For the most part, the NHL Eastern Conference playoff picture has been set in stone for quite some time. Although the seeding is not clear yet, seven teams in the East are basically in the playoffs, barring a monumental, double-digit losing streak.
The Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings will take the top three spots in the Atlantic Division in some order, while over in the Metropolitan Division, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers are in a good position to take the top two spots. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will be battling for the third spot, and the loser will end up getting the first wild card slot. There will be some shuffling amongst those teams come the end of the season, but it’s the eighth seed where things get interesting.
With less than 20 games to play, there is no clear-cut favorite primed to take the eight spot in the East. The Boston Bruins are the odds-on favorite to take the spot. They have been a perennial playoff team for the last seven years, but they aren’t the powerhouse the NHL is used to seeing this year. Despite maintaining a solid defense and fairly decent goaltending with Tuukka Rask, Boston ranks near the bottom of the league in goals per game and power play percentage.
Shootouts haven’t been the Bruins’ friend this year either, as they have dropped numerous points due to their inability to put games away before overtime ends. David Krejci’s and Brett Connoly’s recent injuries have also put a Bruins team that needs everything to go right in a very bad position. With three teams breathing down their neck, the Bruins must find a way to hit their stride and power through the injuries, or they could find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.
One of the teams looking to take that spot away from the Bruins is the Florida Panthers. The young team has kept itself in the mix in the East thus far despite being in the bottom half of the league in most major categories (goals per game, goals against per game, power play and penalty kill percentage). The recent addition of Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils has given the Panthers the surge in offense that they needed to bring themselves one step closer to being a potential playoff team, but the injury bug has struck them in a big way also.
The Panthers recently lost their goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya on the same night, and are actually holding open tryouts for the backup position at their arena. Luongo has been one of the main reasons the Panthers have been able to tread water with their at times anemic offense, and his injury could end the Panthers’ playoff chances very quickly.
Then there are the Philadelphia Flyers, who after a rough start to the season also find themselves in striking distance of a playoff spot. Sporting one of the best power plays in the leagues, the Flyers’ man advantage is one of the biggest assets on their team. Aside from that, though, their team has plenty of issues. Their penalty kill is under 80 percent, and they are in the bottom 10 in goals per game and goals against per game on the season.
Goaltending is extremely important down the stretch and in the playoffs, and I don’t see the tandem of Steve Mason, Rob Zepp and Ray Emery being enough to carry this team into a playoff spot. Maybe Philadelphia’s power play will be enough to steal them a few games, but if their defense and goaltending doesn’t improve, they won’t be any better than ninth at the end of the season.
The most interesting case of all has to be the Ottawa Senators. Currently one of the hotter teams in the NHL, Ottawa has had its share of turmoil this year. Firing head coach Paul MacLean early on in the season, the Senators find themselves in a position to potentially make the playoffs with their recent play. Much like the Panthers the Senators saw their goalie tandem of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner go down with injuries, but the Senators had something the Panthers didn’t: Andrew Hammond.
The twenty-seven-year-old rookie net minder has been lights out for Ottawa over the last few games, sporting an under two GAA and putting the Senators in a position to win night in and night out. If the teams ahead of them continue to trend downward, Ottawa could end up surprising a lot of people and making the playoffs.
The NHL playoffs are always exciting, but the race to them could be just as exciting some years. And, given the way the eighth spot in the East is shaping up, it seems like we’re in for an exceptional March and April.