So far, the NHL season has had it’s fair share of plot twists and surprises. From the trade that sent Thomas Vanek to the Islanders, to Steven Stamkos breaking his leg on a goalpost. From Shawn Thornton receiving a 15 game ban for mugging Brooks Orpik, to a drunk Blackhawks fan stealing Adam Pardy’s helmet. Much has happened so far, and here are some predictions of how it will lay out in the end.

Metropolitan Division

Obviously, the Penguins are a playoff team. We’re also fairly certain of the Capitals being there. Since the Atlantic is much stronger, they will likely have both wild card spots from the East. That leaves one spot for the rest of the division to fight for. Let’s look at each of the contenders:

Philadelphia Flyers – After a tumultuous start, where they lost their coach and top scorer Claude Giroux took 15 games to score a goal, they seem to be piecing it together. Steve Mason has been solid in net for them, and a little bit of stability in net goes a long way for these guys. However, the lack of discipline these guys can have could easily be an Achilles’ Heel. They take 17.2 penalty minutes on average per game, which is most in the league, and 3 more than the next highest team, the Blues. Their 12th ranked penalty kill has done well, but continual overworking of them will wear them down and hurt them later on.

New York Rangers – They just extended goalie Henrik Lundqvist for 7 more years, and already he’s been put under the microscope. His numbers this year are well below his career averages so far, and has received some very ill criticism from Rangers fans and the media. The truth is, it isn’t all his fault. No one’s sure that the team in front of him will show up on any given night. They’ve had games where they picked apart the Minnesota Wild, and games where they rolled over to the New York Islanders. They have to stick to one trend if they want to see continued success, and not just wavering between one or the other.

New Jersey Devils – In my honest and unbiased opinion (despite me being a Devils fan), I honestly think that the Devils have the best of the rest potential in this division. They have tremendous discipline, taking the fewest penalties per game with just 7.8, and have the 6th best penalty kill when they do get penalized. Their offense doesn’t scare anyone, on average taking the fewest shots per game, but they give up the least shots against per game. Here’s where they beat other teams, and that’s chemistry. Their record is skewed somewhat toward the beginning, where they started 0-4-3, but since then, they’ve made some key call-ups (Eric Gelinas, for example), and have grown together to create a team that is strong defensively. They do have games where they can’t outscore their mistakes, but if they keep playing their game, discipline and defense, they will be tough to beat.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Recently, they’ve been heating up, but with a horrid stretch, winning just 4 of 17 games between 10/27 and 12/1, they remain on the outside looking in. Marian Gaborik was just starting to heat up, when he broke his collarbone, and is likely out a couple of months. Nathan Horton is still on his way back, and they need him, because only one Jacket has more than 10 goals, being Ryan Johansen. They need offensive depth, because goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is not playing like he did last year, and it’s hard to trust a backup, despite Curtis McElhinney giving his all. It probably doesn’t add up to a playoff berth this season for them.

Carolina Hurricanes – They’ve been up and down this season so far, bouncing between 2nd and 7th in the Metro. They have serious offensive issues, having one skater with double digit goals, in Jeff Skinner, who’s been hurt part of the time. Goalies Justin Peters and Cam Ward can’t handle the game every night, and because of those reasons, it’s clear to me that this isn’t a playoff team.

Final standings: PIT, WAS, NJ, PHI, NYR, CBJ, CAR, NYI.

Atlantic Division

It’s clear that at the very least, 4 of these teams are serious playoff threats. The only real questions are, can anyone catch the Bruins, and do the Leafs have what it takes to hold on?

The Bruins have one of the stingiest and biggest defensive corps in the NHL, led by 6’9″ mountain Zdeno Chara, and sometimes a brick-wall-lookalike in net Tuukka Rask. Their offense is known for being grind-it-out tough and hard to play against. They also have the know-how, being the defending Eastern Conference champions. Can anyone top them? I don’t think so. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a scary offense once Steven Stamkos gets back, and goalie Ben Bishop has been very strong in net. However, I don’t see them skating circles around the Bruins. The Montreal Canadiens have a very talented team, but they are on average one of the smallest teams in the NHL. As I said before, I really like how they play the game, but it’s hard for them to get around the big defensive line for the B’s. These are the top 3 in the Atlantic, but the Bruins are the best of the bunch.

Now, the Leafs. They made a couple of moves over the offseason, and they aren’t quite panning out like they wanted. David Clarkson already has 12 games of suspension under his belt, and only 8 points in those 27 games he did play. Dave Bolland, the Cup hero, has been out with ankle surgery since early November. While Jonathan Bernier has been playing solidly in net, he’s not there the whole time, and can’t help in the games he’s not in, as James Reimer hasn’t been playing like he did last year. Mason Raymond has been the best of the lot, also the quietest move, as he’s been playing some of the best hockey in his career. But with the potential these Leafs have, they easily could hold on to that spot, but it’s becoming tougher each day that they don’t perform to expectations. With the Devils and Flyers heating up in the Metro, it gets closer in Toronto’s rearview mirror by the day. In the end, it’s tough for me to say if they are holding on to this spot. If I had to predict right now, I’d say the Devils and Flyers would make it over the Leafs.

Final standings: BOS, MON, TB, DET, TOR, OTT, FLA, BUF.

Central Division

The only real question here, is do the Stars have enough to catch the Wild. The Blackhawks, Blues, and Avalanche have been proving time and again that they belong where they are, and it doesn’t matter who gets what seed, because I think they are all interchangeable.

Dallas has been one of the hot teams under the radar in recent weeks. They made massive strides in shrinking their deficit from double digits at one point, to now just 3 points. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn lead the way offensively, and have been remarkably good the whole season, in terms of point getting and playing well. Also on the rise are young guns Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin, both excellent for secondary scoring and depth. Defensively, they aren’t spectacular, but goalie Kari Lehtonen has been great when healthy, keeping this team afloat. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild have been tapering off, more specifically on the road. They do have good scoring depth, with Miko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jason Pominville shouldering the load, but their defensive play has not been amazing. Also, the goaltending tandem has been Jekkyl and Hyde this year. Josh Harding has been the story of the year, with a record of 18-5-3, with a goals against average of just 1.51, and a save percentage of .939. Meanwhile, Nick Backstrom (not to be confused with Caps center of the same name) has been awful, with a 2-8-2 record, GAA of 3.18, and a save percentage of .896. They can’t rely on Backstrom, and can’t play Harding every night. They need consistency in net above all. Do the Stars catch the Wild? My answer, is yes. The Wild won the first meeting 5-1, but 3 remain, and anything can happen.

Final standings: CHI, STL, COL, DAL, MIN, WPG, NAS.

Pacific Division

I think it’s a safe bet that the Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks and L.A. Kings are locks for the playoffs, but 3 teams remain in the hunt. Only 2 wild card slots are left, and the Avalanche have a stranglehold on one. Here are the 3 contenders from the Pacific:

San Jose Sharks – Their scoring depth is among tops in the league, and Antti Niemi has been playing well when called upon. The only qualm about this team, is losing Tomas Hertl for the season. He recently was involved with a knee on knee collision with Kings’ Dustin Brown, and is now likely out for the year. Can they make up his scoring? I think so. Tommy Wingels is the guy to look at to step up in his spot. Tough as nails and a nose for the net, he can play up a line and help the Sharks secure a playoff spot.

Vancouver Canucks – Of course, you have the Sedin twins leading the way, but the surprising emergence of Mike Santorelli and Chris Higgins returning to form have been great developments for the ‘Nucks. Their goaltending also has been strong with Roberto Luongo and Eddie Lack keeping the peace, and no real doubts about this team either. They likely will secure a ticket to the playoffs as well

Phoenix Coyotes – They’ve had decent scoring across the board, but not one guy stands out for them. Among Shane Doan, Mike Ribeiro, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, and Radim Vrbata, the scoring depth is there. However, they depend on goalie Mike Smith a little too much. 33.2 shots against per game is 5th most in the league, and Smith is only human. They simply can’t depend on the goalie for everything, and must step their defensive game up, or it may be too much of a climb to reach the playoffs.

It’s clear here, that the teams to beat are the Sharks and Canucks, and the Coyotes are on the outside looking in.

Final Standings: ANA, LA, SJ, VAN, PHX, CAL, EDM.

That’s what I have for you, puck-heads. See you next week, and happy hockey!

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