As we did for the Western Conference, we are going to take a look at the Eastern Conference in the playoff race. With about 28 games left for most teams, its getting close to put up or shut up time. Let’s see who’s seasons are done, who’s are just getting started, and who is sitting on the bubble.
All But Dead: Toronto, Columbus, Buffalo. Unfortunately for these teams, their seasons have the writing on the wall already. Barring a miracle, they will miss the playoffs, and quite honestly it’s not even close.
Toronto is a bit disappointing. The second wealthiest franchise in the league, yet they seem to always be short on talent. Right before the trade deadline they were able to unload Dion Phaneuf and his contract and pick up some young pieces for him, but their season has been a disappointment. Everyone thought Babcock coming in to coach was going to save the franchise, unfortunately it is not going to happen this season.
Columbus looked like they were on their way up in the past few seasons. They were starting to win games and compete for playoff position. That all seemed to come crashing down this season. Lackluster play and lackluster coaching led to a change just weeks into the season. They brought in Tortorella to help shape this young team up, however he just seems to not be able to get through to his guys. I don’t see his tenure lasting long, but I’d give him a full season before showing him the door.
Buffalo has been a bottom feeder in the East for the past few seasons, but there was talk around the league that this season was going to be a breakthrough one. With the additions of Evander Kane at the deadline last season and the drafting of Jack Eichel at #2 overall, you got the sense they were in a win-now mode. Unfortunately, that winning mentality will have to wait till next year.
Out and Not Getting In: Philadelphia, Carolina, Ottawa. These guys are out of the top 8 and they do not have enough firepower to overcome the point differential in the standings with only a quarter of the season left.
Philadelphia is the team I just cannot figure out. They have talent, they have goaltending, they just cannot win. Giroux had another all star season, Mason was decent in net, but not great, and the surprise of the bunch was rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere out of Union College (NY). I think they are going to be a rebuilding team next year also, especially since they brought in a new coach this season, but they have a bright future ahead.
Carolina is another team that hit the floor after winning the Cup and haven’t recovered since. Their best players, the Staal brothers, are really among the only pure talent they have. Unfortunately they don’t play in a great hockey town, every night there seems to be more visiting fans than home team fans, and in an atmosphere like that its hard to make a post season push. Sorry boys, maybe next year.
Ottawa looked like they were on the cusp last year. They have the best offensive-defensmen in the NHL in Karlsson, they have a young bunch of guys and they just acquired Phaneuf at the trade deadline. However, it is just going to be too little too late. However, with the Karlsson/Phaneuf defensive pairing next season, along with their bruising third and fourth lines, I look for them to compete for a wild card spot next season.
Pretenders Disguised as Contenders: Montreal, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston. These teams all appear they are in the playoffs and I understand that once you’re in, anything can happen, but I don’t think these guys have enough to contend for the Eastern Conference title this year.
Montreal is the surprise of the bunch. Currently sitting at 8th in the standings, they are in, but by a hair. Coming into this season, they were the favorites to win the Atlantic Division and most likely the conference. Injuries and lack of production have slowed them down, but with Subban, Pacioretty and then price in net, I don’t count them out, but I don’t have the same confidence in them as I did before the season.
New Jersey has had a surprisingly great season. John Hynes has done a fantastic job with his young team in his first year behind the bench for the Devils. Cory Schneider has had a great season between the pipes, rightfully earning him an all star appearance. Their youth and inexperience will knock them out early in the playoffs but they will be back. Bright future ahead for the boys in red.
Pittsburgh is always dangerous in the playoffs, but they aren’t the team they used to be. They are very young, they have a new head coach that took over mid season, and their veterans are not performing like they once did. Crosby aside, Malkin’s production has slowed, the Phil Kessel acquisition doesn’t look like it’s panned out, and Fleury in net has been shaky to say the least the past four seasons. I see Pitt getting knocked out early.
Tampa Bay had a magical run last season, one that took them all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately they won’t see that happen again this season. Ben Bishop has been good, but not great, this season. Steven Stamkos has has another solid year, but he isn’t the player he once was. Their run was carried by one forward line, and Tyler Johnson, the guy in the middle of it all, just doesn’t have the magic this year.
Boston is the one team I hesitated to put in this category because come playoff time they might be the scariest team. For some reason they are always able to find that post season magic and make a solid run. However they no longer have Milan Lucic who went to LA, Chara hasn’t been great, and Tukka Rask hasn’t been the same shut down goaltender we’ve come to expect. They aren’t built for a run, not this season.
The Contenders: Washington, Florida, NY Rangers, Detroit, NY Islanders. These guys have been the leaders of the pack for most of the season. There are some surprises and some recent regulars, but one thing is for sure, the Eastern Conference champion comes from this group.
Washington is the team that cannot be stopped right now. They are a train without breaks, that is rolling through the regular season. Alex Ovechkin is having another magical season, Holtby looks like the clear-cut Vezina Trohphy winner. They have skill, speed and toughness. The light up the scoreboard with the most points per game and the best power play in the NHL this year. I’m not sure if there is a team that can stop them.
Florida is the team I am hesitant to call a true contender, mostly because they came out of absolutely nowhere. Jaromir Jager has gone to the fountain of youth and returned with a vengeance. I’m not sure the man will ever retire, nor can I put my finger on the reason for success, but its working. PS. its probably the mullet. But their youth and veteran mix is fantastic, and not to be overlooked, Roberto Luongo has found new life in the Sunshine State.
The NY Rangers are the reigning Presidents Cup winners, only to have their run stopped short in the ECF last year. They return most of their team from last season, but they don’t seem to be as dominant as they were. The thing that truly makes them a contender is Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. If he is healthy they always have a chance. Assuming they get healthy, don’t trade Keith Yandle at the deadline, and can figure out how to score, they are definitely a top contender.
Detroit is the team that just quietly moves along and gets the job done. They remind me of the St. Louis Cardinals in the MLB, they just seem to win but don’t get the recognition they probably deserve. Dylan Larkin has arrived to the NHL and he is taking it by storm. He lights the lamp on a consistent basis, and with the great vets they have on the roster, I believe they are poised to do damage in the playoffs.
The NY Islanders are still the little brother of the Rangers in New York, but they are growing up. John Tavares is one of the best players in the NHL who, like a lot of guys, doesn’t get the attention he deserves. They can beat you multiple ways, one night they’ll outscore you in a shootout and the next they will beat you one to nothing. Their penalty kill is number two in the NHL and that will keep them alive in tight games.
Eastern Conference Finals: Washington vs. NY Rangers
Eastern Conference Champion: Washington
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