The Buffalo Sabres are in a dogfight for their playoff lives, but they have never been closer than they are right now. They have a very real chance of playing in the postseason and that leads us to all look ahead due to hope and overconfidence. The question then becomes who would they play and more importantly: how good are they? I will attempt to address the later question in this brief post.
The East –Who’s in?
New York: The Rangers have really made the most of the Brad Richards signing. Additions of Richards and rookie Carl Hagelin have joined Marian Gaborik on the top line and made a top three to be reckoned with. This moves many of their other top-6 players in their system down a line to create extraordinary scoring depth. Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan are all offensively and defensively capable. Add to that a physical and tough fourth line containing Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp makes for a menacing forward unit.
On defense, injuries early in the season have actually improved this unit. New York was forced to rely on players like Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger early in the season. Now those players have turned into strong depth players while Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonaugh have returned to action and formed a formidable unit. In net, Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to steal games and has been exceptional in the playoffs in the past.
Final Verdict: New York Rangers = Contender
Pittsburgh: This is another team that has actually been buoyed by injuries. When a team loses star players they can either crumble or have younger or less appreciated players step up. Remember that this is a team that can win without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. When you don’t need Hart Trophy caliber players that says something about your team. Jordan Staal, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy are all big-time contributors. Having Matt Cooke, Richard Park, Craig Adams and Aaron Asham who add toughness and some skill to the bottom six. More importantly this team is experienced in success which could make all the difference.
Defensively they have been without top talent for large stretches losing Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik for serious time. When healthy the form an effective grouping with Matt Niskanen, Derek Engelland, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Round that out with Marc-Andre Fleury and you have quite the puck stopping unit in Pittsburgh.
Final Verdict: Pittsburgh Penguins = Contender
Philadelphia: This Flyers team has had its share of hardships this season. The lost Chris Pronger due to injuries. They had a goaltending crisis…again. There was a patch where it seemed as though they didn’t have a single healthy NHL defenseman in the lineup. Through it all they have remained competitive and have always looked like a playoff team.
A massive retooling on offense seems to have sparked Philadelphia to new heights. Adding Jaromir Jagr, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Jakub Voracek, Max Talbot and and Sean Couturier adds a mix of youth and experience with plenty of scoring touch. Perhaps more important than those contributions is the emergence of All-Star forwards Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux. These two have been filling the nets with incredible regularity and have made this offense become a force in the east.
The defense has been patchwork at times, but has begun to return to relevance late in the season. Additions like Pavel Kubina and Niklas Grossman have improved the depth of a group that already included Kimmo Timmonen and Andrej Meszaros. They are not a top 10 defense in the league, but should be considered in the upper half. Ilya Bryzgalov has come on strong late in the season and looks like the world beater he was in Phoenix after a very poor start to the season.
Final Verdict: Philadelphia – Not a contender
Boston: They did it last season and the team is much the same. The problem Boston has had this season is a lack of consistency. No one wants to run up against Boston in the playoffs. They have toughness and skill up and down the lineup. Offensively they rely on depth and balanced scoring. Unfortunately for Boston they have run into some injuries and their minor league players haven’t proved as effective. If they can get some of their regulars back for the playoffs they should be just fine.
Defense is the strength of the Bruins. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, Joe Corvo, Andrew Ferrence and Johnny Boychuk make up a top-6 that makes most GMs jealous. With the exception of Corvo they are all shutdown in their own end. They are all tough and can all hit. Corvo and Chara add offense from the back-end and they should make Tim Thomas’ life easier. That in itself is good, because Thomas hasn’t had many nights off this season. The injury to Tuuka Rask could really be the biggest stumbling block for Boston.
Final Verdict: Boston – Contender
Almost in – New Jersey:
New Jersey has a team that has flown under the radar for much of this season, but that has allowed them to surprise a lot of teams with their successes. Patrick Elias, Zack Parise and a resurgent Ilya Kovalchuk have led the way offensively. Adding a little rookie scoring with Adam Henrique and secondary scoring from David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Pete Sykora. Getting Travis Zajac back to health could go a long way toward balancing the depth in their lineup.
Injuries have also hurt the Devils defensive unit as former Sabre Henrik Tallinder has miss tons of time after surgery to remove a blood clot. The defensive unit as a whole is in transition with many young players stepping up to take over for some aging veterans. Speaking of aging, Martin Brodeur is almost retired and his play has slipped to something resembling average. If he can return to his world-beating self in the playoffs they might pose a threat to certain teams.
Final Verdict: New Jersey – Not a contender.
Florida: The Panthers are the NHL’s island of misfit toys, but for whatever reason it’s working. Currently leading the weak Southeast Division, Florida has turned a lot of heads this year. With a forward unit that includes Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Wojtek Wolski, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Jack Skille and John Madden makes for a ugly grouping on paper. A little scoring from each player has turned what originally looks like a mess into a surprisingly functional work of art.
But it has been the rear guard that has made Florida relevant again in the NHL. A defense that saw the return of Ed Jovanovski, the addition of Brian Campbell and the emergence of Dmitri Kulikov, Eric Gudbranson, Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver has led to a surprising mix of talent and poise. Jose Theodore has regained some of his MVP form in a resurgent season for the Cats.
Final Verdict: Florida -Not a contender
The Bubble Battle:
Ottawa: If Florida is the island of misfit toys, then the Senators would be the island of broken toys. It still baffles me that this team is poised to make the playoffs. They shouldn’t be good. They shouldn’t be winning games, but they are and they are showing signs of talent and skill in a tight conference race.
Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek are leading the way offensively. A second line that has younger talents like Nick Foligno and Kyle Turris and plenty of useful depth players like Chris Neil and Zenon Konopka. They have scored just enough to stay relevant in the east.
On defense this season Ottawa has seen the birth of defensive super-stardom in Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has had a magical season that has seen him in talks for the Norris Trophy, when combined with Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips, Fillip Kuba, Matt Gilroy and rookie Jared Cowen, you begin to see some of their success is warranted. Craig Anderson has done alright in net, but it has been mostly a platoon effort all year. That is the major issue presenting itself when looking ahead into the playoffs.
Final Verdict: Ottawa Senators – Not a contender
Washington: The exact opposite of the Senators, the caps are a team that has underachieved all season long and yet still looks like it will make it to the postseason. Washington has suffered from under-performing players and a distinct lack of chemistry all season long, although they have started to pick up their play as of late.
Alexander Ovechkin has finally begun to look like the dominant Hart Trophy winner from two seasons ago in the past month. Nicklas Backstom’s injury has really set this team back and Alex Semin, when healthy, hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. Washington has great depth and role players in their offense, but the lack of a definitive secondary scoring unit could bite them in the playoffs.
Mike Green is also a force that the Caps have missed for most of the season. A group of average defensemen has struggled without the explosive offense that has frequently bailed them out in the past. Tomas Vokoun has seen his fair share of struggles as well and the battle between the three goaltenders in Washington, while entertaining, has done nothing to improve the chemistry or confidence of this club.
Final Verdict: Washington Capitals – Not a contender
Winnipeg: They will probably not makes the playoffs, but if they do it will be because of timely scoring and great goaltending more than anything else. Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane have lived up to expectations in Winnipeg, while a number of great depth players have worked out as well. An impressive defensive unit also helps their chances.
Trading away Johnny Oduya hurts their chances slightly, but the play of Ondrej Pavelec has made up for that and then some.Winnipeg may be tough to play in on the road, but teams like Pittsburgh, Boston and New York are probably too much better for that to be an actually factor in the playoffs.