NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Race Heats Up in Final Month

Alan BassSenior Writer IMarch 25, 2009

Like most every other year, the time has come for the playoff race, and man, is it closer than ever…

Eighth place and twelfth place are separated by just nine points, and it is even closer in the Western Conference.  The race is heating up, and there are numerous teams that no one expected to make the playoffs, and others who would disappoint their fan base greatly if they missed out on the postseason fun.

Standings as of March 25, 2009:

1. Boston Bruins

102 points, 46-17-10

Why they will win: Their entire team has been playing unbelievably well for the whole season, backed up by solid goaltending by Tim Thomas.  Head Coach Claude Julien has brought this team together with his “defense-first” approach to coaching.  It has resulted in a surprise season by the B’s, and what seems like an eventual first seed in the conference.

Why they will lose: They are relying too much on Tim Thomas.  He has been arguably the best goaltender in the NHL this season, but as of recent, they are counting on him to win the games for them.  Remember, Bruins, he is not Martin Brodeur.  He will not win you a Stanley Cup.  He will help you get there, but you need to give him some support.

X-Factor: Thomas.  He has been the cornerstone of this team.  Even when the offense didn’t score, or when the defense didn’t help him out, Thomas was there to back his team to victory, or at least give them a chance.

How they can be beat: Outwork them. The Bruins are the hardest-working team in the league, and you can contribute that to coach Claude Julien and his defense first approach.  The hardest-working team will always find a way to win the game.

Prediction: The Bruins will finish in first place.

2. New Jersey Devils

97 points, 47-23-3

Why they will win: There are so many reasons for this one, you could probably go on for a few paragraphs.  For starters, Brodeur is back to his old self, and there is no risk of fatigue this season, having played just over twenty games so far. 

The Devils finally have offense this season, with the breaking out of Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, and more. 

Finally, their defense is filled with “no-names,” yet it is just as effective as it was when they won the Cup in ’95, ’00, and ’03.  Brent Sutter and the rest of the coaching staff has made this team what it should be: a TEAM, as opposed to a group of superstars, a la the Rangers.

Why they will lose: If you get into Brodeur’s head, he will give up goals.  Doesn’t happen much, but it’s possible.  Just ask—what’s his name?  Oh right, Sean Avery.

X-Factor: Brendan Shanahan.  Shanahan has been injured recently, but when he is in the lineup, he seems to make a difference.  Offensively, he may not be ready to play, but if he can bring his experience and defensive play to the table, perhaps he can help lead this team to victory.

How they can be beat: The Devils’ penalty kill has been weak for the majority of the season.  Against many teams, Jersey’s penalty kill has been the difference between leaving with two points, or simply leaving with a bag of pucks.

Prediction: The Devils will finish in second place.

3. Washington Capitals

97 points, 45-23-7

Why they will win: Consistency.  The Capitals have been consistently good all season, unlike last year, where a coaching change was needed in order to straighten things out.  Alex Ovechkin may not be on pace for the 65 goals he netted last season, but he is still leading this team. 

A team with unbelievable offensive ability, and the ability to play in the defensive zone with both skillfulness and physical pressure, the Caps are on their way to a successful postseason (finally).

Why they will lose: The Capitals are an unbelievable team.  At home, that is.  In their home Verizon Center, the Caps have a plus-28 differential of goals for and goals against.  On the road, however, they are minus-one, and have a significantly lower winning percentage.

X-Factor: Jose Theodore.  Theodore has been doing extremely well this season, but based on recent performances of the past few years, he will not win you a game when it comes down to goaltending (see Avalanche, Colorado and Canadiens, Montreal). 

If the Capitals hope to advance past the first round—unlike last season’s devastating game seven overtime loss to the Flyers—Theodore needs to come up with some big saves.

How they can be beat: Be patient.  The Capitals are first in the league in giveaways, with over 900.  If you wait for the Capitals to make a mistake and give the puck up, you will have a great offensive opportunity.

Prediction: The Capitals will finish in third place.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

90 points, 40-22-10

Why they will win: The Flyers are the deepest offensive team in the NHL.  They are the only team in the league with six 20-goal scorers; Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Mike Knuble, and Joffrey Lupul. 

The Flyers are one of the most dangerous teams in the league, simply because anyone can score at anytime.  Opponents need to be aware for a full sixty minutes if they hope to defeat Philadelphia.

Why they will lose: This team has struggled from the onset with consistency.  While opening the season with an 0-3-3 record, they have had numerous losing streaks throughout the season, capped off by numerous winning streaks. 

The Flyers cannot expect to win in the playoffs playing hot and cold.  They need to be consistently on fire, or simply bail out right now.

X-Factor: Face-offs.  The Flyers are ranked 23rd in the league in face-off percentage.  When you fail to win face-offs, you both fail to capitalize on offensive abilities, and fail to defend opponents’ opportunities.  This stat must improve for the Flyers to retain possession of the puck.

How they can be beat: “Use your speed to cause the Flyers to take undisciplined penalties and tire out their penalty killers, most of whom play in all situations.  The Flyers have led the league in penalty minutes for most of the season” (Sam Carchidi, Philadelphia Inquirer).

Prediction: The Flyers will finish in fourth place.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

87 points, 40-28-7

Why they will win: The Hurricanes are in the top ten in the league in shots per game.  They are great at putting pressure on you in the defensive zone and forcing a team to make mistakes with the puck. 

They have a fair amount of depth, and much of their 2006 Stanley Cup winning team intact.  With the experience and talent they have, they could absolutely make the playoffs and challenge a top team for a series win.

Why they will lose: No player on their team averages a point per game.  They have no standout players that can take control of a game.  Eric Staal is not producing like he used to, Brind ‘Amour is a minus-25, and Ray Whitney, they team’s leading goal scorer, is a minus-1.

X-Factor: Physical play.  The Hurricanes do not really have that “tough guy”; the enforcer who can ensure that nothing will happen to the team’s top offensive players.  Carolina does not know how to play a physical game, and that will ultimately hurt them come playoff time.

How they can be beat: Score first.  The Hurricanes are in the top half of the league in loses when trailing after the first period.  If a team is able to get a lead going early in the game, they may be able to have the Canes playing a desperation game for the remainder.

Prediction: The Hurricanes will finish in seventh place.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

86 points, 39-27-8

Why they will win: New head coach Don Bylsma has instilled a new confidence into the Penguins.  They have a good mix of players, the young and talented Crosby and Malkin, along with some experienced veterans, including Bill Guerin and Hal Gill.  They are basically just as talented as they were last season, and are now playing like they were last postseason.

Why they will lose: This team has seemed to be missing something ever since Marian Hossa left the team on July 1, 2008.  Bill Guerin was acquired at the deadline, but no other moves were made in order to help this ailing team. 

True, they are playing extraordinarily well as of recent, but no one knows if they will be able to keep it up for sure.

X-Factor: Blocked Shots.  The Penguins are one of the few teams this season with excess of 1,000 blocked shots.  If they can keep that up, they will take a lot of pressure of Marc-Andre Fleury, who clearly has not been all that he was cracked up to be, at least for this year. 

The Pens can prevent numerous shots per game from going through, which in return gives them a much better chance of winning.

How they can be beat: Having seen this similar Penguins’ team more than most other teams in the league, I see weaknesses often in the Pittsburgh squad.  Most notably, teams must learn to get into the heads of Malkin and Crosby. 

Crosby can be upset by shoving him around a bit, but Malkin, you need to be smart with.  Simply checking him will not work, but perhaps a team can shadow him a la Wayne Gretzky to prevent the league’s point leader from doing anything. 

In games that either Malkin or Crosby fail to record a point, the Penguins are 7-17.

7. New York Rangers

86 points, 39-27-8

Why they will win: John Tortorella has turned this team around, and created a consistent, talented team out of Renney’s Remnants (another good name for a band, by the way). 

Coach John demands the best out of each and every one of his players, and he gets it almost every night.  As a friend of mine explained, “Tortorella makes his players s**t Tiffany’s cuff links.”  Well said.

Why they will lose: The Rangers have been inconsistent all season, and though it subsided a bit when Tortorella took over, the Rangers still are not winning the way they should be with the amount of talent in that lineup. 

New York, the USA’s biggest media outlet, especially for pro sports, needs to be able to put a quality product on the ice every night, or the fans will dump this team faster than Jennifer Aniston dumped Brad Pitt.  Or better yet, faster than the Flyers dump every single one of their coaches.  Okay, you get the point.

X-Factor: Sean Avery.  Last season, he arguably was one of the major reasons as to why the Rangers were able to get inside Martin Brodeur’s head and defeat them in the first round.  But then, they ultimately lost to the Penguins.  Avery needs to make sure that he does his job, but that he does not go too far.  The NHL can only create so many rules.

How they can be beat: The Rangers are last in the league, I repeat, last in the league in goals per game, with just under 2.5.  By playing a bit of defense and making sure the Rangers cannot capitalize on their opportunities, any team will be able to demolish the Rangers.

Prediction: The Rangers will finish in sixth place.

8. Montreal Canadiens

83 points, 37-27-9

Why they will win: They have one of the best defensemen in the league in Andrei Markov, a great young goalie in Carey Price, and a fresh new coach in Bob Gainey, who now has dual duty in both the front office and behind the bench for the remainder of the season. 

They have their fans behind them, and history, which says that the Canadiens must win at least one Stanley Cup every decade.  It hasn’t happened yet this decade, and it is the Habs’ last chance to continue writing the history books.

Why they will lose: Their top points producer is their defenseman.  The top Canadiens’ forward has just 48 points, yet a negative plus-minus rating, as does the majority of the team.  As much as defense wins championships, the Habs need some offense as well if they want to make this a successful 100th year of existence.

X-Factor: Defense.  The Canadiens give up more goals than they score, and in the playoffs, that will not win you games.  Last year, the Flyers proved that the mighty Canadiens were beatable, and everyone seems to be following in the Flyers’ footsteps, which is evident in the Canadiens’ recent performance.

How they can be beat: In last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, the Flyers proved that apparently, a young goalie will make many mistakes, and mentally break down.  They also were able to contain Alexei Kovalev, which ultimately slowed down the entire team. 

All teams have contained Kovalev this season, which is evident by his lack of offensive production.  Price has not been on top of his game, which of course lessens the Habs’ chances to win.

Prediction: The Canadiens will finish in eighth place.

9. Florida Panthers

81 points, 35-27-11

Why they will win: The Panthers’ offense is much improved, even after losing Olli Jokinen at last season’s NHL Entry Draft.  New head coach Peter DeBoer has turned this team into a group of young, talented players, capable of making the playoffs.

Why they will lose: They have given up many goals, having a goals against average of 2.71 per game.  Considering they kept their star player in Jay Bouwmeester, rather than trading him away at the deadline to the numerous teams who inquired for his services, they have not been able to keep the puck out of the net.

X-Factor: Special teams.  With a power-play quarterback like Bouwmeester, the Panthers’ power play sure is weak.  The penalty kill is not much better.  When a penalty kill is so bad, it not only gives up goals, it prevents a team from playing aggressively, for fear they will receive a penalty.

How they can be beat: With speed.  They do not have the speed on defense to win games or to stop stronger teams.  If a team is able to tire the Cats’ legs out in the first ten minutes of the game, they will easily dominate the next fifty.

Prediction: The Panthers will finish in ninth place.

Final Standings Prediction:

1.   Boston Bruins

2.   New Jersey Devils

3.   Washington Capitals

4.   Philadelphia Flyers

5.   Pittsburgh Penguins

6.   New York Rangers

7.   Carolina Hurricanes

8.   Montreal Canadiens

Alan Bass is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report, the Community Leader for the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers’ section, and a writer for Prohockeynews.com and Insidehockey.com.  You can contact him at ALN424@aol.com.


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