Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture and Predictions

As games remaining dip into single digits, teams find themselves jostling for home ice advantage and playoff berths which makes for an exciting last month of the season for all of us. I’m here to take a look at the playoff picture for each conference and offer my predictions to you folks at home. Let’s start with the much cleaner Eastern Conference. Any team between the current 7th place New York Rangers and the 12th place Atlanta Thrashers in my opinion is still fighting for a spot in the postseason.

Number 12 Atlanta has their work cut out for them being 7 points behind the 8th place Buffalo Sabres with only 10 games remaining. 7 out of those ten games are against teams in playoff position including the two top teams in the league the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers. Based on where they are in the standings I would think Atlanta would have to win 6 or 7 of these games, something I am not sure they can do.

 The Thrashers have a mediocre defensive corps to go along with a mediocre offense, so most of these wins will fall on the shoulders of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec who, despite his numbers, is not good enough to shoulder the load for Atlanta, look for them to not be a part of the playoffs when all is said and done.

In 11th place are the resurgent New Jersey Devils who have made quite an impressive run in the past few months dragging themselves out of the basement into playoff contention. Despite their effort I think this team also falls short of the playoffs. Tied with Atlanta in points, the Devils also have ten games remaining. 9 out of those 10 games, however, are against teams in the playoffs or desperately fighting for a berth.

Though the Devils have played much improved hockey of late I see this team falling short as well. If only they had realized their potential earlier in the season this team could be amongst the leaders of the conference.

That brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs who find themselves in unfamiliar territory just five points out of the playoffs but with only 9 games to play. The Leafs, in my opinion, would have to win around 6 or 7 of those 9 games to qualify for the playoffs. They have two very important games coming up, the first on 3/29 against the 8th place Sabres and then on 4/6 against the Devils. If the Leafs can win both of those games and a few more (they also play the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Ottawa Senators, among others) they may have a chance.

It depends on how well rookie James Reimer handles the load in his first NHL stretch run. He’s performed magnificently since joining the Leafs full time and if he can keep it up he gives his team a chance to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. If the Leafs really bear down and play the way they know how, they could find themselves squeezing into the eighth spot.

The Carolina Hurricanes sit in 9th place only 3 points behind the Sabres but have a tough final 10 games. They play the Senators, Lightning 3 times, Capitals, Canadiens, Islanders, Sabres, Red Wings, and Thrashers. Being only 3 points behind the Sabres I would think the Hurricanes would need to win 4-5 of their remaining games, including a must win against Buffalo on April 3. The Hurricanes have not been playing their best hockey lately and with so many games against top-end teams, I don’t think this will be the Canes year for the postseason.

The Buffalo Sabres are currently the last team in the playoffs, sitting in 8th place with 79 points and 10 games remaining. The Sabres, unlike many of the teams behind them, seem to be playing some of their best hockey lately. They are firing on all cylinders on offense and playing a very sound defensive game in front of Ryan Miller. If Miller can get into his groove and stay consistent the Sabres are a team to reckon with in this stretch run.

However they do not have the easiest schedule to end the year as only two teams (Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets) are out of playoff contention. The Sabres will have to continue to dig deep if they want to keep their 8th spot, which in my opinion would require between four to five wins in their final ten.

The 7th place New York Rangers are in a pretty comfortable position in 7th place right now with 82 points which is 3 ahead of the 8th place Sabres and six ahead of the 9th place Hurricanes. The Rangers have 9 games left, three of which are against teams not in the playoff race. If the Rangers can stay focused and win those three they put themselves in a good place to all but assure a playoff spot.

The Rangers are very much in control of their own destiny as 3 of their other games come against teams behind them battling for a playoff spot, while the other three are against the top-flight Flyers and the Bruins twice. The Rangers undoubtedly remember what happened last season and are wishing for a different result this year and a chance at the Stanley Cup for the first time since 08-09 when they finished in 7th before losing a 3-1 series lead and being ousted by the Capitals.

 If the Rangers want to make the playoffs they would have to win 3 to 4 games, though obviously the games against teams below them are very important games to win.

With that being said, I believe the first round matchups in the Eastern Conference will be as follows:

1. Philadelphia Flyers v. 8. Toronto Maple Leafs
You heard it here first kids, the Toronto Maple Leafs will make the Playoffs over the Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres. Brian Burke has done a fantastic job icing a competitive team and Ron Wilson has worked well with this team to get them where they are now. I really see a big push made by the Leafs in the last 9 games to solidify their place above the Sabres and Canes. Their playoff lives will be short-lived, however, as I predict they will be ousted in 5 games by the Flyers.

2. Washington Capitals v. 7. New York Rangers
A rematch of the last time the Rangers were in the playoffs. They have to keep in mind they can get revenge not only on the Capitals, but by winning the series, they would set themselves up to get revenge on the Flyers for “The Shootout” last year. The Caps are a tough regular season team but seem to struggle come playoff time.

With their situation in net, I wouldn’t even know who to predict to start the playoffs, though my guess is two-time Calder Cup winner Michael Neuvirth over playoff failure Semyon Varlamov. Starting a rookie goalie is ballsy in the playoffs but it’s the Caps best bet. If Henrik Lundqvist can steal the show look for the Rangers to win this edition of the matchup in 6 games.

3. Montreal Canadiens v 6. Boston Bruins
Given the Bruins recent performances I would say they are going through a funk at the wrong time. If they cannot dig themselves out of it and quick look for the Canadiens to surpass them and take home the Northeast Division Title. Either way these two teams are set up to play each other in the first round like they did in 07-08 and 08-09.

This matchup I expect to go a brutal seven games regardless which could severely diminish each teams chances of making an extended playoff run. With the two teams so evenly matched on the ice it will most likely come down to Carey Price vs. Tim Thomas. If that’s the case, I give Montreal the upper hand and a 4-3 series win at the raucous Bell Center in a thrilling game 7.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning v. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins 
Yes, I am saying that the Lightning will beat out the Penguins for 4th place. They are currently three points behind the Penguins but with an easier remaining schedule, look for the Lightning to gain ground and overtake the Penguins for home ice in this series.

 With the undoubted return of Crosby for the playoffs the Penguins may be a tough opponent in the playoffs, especially if Marc-Andre Fluery can keep his game at a high level. I expect this to be a high scoring series but since the Penguins defense is much better than the Tampa Bay top six I give the edge to the Penguins in 6.

This will set up a Flyers/Rangers and Canadiens/Penguins second round which should be entertaining to say the least.

I'll be back later this week to break down the Western Conference playoff picture and offer my predictions.
Comment with your thoughts and predictions!

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