When one looks at the standings one often gets an incorrect view of them due to the difference in number of games played. For example, Buffalo trails the Rangers by 3 points but this is deceiving because the Sabre’s actually have the better win percentage having played 4 fewer games. What I prefer to look at is how many games above .500 is each team. Here is what we get for the eastern conference.
Based on the above you see that Ottawa, Philadelphia, Montreal, Pittsburgh and New Jersey are all in very good shape to make the playoffs barring a major catastrophe for any of them. Beyond those teams you will get one team from the southeastern division making the playoffs. The edge would go to Washington because they currently have the best record but they are also playing the best hockey right now. But realistically none of the teams can be counted out as none of them are likely good enough to pull away from the pack and all are capable of sticking with the group. That will leave the final 2 playoff spots to be decided between Boston, Buffalo and the NY Rangers. I like Buffalo to make it because I think they have the most talent but they have also been the streakiest teams in the NHL this season with some really long winning streaks and some really long losing streaks. The Rangers have been really inconsistent as well looking like an elite team one night and a complete dud the next. Drury isn’t living up to his contract, Jagr is unpredictable and hasn’t found the chemistry with Gomez he had with Nylander, and Lundqvist is looking over worked. Meanwhile Boston has just been cruising along all season neither looking spectacular, nor looking bad. They have benefitted a lot from some great Tim Thomas goaltending and so long as that continues they have a great shot at the playoffs. The Bruins and Sabres have 3 games remaining against each other starting with a game tonight in Buffalo and ending with a game in Boston the final Saturday of the season. The Bruins also have one game against the Rangers while the Sabres play the Rangers three more times. These games could go a long way to determining which two of these teams makes the playoffs.
Now for the western conference.
The first thing you will notice is how rediculously good Detroit is. The second surprise might be Dallas in second spot. Some wrote them off as contenders early in the year when GM Doug Armstrong was fired but they have fought hard to keep pace with everyone but Detroit. I still think coach Dave Tippett deserves some serious coach of the year consideration for what he has done in Dallas this year and the past several years.
At this time last year in the western conference pretty much all 8 playoff spots were set. The Colorado Avalanche posted a late season surge to make it close but realistically at this point in the year last year the playoff teams were decided. This year is clearly different as only 3 teams, Los Angeles, Edmonton and Chicago would be considered very long shots to make the playoffs. If I had to guess I would say that St. Louis and Columbus are pretty good bets to miss the playoffs as well but of the other 10 teams anything can happen. Phoenix is currently 2 games back of Calgary but they have been one of the best teams in the NHL since they acquited Bryzgalov and have to be considered serious contenders for a playoff spot. Vancouver has struggled a bit recently thanks in large part to a rash of injuries on defense. Bieksa, Miller, Krajicek and Miller have all been out but if they can get a few of them healthy and in the lineup the Canucks should be in line for the post season. The teams that need to be watching the Canucks and Coyotes from below are the Avalanche, Nashville and Calgary as these are the teams I believe are most likely to fall. But the Avalanche are set to have Paul Stastny return from his apedectomy surgery on Saturday and Ryan Smyth should be returning from his broken ankle late February and Sakic may return from his hernia surgery in March so they have some postives happening too. Plus it would not surprise me if they win the Peter Forsberg sweepstakes which we may find out in the next week or two.
And speaking of Forsberg, that is where things get interesting. Where Forsberg decides to go could have a significant impact on trade deadline happenings, particularly if he chooses one of the bubble teams in the western conference like Colorado or Vancouver. It is going to be interesting to see how the teams react to where Forsberg ends up and whether they desperate move at the trade deadline to keep pace.