The Eastern Conference standings can be deceiving.
The team at the top is not the one that should be feared as the favorite for the winner of the Stanley Cup in 2009.
That title belongs to the New Jersey Devils.
For most of the season Stanley Cup Champion talk has been focused mainly on the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, and Boston Bruins. New Jersey has been a distant after-thought in that conversation because of the outstanding play of the others.
But the Devils should be the team to fear in the playoffs this year, and here's why.
Playoff matchups are a huge factor when it comes to winning it all. The Devils could have the easiest ride to the finals out of any team to make it to the dance.
In the West it's easy to see why the two favorites, Red Wings and Sharks, will have a very hard time making it to the finals, and being capable of withstanding a long series once there. If the playoffs started today, Detroit would be playing the Nashville Predators in the first round, the Sharks would play the Edmonton Oilers; but after that is where it gets tricky.
If both teams were to move on, they would be looking at second and third-round matchups with Calgary, Vancouver, or Chicago (unless there is a massive upset by Columbus). Those three teams, though beatable, would poise a large mountain to climb for both teams. Calgary and Vancouver especially would shock no one if they were the teams to come out of the West.
And of course, if all goes as planned, there would be a Detroit and San Jose Western Final—meaning the two teams have to play each other, and beat each other senseless.
That all has to happen just for them to make an appearance in the Finals.
New Jersey, well, they do not have things quite as tough. If the playoffs began today they would face the Montreal Canadiens—chalk that one up as a quick win with the struggling Habs in a freefall.
Next up would be one of four teams—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, or Washington—each having their strengths and not to be overlooked, but none seemingly with the skill and defense to sneak out four wins against the Devils. Of course it could happen, the Devils could be beat them, and I am certainly not saying that is out of the question.
But if a team had a choice of a second-round matchup, they would most certainly take the young, inexperienced Washington Capitals with their shaky goaltending, over the powerhouse Calgary Flames or the unable-to-lose-at-home Vancouver Canucks.
And if all went as planned in the East as well, there would be a New Jersey-Boston matchup in the Eastern Final. The slowly fading Boston team would, of course, be a challenging team to go toe-to-toe with, but New Jersey is playing at a level right now that looks to be far too strong for a team like Boston to contain.
By the time Detroit or San Jose (or heaven help any other Western team who had to get through those two to get there) get to the Finals, New Jersey will have most likely played less games, against weaker teams, with more time off in between rounds. The other two will have probably battled it out until the end in each of their rounds just to get there.
Injuries, fatigue, and extreme beard itchiness could all work against whoever has to face the Devils, who potentially exerting far less energy and effort getting there.
The Devils have Brodeur back and playing out of his mind, setting records on a nightly basis, and looking like the doctors did more than just fix his elbow; they made him unbeatable.
Patrick Elias and Zach Parise are scoring at will, and defensively New Jersey is, has, and always will be one of the best in the league.
This all could mean nothing come playoff time; obviously the beautiful thing about playoff time is that we never really know who is going to win it all, hence all the hockey-watching we do at that time of year.
But do not be surprised if the New Jersey Devils are enjoying a pleasure skate around the ice come June, hoisting a large, silver cup above their heads.
The New Jersey Devils are the team to beat in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.