The NHL All-Star Game takes place in Ottawa on Sunday (4 PM ET, NBC), so today the TheSportsNotebook takes a complete look at the NHL playoff picture. Teams are broken into three categories—the elite contenders, solid playoff teams and fighting for survival.
THE ELITE CONTENDERS
While anything is possible in the hockey playoffs, more so than any postseason this side of the NCAA Tournament, these nine teams are all legitimate Stanley Cup material. In parentheses are points, and rank within the conference overall…
EAST: NY Rangers (66, 1st), Boston (64, 2nd), Philadelphia (63, 4th): Note that the winner of the Southeast Division, whose teams are all further down the pecking order, gets the #3 seed, to the runner-up in the Rangers-Flyers race settles for fourth.
How much bad blood would there be in a Boston-NY Rangers conference final this spring? It would be the hockey extension of the Giants-Patriots or Yankees-Red Sox. And matching the Flyers up with either team guarantees more than a few sparks too. But I don’t see Philadelphia making a big run. Goaltending resulted in a late-season and playoff collapse last year, and the Ilya Bryzgalova hasn’t fixed the problem this time around. Philly’s got a good, cohesive front line that can score, and their team defense is respectable, but when your goalie’s save percentage is below 90, you aren’t going anywhere in the NHL.
Boston and New York offer a contrast in styles. While Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas is the one whose well-known, thanks to his Stanley Cup heroics last year and he’s legitimately one of the best in the game, the Rangers are much more dependent on Heinrich Lundqvist. They do have a top wingman in Marian Gaborik, but Boston is very deep at center, with its top three all excelling in the passing game and there’s better balance throughout. Yes, I’m a Bruins fan and therefore biased, but I believe that head-to-head, the B’s are the best team in the East.
WEST: Detroit (67, 1st), Vancouver (64, 2nd), St. Louis (65, T4th), Nashville (65, T4th), Chicago 64 (6th): Again, the vagaries of divisional alignment upend seeding here. The Central Division, with Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago is positively stacked.
Vancouver made the Finals last year, losing in seven games to Boston and tearing their own city apart over it. They have very skilled offensive players that start with the Sedin brothers. Henrik is one of the top assist men in the game at center, while Daniel is a finisher on the right wing, along with Alex Burrows. On the back line, Alexander Edler is a good passer from the defenseman spot. But the Canucks don’t do well at preventing shots, and while goalie Roberto Luongo can get hot, he’s not one of the league’s best. If Vancouver fails to get back to the Promised Land, it will be team defense that does them in. If they do make it, be assured you’ll be seeing SportsCenter highlights with Luongo racking up more saves than Mariano Rivera and bailing out his defense.
No team defense does a better job at preventing shots than St. Louis, and for that reason alone the Blues deserve admiration and respect. But the goaltending is average, the offense mediocre and the special teams subpar. Nashville’s put together a nice season and the work of goalie Pekka Rine, with a 92.5% save rate, gives you reason to think they could get hot. But they don’t do the basics well of getting shots and preventing them and the offense is way too reliant on the power play, which is the equivalent of a basketball team living and dying by the three-point shot. It can make you look really good when all’s going well, but it’s tough to win a sequence of playoff series that way.
Detroit and Chicago offer the intrigue here. The Blackhawks have arguably the best five-man unit in hockey, with Jonathan Toews at center, and Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane each playing the left wing. Toews is second in the NHL scoring, trailing only Steve Stamkos of non-contending Tampa, while Hoss and Kane each have 30-plus assists, and can help with the scoring. Defensively, the Blackhawks are sixth in the league at preventing shots. But when it comes to the bottom line of preventing goals, Corey Crawford has been a huge liability in the net. He’s the biggest thing standing between the city of Chicago and a second Stanley Cup in three years. Detroit meanwhile has a great goaltender in Jimmy Howard, and while not as spectacular as the Blackhawks in the rest of the lineup, they’re solid and steady. The one exception to this is the penalty-kill unit, which is an area championship teams have to succeed in.
I’ll still deal with Detroit’s weaknesses over anyone else and think they hold the top spot in the West standings and end up joining Boston as #1 seeds come April.
SOLID PLAYOFF TEAMS
It would take a major collapse for any of these teams to make the playoffs. They have strong enough position that they could still make a run into the league’s elite. And no matter what, they have dark horse potential in the playoffs.
EAST: Pittsburgh (60, T5th), Ottawa (60, T5th): The concussion to Sidney Crosby has kept Pittsburgh from moving up into the elite group and it’s one reason why I think center Evgeni Malkin deserves to be the MVP if the season ended today. Malkin’s got 26 goals/32 assists and, along with winger James Neal, has carried a team saddled with average goaltending. Ottawa is a team I expect to see move the other way before the season is over. They’re doing the job offensively right now, with center Jason Spezza and right-winger Milan Michalek, and left-winger Daniel Alfreddson, but the overall team defense is very poor, and the special teams is below average. Nor does Craig Anderson make anyone fearful in the net.
WEST: San Jose (60, 3rd), Los Angeles (7th, 58): These teams are fighting for the Pacific Division title, so whichever team wins will end up with the 3-spot in the playoffs, at least based on current standings. The Sharks are the better overall team, thanks to their ability to get shots, their 5-on-5 play when no power play is in effect and the veteran leadership of Joe Thornton, who has 30 assists at center. Los Angeles has the elite goaltender in Jonathan Quick and a top defense in front of him. I look for San Jose to win the division, but Los Angeles is the team I would fear dealing with in the postseason. The Kings’ defensive approach would make a great contrast with Vancouver if current form holds and the teams meet in the first round.
BATTLING FOR SURVIVAL
EAST: Florida (55, 3rd/T7th), Washington (3rd/T7th), New Jersey (55, T7th), Toronto (55, T7th), Winnipeg (50, 11th): Florida and Washington are tied for first in the Southeast Division and a look at the standings shows how much pressure there is in that race, with possibly only one team making the playoffs.
Washington has one of the league’s signature stars in Alex Ovechkin, even though he’s currently suspended a few games, boycotting the All-Star game over it and having a bad year on top of it all. The Caps have to improve their ability to get shots or the offense is going to dry up. Florida runs a good power play, and has a terrific passer on the backline in defenseman Brian Campbell. The Panthers could use a finisher offensively, but with the exception of Washington, so could every other team at this level. New Jersey still has veteran Martin Brodeur in goal, but this another case of a goalie with a sub-90% save rate that makes it hard to take the team seriously. Toronto has a suspect defense, but does have a good offense, with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel on the wings and their 5-on-5 numbers suggest they don’t need a power play to get a goal. The lack of defense means I wouldn’t bet on them in the playoffs, but I can see them scraping in. I included Winnipeg in this group to be nice and cover my posterior, but I see no playoff virtues in the Jets whatsoever.
The pick here at TheSportsNotebook is for Ovechkin to awaken and carry his team to a division title, and Florida and Toronto to grab the last two spots.
WEST: Minnesota (55, 8th), Colorado (54, 9th), Dallas (52, T10th), Calgary (52, T10th), Phoenix (52, T10th): Based on the current standings, only one of these teams can make it, so it looks like we know what the most exciting race will be down the stretch. I wouldn’t look for too much flash here, but Minnesota, Colorado, and Calgary all get above average goaltending. Dallas, Calgary and Phoenix all have at least one or two decent players in the regular five.
Calgary’s the only team on both those lists, so I’ll take them to grab the eight playoff berth out of the West. Presuming this race stays at is, TheSportsNotebook will be looking at these teams in considerably more depth in the weeks ahead.