We are just over 2/3 of the way through the NHL season, and the Western Conference Playoff picture is shaping up about the way most experts would have expected prior to the season. How we have gotten to those top eight in the Wild West has been a bit more of a surprise.
Meanwhile, back east, to this point, the season has been defined by some unexpected performances with an up and coming team emerging for each underachieving star filled club that began the season with Stanley Cup aspirations.
If the playoffs were to begin tonight, only half of the clubs making it to the dance from the East would be returnees from the 2011 Playoffs. Meanwhile, out West, things would have remained much the same, with only the Ducks bowing out and the Blues making just their second playoff appearance since their historic run of consitency came to an end.
So here now is a look at the standings and what we would see IF the post season kicked off today. Who is in, who is out, and how we got here.
- San Jose
- St. Louis
- Los Angeles
At first glance, this looks like a TSN pre season ranking. However, if this is how we finish, it will be far from a wire to wire run for most clubs on the list. Before the Wings became nearly unbeatable at “The Joe," before the Canucks re-emerged as a Western Conference favorite, and before the Sharks got back to their usual regular season successful ways, the Wild and Stars started the season by taking the conference formerly know as the Campbell by storm. In the Twin Cities, it looked as though a series of off season trades with the Sharks would be just what the Wild needed as they raced out of the gate and were the hottest team in hockey through November. The club soon cooled and now find themselves in an all too familiar spot on the outside looking in as the post season nears.
Meanwhile, Joe Nieuwendyk and the cash strapped Dallas Stars managed to be one of the league’s most active clubs through free agency and seemed to have built a cost effective product as the season got underway. Unfortunately, their Cinderella run also soon came to an end and they now find themselves battling with the Wild and about five other clubs for the final two spots out West.
After finishing last season in 4th place in the West, The Anaheim Ducks got off to a tough start that cost one time Stanley Cup Champion Coach Randy Carlyle his job. Washington Capitals cast off Bruce Boudreau has since stepped in and after a slow start, has the Ducks 6-2-2 in their last 10 and with an outside shot at the 8th spot if they can get increased production from their talented vets and highly skilled young guns down the stretch.
To paraphrase former NFL coach Dennis Green, the rest of the Conference “Are what we thought they were!” The Flames will continue their battle for a playoff berth, the Avs have some young talent but are still a few pieces short, and the Edmonton Oilers continue their youth movement and ice one of the league's most exciting squads, but one that is still a year or two away from playing in the Spring.
While the cast of characters involved if the playoffs began today out West would be shocking to few, the race for the final two spots and hockey that ensues once they are locked up should be memorable as always.
- N.Y. Rangers
- Boston Bruins
- New Jersey
11. Tampa Bay
12. N.Y Islanders
We knew the Rangers would be a good club this year after adding the off season’s biggest free agent, Brad Richards, to an already talented roster. The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions who returned all but three regulars to their line up this season with plenty of cap space to continue to improve, a credit to their front office after seeing the destruction of line ups of previous NHL champions in recent years. The Flyers and Pens round out four of the top five spots to the surprise of few.
The remaining clubs who are currently “in,” or perhaps 4 of the clubs that are currently “out” are some of the biggest stories in the East.
In D.C., whether due to injury or other circumstances, the Caps stars have struggled to produce this season leading to Boudreau’s departure in late November as the team sat tied for 8th in the East. Mike Green has been limited to just 10 games due to injury and Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin are on pace to see a drop in production for the second year in a row. New Head Coach Dale Hunter will be challenged with getting the most out of his talented roster and making up ground in what to this point has been a lackluster season.
The Lightning seemed to have the right mix of youth and experience when they found their way to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, but this season has been a struggle and as the trade deadline looms, with the team 8 points out, they appear to be sellers. Dominic Moore was dealt yesterday to San Jose and Pavel Kubina has been asked to provide management with a list of teams he would like to go to.
The Canadiens gave the Bruins all they could handle when they took them to overtime of Game 7 in the opening round of last year’s playoffs, but little has gone right for the Habs since. Max Pacioretty has returned from injury and enjoyed a breakout year and newly acquired Erik Cole has played well in one of hockey’s toughest markets, but it is what hasn’t happened that has the club on the outside looking in. Captain Brian Gionta hasn’t played for almost half of the season due to injury. Scott Gomez hadn’t scored in a calendar year before finally finding the back of the net last week. And Mike Camallerri hadn’t come out for the third period in a game last month against the Bruins after being informed he would be heading to Calgary for a second stint with the Flames.
Finally, the Buffalo Sabres, a team that finished 7th in the East last year and always seems to be a less then desirable draw due to their style of play and excellent goaltending. New ownership in the off season committed to spending money to bring in reinforcements and bring Sabres fans a winner. Mission accomplished on the former. Unfortunately, the added dollars have not led to added W’s as Buffalo finds themselves battling with Carolina to stay out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
All of this disappointment could lead to elation for previously post season starved franchises and fan bases in Ottawa, Toronto, Florida, and New Jersey, providing an intriguing story line and some exciting hockey as we head down the stretch.