With the Rangers beating the Flyers in the shootout, and Carolina losing to the Sabres in OT (was it not obvious that the worst possible result for the Leafs was going to happen) it would take nothing short of a miracle for the Canes or Leafs to crack the top 8 in the conference. While the Canes are only two points behind the Rangers, they are playing both the Red Wings and Penguins over their final three games, making it very unlikely that they will make up the necessary points.
The Eastern Conference or colloquially known as the Leastern Conference, is clearly inferior this season, and does not have the same type of depth as the Western Conference teams. To put things into perspective, the Blackhawks are the last seed in the West, compared to the Rangers holding that spot in the East. The fact that the Cup champions, even with all their changes are in the eight spot, speaks volumes to the competitiveness at the top of the conference.
Teams like Washington and Philadelphia may have a comparative advantage to their West counterparts, in the later rounds of the Playoffs, after playing inferior teams in the earlier rounds. Actually scratch that, only Philly may have an easier advantage, is there a chance that the Caps are making it out of the second round?? Nah impossible......
Without further ado:
1: Washington Capitals- This has been a serious transition season for Bruce Boudreau and his team. The team endured an eight game losing streak, in which only three of the teams they lost to, involve teams that are in the playoffs. They also endured an epic barrage of expletives from their coach during an intermission speech that will be remembered for the ages.
The Caps, for the first time since the NHL lockout, have placed an emphasis on the defensive side of the game, in the hope that if they play the conventional style of play, they will actually have some sort of playoff success. This new style of play has impacted the scoring totals of their stars, as Backstrom has a mere 63 points and Ovechkin is going to finish with a career low in points. (Btw, what has happened to Mike Green this season?)
Strengths: They finally have bought into a defensive scheme. They are fifth in the NHL in goals against and third in penalty killing. In the playoffs, this commitment to defense will most likely serve them well. With the firepower, albeit sometimes invisible, one would imagine that they will be able to put up enough goals come playoff time. The most telling statistic regarding the Capitals in my opinion, is their winning percentage when giving up the first goals. They have won 49% of the games that the other team has scored first. By far the best record in the NHL. The new-look Caps do seem like they are better prepared than ever to endure a long playoff run, but do not forget: Man talks and the hockey gods laugh, just look at what happened in the East first round last season.
Weaknesses: Believe it or not, this team has been in a scoring funk the entire season. They are eighteenth in the NHL in goals per game, and seventeenth on the power play. Amongst all of the teams in the playoffs right now, the Capitals have played in the most one goal games with 44. With the first goal in a playoff game being that much more important than in the regular season, it is imperative that their PP and five on five scoring pick up significantly. All in all, if Ovechkin Backstrom and Semin (disastrous player in the second half) do not start lighting the lamp with more consistency, it could be a short playoffs for this team, for all the unexpected reasons. On the positive side, at least they will not have to face Halak this season.
2: Philadelphia Flyers:- Why was this team only the eight seed last season? With only a few small changes to the lineup, this team has been the most consistent in the East all season, and seem primed for a repeat run at the Stanley Cup. They have goaltending that seems above average for the first time since the days of the hulking Roman Cechmanek. Even Leighton last year, did not put up particularly good numbers, he was applauded simply for being adequate. The peripheral statistics show that he was not all that much better than Boucher, and the main difference was the way the team played in front of them. Bobrovsky and Boucher, until the last 20 games have been absolutely fantastic, and hopefully can recapture their form from earlier in the season.
Strengths: Depth at the forward and defense positions. They are the Eastern Conference version (obviously just a little worse) of the Canucks: three lines that can score and play defensive responsibility and a deep group of uber-talented defensemen. It is extremely impressive when a player like Nik Zherdev is sitting hopelessly in the press box, simply because he does not buy into the defensive system that Laviolette has put in place. He has been playing a lot better since he was placed on waivers, and combined with Versteeg, they have added a lot of talent to an already stacked team. Their depth on defense, has allowed them to not miss a beat, even though Pronger has missed thirty games this season. Imagine a fresh Pronger in the Playoffs? Going to be a huge addition for them. (Catch the "fresh" pun, I couldn't resist, he is one of the most entertaining interviews in all of hockey).
Weaknesses: The Flyers from last year, proved the importance of going into the Playoffs on a good streak. Unfortunately for them, this season has gone in the other direction completely. In their last 20 games, they have gone 7-7-6, and have allowed the Capitals to catch them in the standings. The most concerning part of their cool streak is that they have given up 4 goals or more seven times in those games. To contrast, they only gave up 4 or more goals 10 times in their first 59 games of the season. Whether it is because the team is slacking, or their goaltending is coming back down to earth, this may be a cause of trouble.
3: Boston Bruins- This team can be summed up in two words: Tim Thomas. He has been fantastic for them, and is the main reason that they are first in the division. (They would probably be there anyways with great depth, but who konws). It was also a smart move by Claude Julien not to overplay Thomas, in order for him to be fresh for the Playoffs, and not suffer from the Martin Brodeur syndrome: Play 70 games in the regular season, lose in first or second round of the Playoffs because I am getting older and my coaches abused me. Thomas has started only 52 games, which is one of the lower numbers for an NHL starter.
Strengths: Aside from Tim Thomas in net, the top players on this team, have all shown a remarkable commitment to the defensive side of the game. The top six offensemen on the team, have at least a +16 rating and hold four of the top five spots in the Eastern Conference in this category. With the bench shortening in the Playoffs, and two sets of Selke-esque lines on offense, it will be extremely tough to score on this team in a playoff style game. The defense is nothing to laugh at either with three defensemen with at least a +24.
Weaknesses: It is difficult to find a gaping weakness on this team. They have the best goal differential in the Conference, as well as the best goaltender. Perhaps the biggest flaw in this team, is their play on special teams. They rank 20th in the NHL on the PP, and 17th on the PK. Both of which must be improved if this team wants to have any success in the Playoffs. The Bruins are built eerily similar to the Pheonix Coyotes. A fantastic goaltender, a very steady defense, and a good offense by committee. The issue with both teams is that they have a lack of firepower, and do not have that one player (thanks to Matt Cooke) that can pull them out of a scoring slump. It has not hurt them so far, and hopefully they will be able to continue playing at such a high level.
4: Pittsburgh Penguins- If the position of any team in the standings makes no sense it is that of the Pens. Crosby has missed half the season with a concussion. Malkin has missed a larger part of the season with an injury, (and even when healthy he was having an awful year) and there offense has been comprised of a group of minor league players and a player that acts like a criminal (you know who that is) for most of the season. Marc Andre Fleury started off the season with a brutal stretch, where even the ultimate backup goaltender Brent Johnson temporarily usurped him in the starting position. The Penguins acquired James Neal with the hope that he would provide them with the spark on offense that they needed. However, in line with their peculiar season, he has only scored once in eighteen games. Through all this, the team has 100 points, third most in the conference. A lot of credit should go to their coach Dan Bylsma, for putting in a system that helps hide their flaws with all their injuries.
Strengths: Well if Sidney Crosby is able to return for the playoffs at full strength, they have the best player in the league completely rested. Another strength of this team is their defensive game. They are a strong, physical unit, that also can contribute on the offensive side of the ice. They are tied for 4th in the NHL in goal differential, a stat which is extremely impressive considering all of the firepower that they have been missing from their lineup. Unlike Boston, the Pens are also the best team in the NHL on the penalty kill. Not only do they play good defense in even strength situations, they also are responsible in penalized situations. While their power play is poor, a lot of that can be contributed, to Crosby being out of the lineup, and hopefully for the playoffs they will be back on track.
Weaknesses: While it is great that they have the best PK in the league, they also are second in the NHL with the most times being penalized at 310. This cannot continue in the playoffs, and with "you know who" suspended for the first round, it hopefully will not. Also, in the Playoffs there are no shootouts, and out of the Penguins 46 wins this season, 9 have come via shootout. They have the second highest winning% at .750 in the shootout, points that they will have a harder to getting in the Playoffs. The shootout has significantly skewed the Penguins record, and is not a fair indication in projecting their playoff performance.
5: Tampa Bay Lightning- The Lightning have made a significant turnaround from their previous three seasons, in which they did not make the Playoffs. The new GM, Steve Yzerman has brought in nice pieces to surround his superstars Stamkos, St Louis and Lecavalier. They finally have adequate goaltending with the antiquated Dwayne Roloson, and with Brewer and Marc-Andre Bergeron added to the defense, they are steady on both ends of the ice. They can go head to head against any team in the league, in top tier talent.
Strengths: The chemistry between Stamkos and St Louis is unparalleled in the Eastern Conference.They are a dynamic duo, and for most of the season, have been unstoppable. (If someone has seen Stamkos lately, let him know that he has given up the biggest scoring lead in NHL history, and should not wait again until the last day of the season to get it back). Tampa uses its superstars, to get itself back into games, in a similar fashion that Washington does, and has a .450 winning percentage, when giving up the first goal. If Stamkos can get back on track, and all the new players continue to perform, this team can be in for a long playoff run.
Weaknesses: The first thing that comes to mind about the Tampa Bay Lightning. is that they are 20 games over .500 and only have a goal differential of +3. This number implies that they often get blown out when they lose. This is actually the case, out of their 24 losses this season, 14 of them have been by three goals or more. It seems that even though they often come back from one goal deficits, it is possible that they "give up" when the deficit reaches two. In the playoffs every team needs a "never say die" attitude, and that is something that the Lightning desperately need to enforce in every game. Also, Stamkos and Gagne (the biggest disappointment all season??) are seriously struggling and Lecavalier is day to day with an injury, and if they do not start producing like they are capable of, things may not turn out too well for this young group. The last ten days Martin St Louis has been carrying the team on his diminutive shoulders and will need help come playoff time.
6: Montreal Canadiens- Starting with the 6th seed, there is a big drop from the five higher seeds. While Montreal is a good team, there is a serious dichotomy in the East. Nevertheless, after what we saw last season against the Capitals, any team in the NHL is capable of winning a playoff series, and that is why we play the games. It has been an interesting season for the Canadiens. Carey Price was supposed to be a terrible goalie, and the team was supposed to fail. That has not happened, and even with all of the injuries to the defense, the Candiens remain one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. As it stands now, the Habs will meet the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. After the Chara hit, won't it be an amazing series, tensions rising already!!
Strengths: The Canadiens, seem to do everything a little above average. They are in the top ten in both PP and PK, they get scoring from three lines and the backend, and they have a goalie that is capable of winning a game for his team. That is the ultimate strength of this team: when healthy (always a big "if" with this team) they do not have any significant holes. One interesting point of note, is that their "ROW" or regulation +overtime wins= 39, higher than both the Penguins and the Lightning, a sign that bodes well for a successful playoff run.
Weaknesses: They have no superstar on either offense or defense. Only one player on the team has over 50 points, and only one player has over 25 goals. Cammalleri and Gomez especially will need to produce more for this team to have any sort of measured success. Also, their defense corps have taken a huge hit to injury, with Markov, Spacek and Gorges all injured. They will be leaning heavily on a lot of players that have never been placed in this role before. Last but not least, is Carey Price's workload. He has played in 70 games this season and must be feeling tired, one only hopes that he can hold up for the playoffs.
7: Buffalo Sabres- The Sabres were swallowed in mediocrity until their best forward, Derek Roy got injured. For the majority of the season, they were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture, only recently grabbing a spot with their hot play against every team not named Toronto (surprisingly). They have received serious support from Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, and owe a lot of their success to the growth of those three players. After being the division champions last season with essentially the same team, and Roy already skating, I do not think that anyone wants to play this team in the playoffs.
Strengths: Ryan Miller. If you are not convinced that he can steal four games all by himself, you may need to watch the Olympics from last year all over again. After having a little bit of a sub par year by his standards, and sustaining an injury last week, the extra rest may have been the best thing for him. He has only played in 64 games this season, and should be ready for the playoffs. With the team getting healthier, they could be a darkhorse in the Eastern Conference.
Weaknesses: The Sabres are in the bottom half of the league in Hits (29th), F0 % (25th) and Takeaways (20th). For a team that is weaker on star talent, it is imperative that they excel in these areas. They are not capable of beating the top teams goal for goal, and need to play a smarter game than the other teams to find success. If they are not able to improve in these areas, and Stafford comes back down to earth, it may be diffcult for them to keep pace.
8: New York Rangers: After losing to the Flyers on the last day of the regular season in the shootout last season, they essentially punched their ticket to the big dance, with their revenge this season. Erik Christensen and Wojtek Wolski, both out-waited Bobrovsky and put the puck past him for the huge win. While Gaborik has completely dissappeared this season, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky both have stepped up and become legitimate stars in this league. If Gaborik and Wolski can become the players that they were last season, this team is a lot better than their record shows.
Strenghts: Like the Sabres, they rely so heavily on the remarkable consistent play of their goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist has been the best kept secret in the NHL this season. He has eleven shutouts and has kept his team in almost every game he has played. The Rangers also have five 20-goal scorers on their roster, displaying their ability to get goals from all their different lines. Although they do not score too often, they have so many different players that are capable of getting that big goal. However, what it will come down to in the playoffs for them will be the play of Lundqvist; they live and die with his performances.
Weaknesses: It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for this team that they open the playoffs on the road. They are the worst home team amongst the top sixteen, with only 18 wins to their credit. The problem is that in the playoffs, opposing buildings become significantly louder and home ice becomes that much more of an asset. Unless the Rangers improve on their own ice, they will have a very very quick playoffs.
The East is not as deep as the Western Conference this season, and will not provide the same kind of excitement in first round matchups. However, the top teams in the East do match up quite nicely with those in the West, and should provide the same amount of excitement in the later rounds and in the Finals. Cannot wait for the games to begin!
Hope you enjoyed!
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