Examining the East: Three teams going to the playoffsby Eric Schwartz
Playoff team No. 1: Flyers – This choice is not about hometown favoritism, it’s all about numbers.
The Flyers are by far the most talented of the eight teams vying for the final three playoff spots. They are the only team that has a positive goal differential with a plus-11. No one else is even close. The team is about to engage on a critical stretch as it heads west for three games followed by a home-and-home series with New Jersey. The team appear completely over a horrible December stretch that dropped it to the second-to-last place in the East. Ray Emery, while not lighting it up, has been consistent since his return from injury and Jeff Carter has regained his scoring touch.
There is simply too much talent for this team not to be in the playoffs.
Playoff team No. 2: Boston – Of all the borderline teams no one has a better chance of being carried in by goaltender play than the Bruins. When Tim Thomas gets hot, he gets scorching hot. The only question is if Thomas will even be between the pipes when the season ends. While Thomas has played well (2.50 goals against, 34 games), little known Tuukka Rask has been even better (2,13 goals against, 23 games). Either way the Bruins are solid on the backline, keeping them in contention despite an offense that has scored just 11 goals during a seven-game losing streak.
The Bruins are the coldest of the teams fighting for a playoff spot, but like the Flyers did, I think they will bounce out of it in time to play in the postseason.
Playoff team No. 3: Atlanta – Unlike the Bruins, the Thrashers will be going to the playoffs on the strength of its offense. Atlanta averages 2.98 goals per game, which leads all of the borderline playoff teams and is 6th in the NHL. The problem with Atlanta has been its defense, which is 26th in the NHL.
A key stretch will be a five-game home stand starting on March 12th. While Atlanta has played well at home (12-9-4), this will not be easy time. The Thrashers will face the Rangers, Flames, Senators, Sabres and Flyers.
It won’t be easy and it may come down to the last day of the season, but Atlanta should sneak into the playoffs, grabbing the eighth seed in the East.
Elimination No. 5: New York Rangers – The next two weeks will go a long way in determining if the Rangers will be competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup and that’s not a good thing for New York. The team is currently playing at its worst, losers of five straight and eight out of 10. Up next on the schedule is Colorado, Los Angeles, Washington, New Jersey, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Unless they turn their play around the Rangers will spend the final two months of the season playing catch-up.
One of the best things going for the team right now is its penalty kill, which is the fifth best in the NHL. Much of that has to do with the play of Henrik Lundqvist, who has kept New York afloat with a 2.40 gga.
In the end, not even Ludqvist will keep this inconsistent squad from making the playoffs.
So there you have it - a jumbled Eastern Conference playoff race made simple.
Did I get it right? Time will tell.
In the meantime, who do you think will grab the last three spots?