by Trevor Whenham - 03/23/2006
The Eastern Conference has three kinds of teams - those that were expected to be good and are -- like Ottawa and Philadelphia -- those that were expected to be good and aren't -- like Toronto -- and those that are completely surprising in their success -- like Carolina, Buffalo and the Rangers. Five teams are secure in their playoff berth and are just fighting for seeding, while four teams are fighting for the other three spots. Three other teams, the Leafs, Panthers and Islanders, aren't completely out of contention and their fans hold out hope of rallying and getting in, but I don't. Here's a look at how the Eastern teams look as they head towards the playoffs:
Already In the Playoffs
Ottawa Senators - Ottawa is tied with Detroit for the best record in the NHL. They have slowed down significantly from the torrid scoring pace they set at the start of the season, but they can still score as well as anyone. Starting goalie Dominik Hasek has been hurt since the Olympics, but Ray Emery has filled the gap admirably. The loss of giant defensive superstar Zdeno Chara after he broke his hand in a fight could be huge. They are cruising to the playoffs, where they will have to shake off the ghost of years of playoff underachievement. If they don't go deep this year, the team will likely look very different next year.
Carolina Hurricanes - Anyone who says they knew that the Hurricanes would be good this year is lying. Eric Staal has been incredible offensively. They lost Erik Cole and his 30 goals to an ugly neck injury, but added veterans Doug Weight and Mark Recchi at the trade deadline. They have the scoring, the veteran depth and the momentum to be very dangerous in the playoffs. I wouldn't bet against them versus almost anyone.
Buffalo Sabres - No one saw this one coming. They have no explosive No. 1 scorer and few names that anyone outside of Buffalo knows, yet they have been surprisingly good all year. They are remarkably balanced and they have very solid goaltending with Ryan Miller and Martin Biron. They won't overwhelm anyone, but they will be a handful for whichever team ends up playing them.
New York Rangers - Yet again, here's a team that is much better than they were expected to be. Jaromir Jagr has rediscovered the scoring touch that makes him the best player in the league. The team is virtually a Czech national team, since so many of their players come from there. The cohesiveness that brings and the amazing goaltending of rookie and Swedish gold medallist Henrik Lundqvist mean that they will be tough to beat.
Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers have been good, but a ridiculous number of injuries to key players have stopped them from being better. Simon Gagne is among the league leaders in goals despite missing 10 games. Goaltending has been a bit of a disappointment and could really be a problem in the playoffs. They will make it easily and might even pass the Rangers for first in their division, but I don't get the feeling that this is their year.
Fighting for Their Lives
Tampa Bay Lightning - The defending champs have yet to recapture the magic of last season. They let goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin go in the offseason. That has proved to be a huge mistake. They were offensively explosive last season, but the new rules or something has made them far less potent. They are in sixth place and control their own playoff destiny, but they likely won't scare anyone in the first round if they make it. They look like they are playing without confidence.
New Jersey Devils - This is not a very inspiring team. They have only won four of their last 10, they are laughably bad on the road and they have few stars. They miss Scott Stevens, who retired, and Scott Niedermayer, who left in free agency, more than they would have thought. The X factor, of course, is Martin Brodeur. No matter what the stats are saying, Brodeur is the best playoff goaltender in the league (and maybe ever). He will make this team competitive, and should get them into the playoffs, but he will have to be especially good if they want to make an impact.
Atlanta Thrasher - Offensively, the Thrashers can match up with almost anyone. Ilya Kovalchuk is a great goal scorer and Marian Hossa and Marc Savard complement him nicely. Like many teams, though, they are questionably in the nets and they could certainly be better defensively. Kari Lehtonen is a very good goalie when he's healthy, but his groin is made of Spam, so he could get hurt at any time. It will be a dogfight with New Jersey and Montreal to get into the playoffs.
Montreal Canadiens - It has been an odd year in Montreal. The Canadiens have changed coaches, traded away their franchise goalie and suffered through a slump from leading scorer Michael Ryder. Yet, somehow, they are still alive. Cristobal Huet has been thrust into the starting goalie role as a rookie and he has been remarkable. They have only won four of 10, but they play the majority of their remaining games at home, where they have been very strong.
What will happen? My bet would be that Montreal will draw the short straw and go home early. It really won't matter. The bottom three teams will almost certainly lose in the first round anyway, leaving the powerful teams of the East to battle it out for Eastern supremacy.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's NHL picks service.