NHL Playoffs: Ranking the Playoff Chances of the Eastern Conference Bubble Teams
Heading into the final three weeks of the 2011-12 NHL season, there are at least five playoff spots that remain up for grabs in the Eastern Conference.
As things stand now, it appears the the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers have all but assured themselves trips to the postseason, as each have at least 12 points more than the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres, who are actually tied with the eighth-place Washington Capitals at 82 points.
Outside of those three teams, the remaining five berths in the East are up for grabs, as even division leaders like the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers have leads of five points or fewer over their divisional competition.
With under 10 games remaining for each club, it will be a dogfight until the season's final day for the nine teams still in playoff contention.
So, with that in mind, here's a look at each of the bubble teams' chances at capturing a division title, or even simply making the postseason.
At Christmas time, the Boston Bruins were among the league's best teams, and appeared poised to make a compelling run towards being the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.
However, the Bruins have been on a steady decline since then, and though they currently hold a three-point lead on the Ottawa Senators in the race for the Northeast Division championship, they have a number of tough contests left on the schedule, including games against hungry teams like the the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, so their road to the postseason won't be easy.
Fortunately for Boston, they're deep at every position, and have more than enough talent and grit to shake off their recent slump in time to clinch the Northeast Division.
If they don't make the playoffs, it will go down as one of the most monumental collapses in franchise history, but don't count on Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas and the rest of the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Bruins letting that happen.
Chances of winning Northeast Division: 70 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 90 percent
New owner Terry Pegula ushered in a new era of Buffalo Sabres hockey last summer by making a big splash on the free-agent market, signing a highly coveted forward in Ville Leino and an experienced top pairing rearguard in Christian Ehrhoff for a combined $67 million.
So far, the big money acquisitions haven't paid off for the Sabres, as Leino has just six goals on the year and Ehrhoff is on pace for half as many goals as he posted a year ago.
Despite the Sabres' dreadful start to the season, Buffalo is still tied for the eighth and final playoff spot, and if 2010 Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller (7-1-2 with two shutouts in his last 10 starts) continues to provide the team with world-class goaltending, they'll be in the mix for one of the final two berths in the East until the final day of the season.
Looking ahead, the Sabres have seven games left on the schedule, including one against the team they're trying to catch in Washington, and three more against Eastern Conference foes in playoff position, so if they can win five of their final seven, the Sabres stand a reasonable chance of making the playoffs.
Chances of winning the Northeast Division: 15 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 50 percent
Though not quite mathematically eliminated, in order for the Carolina Hurricanes to make the playoffs, they'll need more than a little bit of help from the competition.
With 75 points, Carolina sits seven points back of Washington heading into Wednesday night's games, meaning that in order for the Hurricanes to leapfrog Winnipeg, Buffalo and Washington, they'll need to win at least five of their remaining seven games in addition to praying that the Capitals, Sabres and Jets somehow miraculously all play themselves out of the playoff race.
While the Hurricanes have played some inspired hockey as of late, going 5-2-3 in their last 10, Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and company have dug themselves a seemingly insurmountable hole to climb out of at this stage of the season.
Chances of winning the Southeast Division: 5 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 10 percent
Virtually no team has been as surprising as the Florida Panthers this season, as the one-time doormat of the Southeast Division morphed into something of a front-runner almost overnight.
General manager Dale Tallon's offseason acquisitions in Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell have paid off, and longtime Cats like Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison have led the way offensively in Florida's resurgence.
Though the Capitals are still just four points back of the Panthers, Florida controls its own destiny as it has a game in hand on Washington, and should emerge with the franchise's first-ever division championship if the team plays even .500 hockey the rest of the way.
Chances of winning the Southeast Division: 70 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 80 percent
New Jersey Devils
What a difference a year has made for the New Jersey Devils, who were the laughingstock of the NHL in 2010-11 after signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year deal worth $100 million, and proceeding to miss the postseason for the first time since 1995-96.
Now, with Kovalchuk leading the way with 74 points, the Devils are on the verge of securing a playoff berth as they sit eight points above eighth-place Washington with only seven games remaining.
The Devils have scored by committee this season, as they currently boast four players with at least 25 goals, and another three with at least 15.
Though Martin Brodeur has battled injury problems, he's been relatively solid in between the pipes, and the Devils' generally consistent play suggests there's virtually no possibility that they'll suddenly fall into a slump during the home stretch of the season.
Unless the team falters badly, the Devils will be battling Philadelphia for the fifth seed in the East, though they might be best suited finishing sixth.
Chances of winning the Atlantic Division: 5 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 85 percent
Heading into the 2011-12 NHL campaign, the Ottawa Senators weren't projected to even be in the running for a playoff spot this late in the season, but they've silenced their doubters by putting together an impressive year that has them two points above the ninth-place Sabres with seven games remaining.
Buoyed by the performance of Erik Karlsson, who has played his way into Norris Trophy contention by leading all defensemen with 72 points, the Senators offense has been surprisingly potent, as Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson all have at least 20 goals and 50 points.
In particular, Spezza has rebounded from a couple of disappointing seasons to find himself among the league leaders in assists and points.
Looking ahead, the Senators' biggest concern has to be in net, as starter Craig Anderson's hand injury forced GM Bryan Murray to deal for mammoth youngster Ben Bishop, who has played admirably in Anderson's absence.
However, while Bishop's 1.96 GAA in seven games is an encouraging sign, rookie goaltenders tend to be streaky, so it's difficult to project how well the 25-year-old will hold up down the stretch if Anderson isn't completely healthy.
Chances of winning the Northeast Division: 35 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 70 percent
More than three-quarters the way through the season, the Washington Capitals are far from being the Stanley Cup contender most analysts projected them to be after GM George McPhee landed two-time All-Star goaltender Tomas Vokoun in the offseason.
Instead of jockeying for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals find themselves clinging to the final playoff spot in the conference, and sit four points back of the Southeast Division-leading Panthers, who still have a game in hand.
Fortunately for the Capitals, captain Alex Ovechkin has elevated his game as of late, notching six goals in his last five games, but Washington's ability to score is still hampered by the absence of Nicklas Backstrom, who has now missed more than 30 games with a concussion.
While Backstrom has begun skating, he's still a long way from returning to the lineup, so the Caps will have to receive more production out of Alexander Semin (47 points) and Marcus Johansson (41 points) if the team wants to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
If the defense holds up, and goaltender Michal Neuvirth can make up for Vokoun's continued groin problems, the Caps will hold onto a playoff spot, but in order to overtake Florida and claim their fifth straight Southeast Division banner, they'll need the Panthers to stumble during their final eight games.
Chances of winning the Southeast Division: 25 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 70 percent
The Winnipeg Jets have been one of the feel-good stories of the NHL's 2011-12 season, as the team has surprised its rabid fan base by overachieving and playing its way back into the playoff race in its first season in Manitoba after relocating from Atlanta.
The Jets, led by a formidable defense corps featuring All-Star Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Mark Stuart, have been among the NHL's most surprising teams, and with just eight games left, they're only four points out of the final postseason berth in the East.
On Friday, the Jets pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season by erasing a three-goal deficit on the road in Washington en route to a 4-3 overtime win.
Going forward, the Jets need to reverse their current trend (four wins in their last 10), and continue to receive offensive contributions from the likes of Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd if they're to leapfrog Washington and Buffalo to take the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference.
Chances of winning the Southeast Division: 10 percent
Chances of earning a playoff berth: 25 percent