Handicapping the NHL Playoff Races
by Trevor Whenham - 3/29/2012
We’re down to the nitty gritty in the NHL playoff hunt. No team has more than six games left, and Colorado has only three. Despite the approaching season finale, though, the bottom end of the playoff picture is wide open. Three teams are hunting for two spots in the East, and six teams are fighting for three berths in the West. Here’s how the two races play out:
In the East it’s a battle between three teams for the final two spots, though it seems increasingly clear which teams will be the final two. Ottawa sits in seventh place with 88 points. Buffalo trails by two points, and Washington sits two points back out of the playoffs. All three have played 77 games.
Ottawa came into this season without a lot of hope. It has been a rough few years for Senators’ fans, and it seemed like more of the same was on the way. This team has been a pleasant surprise, though.
Jason Spezza has led the way with his brilliant play. He has 81 points and has scored a few jaw-dropping goals along the way. He’s the heart-and-soul of a team that has lacked that for a while now.
Spezza was supposed to be an offensive spark, but the biggest shock on this team has been defenseman Erik Karlsson. The 2008 first-round pick had been only mediocre in his first two years. This year he has 76 points in 76 games, and he is at +30. He’s been an absolute beast.
The biggest concern coming into the year was their goaltending, but a cobbled-together solution of large doses of Craig Anderson with a little Alex Auld and a brilliant in-season acquisition of Ben Bishop from St. Louis has performed admirably well and is a big reason why they are where they are.
Ottawa will make the playoffs and will be a tough matchup once they get there.
Buffalo is in the midst of a remarkable recovery. On Feb. 16 they sat in 14th in the conference, and were 10 points out of the playoffs. Since then they have gone 14-3-2, and they could be the first team since the 1994 Islanders to overcome a double-digit February deficit to make the playoffs.
The formula for their success isn’t surprising — they got over the massive injury issues that plagued them early, all-World goalie Ryan Miller discovered his game after injuries and form issues crippled him early, and they have been almost unbeatable on the road (11-3-1 in their last 15 after going winless in 12 road games in a row before that).
They unquestionably have momentum.
Then there is Washington. The Capitals are the most frustrating team I remember in a long, long time. They were the strong favorites to win the Stanley Cup coming into the season, and they were my Stanley Cup pick as well. I felt great about that pick.
Despite an incredible amount of talent, though, the team started off poorly and has never recovered. Alexander Ovechkin is a shell of his former self, and his malaise has spread throughout the whole team.
They play inconsistently and without intensity. It cost Coach Bruce Boudreau his job, but that hasn’t helped — they aren’t playing any better under Dale Hunter.
Injuries have been a factor, but pathetic play has been the much bigger issue. To overcome Buffalo in their last five games they’ll have to play lights-out hockey, and I just don’t feel like they can at this point.
The East is civilized compared to the wild show that is the West. Dallas sits in third as the current Pacific Division leader, but the Stars have just 89 points. L.A. and San Jose hold the final two spots with 88 points. Phoenix is just one point back, with Colorado another point behind, and Calgary one more point back.
The first three teams have five games left, while Colorado has three and Calgary has four.
Dallas has been one of the best stories of this season. I expected very little from them this year, and I certainly wasn’t alone.
They just won’t quit, though.
They share the offensive load — four guys have between 61 and 70 points. Kari Lehtonen has been solid in net.
There are areas of concern — like the fact that their +1 goal differential is by far the worst of Western Conference playoff teams. They also have the worst possible schedule down the stretch — three road games at potential playoff teams in Vancouver, Nashville, and San Jose, and home against San Jose and conference leaders St. Louis.
Vancouver and St. Louis are locked in a battle for home ice advantage, and San Jose is fighting for their playoff lives as well, so none of those games will be easy. I want Dallas to make it, but they could easily fail given that.
It wasn’t generally a good year for my preseason prognostication. I was very high on the Kings and the Sharks, and was sure that one of the two would lose to the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals. The good news is that at least one of those teams — and my bet is on two — will make the playoffs unlike the Capitals.
The Kings are wildly talented — and only got better with the addition of Jeff Carter. They started the year like they were believing their own hype, though, and they looked sloppy.
Strong goaltending recently has really helped their resurgence, but the credit has to go to new Coach Darryl Sutter. He was brought in to save the season, and though his no-nonsense style took a while to take hold the team is now firmly in his grasp. They are 7-3 in their last 10, and have allowed the second-fewest goals in the league.
They will make the playoffs, and will be tough to beat.
San Jose is about as talented as the Kings — though I give L.A. a slight edge. Like the Kings, though, they had no real excuses coming into this season but they played without real fire or intensity until recently. Even now they aren’t particularly sharp.
The Sharks are certainly talented enough to make it, but theirs is the playoff spot that is wide-open at this point. The chances are that they will hold on, but it is far from certain.
Their biggest advantage is that they control their own fate more than any team. Their last five games are against Phoenix, Dallas twice, and the Kings twice to close out the year. That means that in each game they can damage the hopes of another playoff seeker and really bolster their own case.
I’m not sure I believe in this team, but if they are good enough then they have the opportunity to show it.
If Phoenix doesn’t make it they will have no one to blame but themselves. They have been inside the Top 8 for much of the year, but only recently have slid thanks to flat play — 4-2-4 in their last 10.
Of course, they don’t really seem on paper to have the talent to be a playoff squad in this conference, so you could argue that they are just realizing their potential now.
They are a team that has thrived in an underdog role in recent years, though, so they could rally. They have tough games against San Jose — a massive game on Thursday night — and St. Louis, but Anaheim, Columbus, and Minnesota should be much easier opponents.
They need to be better than they have been, and they really need to beat San Jose, but Phoenix is absolutely not out of it. In fact, given what the others face down the stretch, I think Phoenix can and will sneak in.
Colorado is just going to run out of time. Only three games left means that absolutely everything would have to break their way. They can start that off with a Friday night win in Calgary, but then they have five days off to wait and get rusty before their final two. They haven’t been sharp recently, they are young, and they don’t have the talent to match the Kings or Sharks. I think it’s over.
The Flames are just pathetic. For the third year in a row they have mounted a late charge to make the playoffs, but for the third year in a row they will fall short.
This year is the worst, though, because despite some success early in March they just don’t look like they care. They had a huge opportunity Wednesday night when they hosted the Kings, and they should have been fired up since former GM Darryl Sutter is now coaching the Kings. However, they came out totally flat, never got rolling, and lost, 3-0.
There isn’t a team that needs to be blown up and rebuilt more than Calgary, and they are absolutely not a playoff team.
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