With the NHL season winding down and the playoff races start to get tighter between fewer teams, let’s take a look at the playoff-bound and contending teams in the Eastern Conference. We’ll start with the preseason projections and see how all the teams are now in the playoff race.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins – Clinched No. 1 overall seed in the East and Atlantic Division title
Preseason scoop: “Pittsburgh Penguins – No doubt that the thought of a healthy and extra-motivated Sidney Crosby playing with defending MVP and scoring champ Evgeni Malkin is going to cause many coaches and players to lose some sleep in the coming weeks. The two-headed monster spearheads a potent offensive lineup with the likse of Kris Letang and James Neal hiding in Crosby and Malkin’s shadows. The big question for the Pens will be on the blueline, and in net after that colossal defensive breakdown versus Philadelphia in last year’s playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury will need to return to his dominant form from the regular season, and put that playoff series behind him.”
It didn’t go according to plan for the Penguins this year, but it’s clear that they are thinking cup or bust. Crosby has been sensational in all the games that he has played, and despite missing the last quarter of the season with a broken jaw, he is still likely to win the MVP.Reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin has battled injuries and inconsistency this season, but is getting plenty of time to fully heal down the stretch. General Manager Ray Shero went all-in around the trade deadline acquiring veterans Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla. The Pens are surely the team to beat in the East.
2. Boston Bruins – Clinched playoff berth and are neck-and-neck with Montreal for the No. 2 seed in the East and Northeast Division title
Preseason Scoop: “Despite former MVP and Conn Smythe-winning All-Star goalie Tim Thomas sitting the season out due to personal reasons, the Bruins are still sitting pretty in the drivers seat of the division. Tuukka Rask is a more than capable starting goaltender, and there won’t be much of a drop-off for the B’s in the crease. Zdeno Chara captains a roster that will see the return of a healthy Nathan Horton, who was dealing with concussion issues last season. The big, physical Bruins should be in control of the division from the get-go, especially if their offense starts hot.”
It has been an emotional season for the Bruins. They started by making a “paper trade” of Tim Thomas (although he was sitting out the year, he still counts against the salary cap, so he was dealt to the Islanders so New York could have more salary on the books and the Bruins would have cap room) early in the season. They have been battling with the Canadiens for the division all season, and that race will go right down to the wire. The big story about the Bruins this year is how they will bounce back long-term after the terrorist attack and subsequent man-hunt through the streets of suburban Boston, causing them to have to postpone two games. When play returned to the TD Garden, emotions ran high and were capped by a touching rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Boston crowd. With the situation over, and the season winding down, look for the Bruins to get back to business and try and lock up the Northeast.
3. Washington Capitals – Three points ahead of Winnipeg for the Southeast Division with three games left
Preseason Scoop : “Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Caps look to find their winning ways again. A perennial playoff team, and often times a legitimate threat to win it all, the Caps have kept finding ways to blow it. They have yet to put a significant playoff run together, and their goaltending can go from perfect to disastrous in a matter of days. Loaded upfront with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and new addition Mike Ribeiro, the Caps cut dead weight in Alex Semin, and Braden Holtby proved in last year’s playoffs that he is a franchise-caliber goalie. If Backstrom can shake his concussion issues from last year, and defenseman Mike Green and Ovi can find their form from a couple years ago, and solid role players like Brooks Laich can hold the fort in the defensive zone, the Caps can be a truly dominant team.”
The Caps struggled mightily early in the year and at one point, looked to be a lottery pick. They were losing game after game in ugly ways, letting stupid penalties and disastrous turnovers doom them, and the goaltending was nowhere to be found. Brooks Laich was hurt for most of the year, and Alex Ovechkin’s production was OK, but his desire came into heavy question. Now, Ovechkin has hit the 30-goal mark, which is good for a player in ANY season, let alone a 48-game one (in which he still has three games left). The Caps, if they get in, are going to be very dangerous come playoff time. They’ve gotten hot at the right time, winning nine of their last 10, and Ovi and Mike Green have found their potent offensive forms. Only question will be goaltending for the Caps (as it is for every team).
4. Montreal Canadiens – Clinched playoff berth, battling with Boston for the Northeast Division
Preseason Scoop: “It was a rough season last year for the Habs that saw them finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, and third-worst in the entire league. There is not too much reason to believe this year will be much better. Young star defenseman and future franchise player P.K. Subban has yet to report to camp as a restricted free agent, and the Habs feature an aging lineup of veterans with some young upstart players like Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty. Unless Carey Price can stand on his head night in and night out and steal more than his fair share of games, the 48-game season will feel like an 82-game season in hockey’s promised land.”
Time to eat a little crow on this one. I completely wrote off the Habs at the beginning of the year, and totally underestimated the effect that new coach Michel Therrien would have on Montreal. He got the most out of every player on that roster on a nightly basis, including rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. PK Subban finally signed after a holdout, and now leads the Canadiens in points on the year and is a budding star in the NHL. Carey Price has stolen his fair share of games for them this year, but the majority of the Habs wins have been team wins. As of late however, Montreal has fallen into some inconsistency and some troublesome goaltending. Many feel that Montreal overachieved early in the year, and it’s possible it did. It is also possible that it is just hitting a rough patch that nearly every team has hit and will snap out of this in time for the postseason.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs – Clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2004.
Preseason Scoop: “The hockey-crazed city of Toronto has been desperate for a winner, and this year maybe its year. To say Toronto is a longshot to win the Cup may be an understatement, but I for one am a beLEAFer. After a monumental collapse late last season, Toronto may be a team to benefit from a shortened season. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul had fantastic seasons last year and look to pick up where they left off. The forward unit is bolstered by the addition of James van Riemsdyk who was traded at the draft from the Flyers for Luke Schenn. While Schenn will be a tough loss, the blueline was and is the Leafs deepest spot, and JVR is a stud. Of course, we can’t for get to mention that James Reimer needs to be lights out. If the Leafs get into the postseason, you never know what could happen.”
After my “eat crow moment”, here comes the “I told you so moment.” Despite Phil Kessel starting off horribly slowly, and Joffrey Lupul missing a huge portion of the season with a broken arm, the Leafs have returned to the postseason for the first time since 2004, and they are a team that could make some noise. James Reimer has stood tall in net for the Leafs all year, and while they could finish as low as eighth still, look for them to take the fifth seed. Kessel has come on lately and since returning from injury, Lupul has been nearly unstoppable. James van Riemsdyk has been phenomenal for the Leafs, and Nazem Kadri finally had his breakout year in the NHL, showing that they were right to develop him slowly. You have to feel for former GM Brian Burke though, who was fired at the beginning of the year (for refusing to trade for Roberto Luongo according to the rumor mill), he was the one that put this team together, and his last move as GM (trading Luke Schenn to acquire JVR) was arguably his best move yet as GM.
6. New York Islanders – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.
Preseason Scoop: “An intriguing team to watch, the Islanders have been a perennial basement dweller in the Atlantic, however they boast an emerging star in John Tavares, backed up by the likes of Matt Mouslon and Michael Grabner. The Islanders are a young team that may benefit from playing every other night, and if they develop of winning streak early, they can be a contender for a playoff spot.”
Again, not many saw the Islanders contending for the playoffs, but for us here at TC4, we are not surprised. John Tavares continued his development as a former first-overall pick to quietly emerge as an MVP candidate. Tavares is 14th in the league in points with 45, but is third in the league in goals with 26, and has really come on the second half of the season. The captain-in-waiting of the Isles has been tremendous, and his supporting cast has done the job too. Moulson has kept pace with Tavares in points with 42, and free-agent signee Brad Boyes has been effective, posting 32 points. Goaltending has been the crutch to this team as Evgeni Nabakov (who refused to even join the team in 2010-11 when it picked him up off of waivers) is tied for the league lead in wins with 32. If he can get to 33 wins, the Isles will be headed to the dance.
7. Ottawa Senators – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.
Preseason Scoop: “The Sens present one of the most balanced lineups in the NHL. They’re backstopped by Craig Anderson in net, who is one of the most underrated keepers in the league. In addition, the feature a balanced forward lineup of veterans like Daniel Alfredsson , Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Chris Neil that compliment defending Norris Trophy champion Erik Karlsson’s solid D corps. Injuries have taken a chunk out of the D corps however, and those suiting up will have to play to their max ability right from the hop for the Sens to compete for the division.”
Every player mentioned in our preseason preview for the Senators has missed an extended period of time, with key forward Jason Spezza and defending Norris champ Erik Karlsson still out of the lineup. Injuries have been the storyline for the Senators all season long, but despite having an injured list equal to their active roster, the Senators are in good position to make the playoffs. With only three games left, and a three-point lead over the ninth-place team, their fate lies in their hands, and they are getting healthy. Anderson is back, playing at his Vezina-worthy level, leading the league in GAA and save percentage, but he may have missed too much time due to injury to win the Vezina. If Ottawa gets in, it can present a tough matchup for any team because of Anderson’s play.
8. New York Rangers – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.
Presseason Scoop: “ It’s Stanley Cup or bust for the Rangers this season. After having an impressive season last year despite under-production from superstar free-agent signee Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist was lights out and carried them to the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, the Broadway Blueshirts have added yet another star in Rick Nash, and feature an impressive young blueline with Michael Del Zotto, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi. Up and down, the Rangers boast the most formidable lineup in the Eastern Conference.”
The most surprising team in a certain position, the New York Rangers are teetering on the edge of the playoff picture, currently sitting in the final position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They underachieved for most of the season, and many were wondering if coach John Tortorella, only a year removed from the Eastern Conference Finals, was on his way out of Broadway. Underachieving star winger Marian Gaborik was shipped out of town, and star defenseman Marc Staal suffered a terrible eye injury after taking a shot to the face, and his return this season is questionable at best. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Rangers are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, and seem to be catching fire at the right time. There is no room for error anymore, which has them playing “playoff hockey” early, and if they can get in, WATCH OUT. Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational all season and is the single biggest reason that the Rangers are still in the hunt, and not talking golf with the Lightning, Panthers and Flyers. Everyone’s preseason pick for Eastern Conference champs still may pull through.
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