With playoffs less than three weeks, hockey fans all over the continent can hardly contain themselves — and with good reason — as the NHL playoffs continue to be the most watchable of all the major sports, and this year should be no different.
Let’s zoom in on the Eastern Conference where there’s no shortage of drama, while also having an elephant of epic proportions in the room.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins would be locks with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs holding the wild card spots. The biggest takeaway here is how top-heavy the Eastern Conference truly is with the top four teams all being within seven points of each other, with all being in the Metropolitan Division.
What does this mean? It means that one of those four teams, likely the Rangers, will get screwed and have to play the first round of the playoffs without home ice advantage even though they are noticeably better than the top three teams in the Atlantic Division. This isn’t just a standings or points thing either, the Rangers are 2nd in the league in scoring and will boast five 20-goal scorers by the end of the regular season. They will need to tighten up a bit on defense, but as long Henrik Lundqvist is between the pipes they can make a run. They roll out four lines all of whom can score so don’t sleep on the Blueshirts in April and beyond.
The team fighting the hardest will be Toronto, as they are only three points behind Boston in their division with a game in hand. The Leafs will be at risk of not getting in as both the Lightning and the Islanders are within two points, however, but Toronto does have a game in hand on both of the teams chasing them, so look for them to back into the playoffs and continue to be uninspiring as they have been for the last four decades.
Other teams that are down but not out include the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, both of whom are playing above .500 and worthy of at least being in the conversation. Again, it will come down to the last game of the season for many of the teams battling just to get in, but there’s a lot to be settled at the top as well.
The Montreal Canadians are the hottest team in the conference right now and will continue to be led by the goal-scoring ability of Max Pacioretty and the stinginess of Carey Price in between the pipes. This is a top-seven defensive unit as well so hopefully their streakiness doesn’t hit at the wrong end of the spectrum once the playoffs begin.
What everyone is truly going to enjoy, however, is the dogfight at the top of the Metropolitan Division between the Capitals, Blue Jackets and Penguins — three teams that have become all too used to each over the years.
The Pittsburgh Penguins boast the best offense, though it seems top-heavy at times with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni
Malkin accounting for just under 30% of their scoring. This could be trouble for the best snipers in the league as defense tends to tighten up in the playoffs. The Pens are also middle of the road defensively as well, which could prove to be costly for them.
The Columbus Blue Jackets bring some astounding balance to the table to go along with their heavy hitters on offense. Columbus is top five offensively and defensively and kill it with special teams as well. They flourish in close games and have no glaring weaknesses meaning they will be a tough to eliminate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Finally, the team that should scare everyone and not because they are a lock for anything that resembles a successful play off run — the Washington Capitals.
The problem is that we’ve seen the Capitals on multiple occasions be in a prime spot to succeed only to shatter even more hopes and dreams in the Nation’s Capital. This team is big, strong, fast, dominant, gets scoring from four lines, can score from the blue line and have the best goaltender in the league in Braden Holtby.
Their biggest weakness is themselves, however, as many players including Alex Ovechkin tend to shrink in big spots. This team is primed for another run, however, and players like T.J. Oshie appear to be ready to go despite missing significant time. A first-round match-up against Toronto could be just what the doctor ordered as this team is even better than any contending roster the Capitals have ever rolled out.
Not winning the Cup under these circumstances would be a disaster and the approval rating for Head Coach Barry Trotz is sure to spiral downwards.
Written by Des Boodram, Special to the Hockey Clan