With the playoffs less than two weeks away – and most of the playoff berths decided – let’s see which teams have been the most surprising and the most disappointing, starting with the Western Conference.
(I took a look at the NHL after two months – click here to review that column. I think it’s very interesting how little changed in the standings from then to now).
Clinched playoffs: Anaheim (108 points), San Jose (107), Los Angeles (96)
Still in playoff contention: Phoenix (85 points)
Biggest surprise: In December I noted San Jose’s hot start, but I expected them to cool off. Instead they have remained tough all season, and remain in contention for the division title. That matters more than usual because second place means a series with the Kings, certainly a team no one wants to face in the first round.
Biggest disappointment: Vancouver. The Canucks got off to a reasonably good start, but injuries, age, and a poor coaching hire have hurt them as the season wore on. The Canucks are still mathematically alive, but they’d need to win out AND see both Phoenix and Dallas go 1-4…so they are going to be out of the playoffs. Their core is getting older, and John Tortorella has been exactly the wrong fit as their coach – it’s possible that ‘Torts’ finally has worn out his NHL welcome. Vancouver is likely looking at a substantial rebuild over the next few years.
Playoff favorite: It’s hard to bet against the Kings, but they are going to face an incredibly tough road – they will definitely draw either the Sharks or Ducks in the first round, and as it stands right now their playoff road would be Sharks-Ducks-Central winner (probably the Blues or Blackhawks). That’s incredibly tough. I am not a believer in the Ducks – I think they peaked early, they get too much scoring from one line and their defense isn’t up to Western Conference standards – but they have a BIG advantage if they hang on and win the division. I think the Sharks are the team, though – they’ve been consistent all year, they have a good mix of scoring and defense – and I find it hard to believe a team with this much core talent won’t make at least ONE Cup Final before their window closes.
Clinched playoffs: St. Louis (111 points), Colorado (104), Chicago (101)
Still in playoff contention: Minnesota (90 points), Dallas (85)
Biggest surprise: Colorado by a mile. I predicted that they would fall off, but they’ve been excellent all season and are riding a 5-game winning streak. They are faced with a matchup against the defending champion Blackhawks in the first round, but don’t count out the Avs – they have the defense and goaltending to give Chicago fits.
Biggest disappointment: I’m sticking with Winnipeg. There’s too much talent there to be constantly stuck around .500. I’ve watched them pretty closely the past few years, and they need to make a big trade to fix the defense/goaltending if they are going to be a serious contender anytime soon.
Playoff favorite: Despite the presence of Chicago, I’ve become a believer in the Blues. St. Louis has it all – scoring depth, that trademark Ken Hitchcock defense, and with the addition of Ryan Miller they have the stud goalie they’ve been seeking. As the division winner – and probable #1 seed in the west – they will avoid the ‘power teams’ in the first round and likely get to play either Phoenix or Dallas, and they should handle either relatively easily. Hard to count out the Blackhawks, but they are pretty beat-up right now and I don’t know if they have what it takes to repeat.
Western Outlook: The top six teams are all extremely powerful, and you could make a solid case for any of them. I like the Blues and Sharks to make the conference finals if they stay healthy.
Clinched playoffs: Boston (111 points), Montreal (93), Tampa Bay (93)
Still in playoff contention: Detroit (86), Toronto (84)
Biggest surprise: Tampa Bay. They managed to stay in contention even with Stamkos out for three months, and they’ve finished hot despite the distraction of the Martin St. Louis trade in March.
Biggest disappointment: Toronto. The Leafs were 14-8 in late November, and seemingly poised to contend for the division…but they’ve been a .500 teams since then, and they recently snapped an 8-game losing streak that put their playoff chances on life support. Toronto still has a chance to make the postseason, but their defense is too porous to allow them to make a deep run. The recent injury to top goalie Jonathan Bernier doesn’t help their cause either.
Playoff favorite: Boston by a mile. The Bruins are the deepest team in the East, and they have the best goalie in the league. They will draw a mediocre team such as Columbus or Detroit in the first round, either Tampa or Montreal in the second, and should be able to cruise into the Eastern Final.
Clinched playoffs: Pittsburgh (103)
Still in playoff contention: NY Rangers (91), Philadelphia (87), Columbus (85), Washington (81)
Biggest surprise: How bad this division ended up being this season. Philly recovered from their awful start, and the Rangers have been hot since the Olympics…but overall this was by far the worst division in the NHL, and there were no surprise teams whatsoever.
Biggest disappointment: Has to be Washington. The Caps are still technically ‘contenders’, but they need to win out and get some help…I put their playoff odds at no better than 10%. They have allowed 231 goals, only Toronto has allowed more, and the Caps are TERRIBLE at even strength. One has to expect major changes in DC this summer.
Eastern Outlook: Pittsburgh would seem the default choice, and if they are healthy that holds true, but much depends on the return of Evgeni Malkin. With ‘Geno’ in the lineup, this is a VERY difficult team to defend, and their power play is lethal. Without him, the Pens become more of a 1-line team, and opponents can concentrate solely on stopping the Crosby/Kunitz line.
I like the Rangers to challenge the Pens in the second round – New York seems to have found some real chemistry since picking up St. Louis, and as long as they have Henrik Lundqvist in goal they are always dangerous. Their probable first-round matchup with the Flyers should be very close, but I look for the blueshirts to prevail and set up a great Pens-Rangers matchup.
More on the NHL once the playoffs are set!
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.