Eastern Conference Playoff Race

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Mar 052010

The Olympics are over and the trade deadline has come and gone without any hugely significant trades made on deadline day. With every teams rosters set I figured it was time to take a look at the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern conference and next week I’ll tackle the west.

Washington Capitals – The Captials appear to be the class team in the east as they currently hold a 14 point edge on second place Penguins. They added some role playing depth up front and skilled Joe Corvo on defense. I thought they could have used more of a shut down defenseman but I guess that isn’t the style of game the Capitals play. They are definitely an offense first team and Corvo fits more into that role. The questions I have are, can that style of play win in the playoffs and can their goalies give them enough consistencty to win. The 2010 Capitals are much like the 1980’s Oilers.

Pittsburgh Penguins – I think the Penguins are clearly the second best team in the eastern conference and adding Ponikarovsky and Leopold only solidify that. They are probably a better defensive team than the Capitals and have more reliable goaltending but may not have the scoring from the wings that the Capitals have which is where Ponikarovsky should help.

New Jersey Devils – New Jersey made the big spash before the Olympics by adding superstar Ilya Kovalchuk which will give them a much needed boost in the offensive zone. He and Parise give opposing teams two extremely skilled players to worry about which should open up more room for the Devils second tier forward. For me, the Devils defense is just average but they play such a good team defense that maybe that is good enough. The key for the Devils come playoff time is Martin Brodeur who is still a great goalie but has shown a bit of his age recently. Does he have enough left in the tank?

Ottawa Senators – Coach Cory Clouston has the Senators playing pretty good team hockey this year and it shows in the standings. I honestly don’t think they are this good and am still a little skeptical at their success but they haven’t fallen apart yet. They came close in November/December when they went through a lengthy slump and fell back into the playoff bubble crowd of teams but a superb January and early February led by stellar goaltending and a hot Spezza gave them a comfortable lead on the chase pack of teams. But, I am still not sold on their goaltending and we have seen how fragile that can be as Elliot and Leclaire have each been pulled in the Senators past 2 games. In my mind the Senators are an average team which if some things go right could pull a first round playoff win, but aren’t a true contender.

Buffalo Sabres – When it comes to the Sabres, success or failure usually begins and ends with Ryan Miller. So long as Miller is playing at the top of his game, the Sabres will have a shot at winning any game. Their offense is adequate as is their defense but there isn’t too much special there.

Philadelphia Flyers – The above 5 teams barring a significant slump are likely to be playoff teams. Starting with Philadelphia I think we are getting into bubble team status. As far as the Flyers are concerned, I think they have to be the big losers of the trade deadline because they didn’t address their most glaring need, goaltending. Now they didn’t really have the cap space to do so nor was there necessarily any quality goalies available but I just don’t think you can be that confident in having Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as your goalie tandem. Leighton has been great for the Flyers so far this year, but he is Michael Leighton. The Flyers should make the playoffs but I am not convinced they can be the serious contender they hoped they would be when they acquired Chris Pronger prior to the season.

Boston Bruins – I got a lot of flak before the season when I predicted the Bruins would take a significant step back from their 116 points and end up with just 98 this year. They are currently on pace for 88 so I may have underestimated their fall. Almost everything went right for them last season from stellar goaltending to far better than expected seasons from Krejci, Lucic and Wheeler. I figured that wouldn’t happen again and with the loss of Kessel it would hurt them significanty. All that and then some has come true and the Bruins have been downright dreadful offensively and Tim Thomas hasn’t been as good (though generally the Bruins have had very good goaltending). The Bruins are probably a playoff team, but that is far from a certainty with 20 games left.
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