining spate of home games.
Who the Stars would unseat:
Despite the fact that they are always in the playoff mix, I never understand how Phoenix does it. I still don’t. The Coyotes’ defense makes Dallas’ look like a whole bunch of Norris winners by comparison. Sure, Phoenix has the superior offense, but it’s not easy to lean on that as the games become more meaningful. Look for the Stars to usurp the ‘Yotes for the final playoff seed in the West.
Walter McLaughlin is a Los Angeles Kings correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He is an avid sports fan, having followed the Kings since living in L.A. in the mid-1970’s, as well as suffering through Seattle sports teams’ general futility. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and has worked in community banking for over 25 years, specializing in SBA loans. He is married and has two daughters.