Now that each NHL team has played at least twelve games, we are a little over a quarter of the way through the 2013 NHL season. Many things can change in the next two and a half months, and there are still tons of questions to be answered, but the big picture has cleared up just a little bit.
We've had some big surprises so far (Anaheim) and some big disappointments (Los Angeles, Washington), but everything can still change.
The playoff picture may be a little more clear: Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Vancouver look like locks already, and it's tough to picture Columbus making it in. This far into the season, there are still a lot of teams surrounded by uncertainty.
Only eight teams from each conference can get into the playoffs, while the other seven will take the spring off.
Let's take a look at the teams that are on the bubble. Who will get into the postseason, and who will hit the golf course early?
Buffalo has been shaky this season. Thomas Vanek is the top scorer in the NHL, but the rest of the team has not been impressive at all, checking in a 6-9-1 after their loss to Pittsburgh on February 17.
The team looks decent on paper but just cannot seem to get it going on the ice. This year has been very reminiscent of 2011-12; the Sabres once again were a popular pick to make the playoffs before the season started but have disappointed so far.
Despite Vanek's hot start, the team is near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Vanek has to be expected to cool down at some point, and if the rest of the team doesn't pick up big-time, Buffalo will be out of a playoff spot again.
With a new look in 2013, Carolina got off to a slow start. This could have been expected, as the team only had one week of training camp to try to gel together.
After a rough beginning, the Hurricanes have turned it up an notch and started to play some great hockey. This can be expected to continue barring major injuries. Carolina has one of the better offenses in the Eastern Conference and a solid goalie in Cam Ward.
With Florida, Winnipeg, and Washington all struggling, and with Tampa Bay playing mediocre hockey lately, the Hurricanes can be expected to keep up their stellar play and win the Southeast Division.
The Stars are one of the toughest teams to predict. They beat some great teams (Vancouver, Anaheim) but lost to some of the league's worst (Calgary, Columbus).
It's tough to tell which Stars team will show up on the ice each night. When they are playing at the top of their game, they can beat almost anyone. When they're not, they can be beaten by anyone.
It's tough to believe with Kari Lehtonen's superb goaltending and the play of skilled veterans like Jaromir Jagr, that this team will continue its inconsistency. Dallas has a solid core of some of the league's most underrated players like Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. As long as they don't collapse at the end of the season again, the Stars should be able to squeeze into one of the lower playoff spots in the West.
Detroit really shouldn't be on this list: They're not a bubble team. The standings right now say that they are, but Detroit has played good hockey despite having major injury issues.
Darren Helm, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Brendan Smith are all in the midst of injuries, and Mikael Samuelsson and Ian White have just returned.
This team is too good to miss the playoffs, especially once these key players return to the lineup. Detroit should not have too much of a problem returning to the postseason for the 22nd consecutive year.
Edmonton has been a lot of fun to watch and has shown some positive signs, but it may take one more season for the young guns to fully blossom and start topping the standings.
This team is not bad by any means, but it is still inexperienced and its defense and goaltending are not very impressive.
Edmonton will be a playoff team in 2014, but there is too much competition in the Western Conference in 2013 to get the job done,
Stanley Cup hangovers are never a good thing. Especially in a shortened season.
But is this a Stanley Cup hangover that we are seeing? Or is it the real Los Angeles Kings?
Last spring was by no means a fluke. Flukes don't dominate the league's best teams for two months straight. However, people forgot that the Kings barely made the playoffs in 2012 and thought that just because they won the Stanley Cup, they were locks for a top seed in 2013.
Obviously, this has not been the case so far, as the Kings have struggled mightily. In order to have a chance to make another run like last year's, Los Angeles needs to turn things around fast.
With so much competition in the Western Conference, this will be extremely hard to do, and the Kings will be the first team since the Hurricanes in 2007 to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup.
Zach Parise has been good, but Ryan Suter has been a huge disappointment. Rookie Mikael Granlund has yet to live up to expectations as well.
Minnesota had high expectations before the season started but has played mediocre hockey ever since and has had trouble hanging with some of the better teams in the conference.
In a deep Western Conference, Minnesota may have some trouble getting enough points to make the playoffs.
When it comes to the Canadiens, it's all about Andrei Markov's health. He has been healthy so far, and the team has been one of the best teams in all of hockey. Young players like Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher have also been contributing to the Habs' unexpected success.
If Carey Price continues his stellar play in net and Andrei Markov can keep his name off of the IR, Montreal can definitely crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Nashville has been a peculiar team. They are currently fourth in the Western Conference but have earned four points from shootout losses. Without those points, they would be on the outside looking in on the playoff pool.
Pekka Rinne is a big reason why Nashville has seven wins, as he has arguably been not only the best goalie, but the best player in the entire league. With an offense that cannot get much worse, Rinne has put the team on his back and made them very tough to beat.
If the offense can start scoring some goals, and if Shea Weber can start playing like he is known to, Nashville could be a very scary team.
Losing Erik Karlsson is beyond detrimental for the Ottawa Senators. They knew they would already be in a battle in order to make the playoffs, but by losing possibly the best defenseman in the game today, their chances got a whole lot worse.
Nobody can expect Milan Michalek to perform like he did last year, but he almost has to now in order to give this team a shot. Craig Anderson has been solid in goal, but the rest of the team may not have what it takes, especially without Karlsson.
The Flyers have been a tremendous disappointment in 2013 so far. Heck, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been their best player.
Philadelphia, however, has had several injury issues to deal with, most notably Scott Hartnell. When the team is healthy, they should be able to get some wins. This team is too talented to miss the playoffs entirely, and someone needs to take Ottawa's spot.
The Coyotes are a good team and have been winning some big games since a slow start. Goaltender Mike Smith has been coming back around after an injury, and the team looks determined to head back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
Last year, the Coyotes played great hockey down the stretch to an improbable Pacific Division title.
The Western Conference is extremely deep, and Phoenix will be in a year-long battle with Dallas and San Jose for the last playoff spot in the West. The Coyotes have been pretty good on both sides of the puck, and they can be expected to improve as the season wears on.
After a 7-0-0 start, the Sharks have dropped their next seven games. Who would have guessed?
San Jose's awful play recently includes getting shut out twice and getting blown out by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This team was pinned as a Stanley Cup favorite, but they may be emulating 2011-12 where they seemingly had a stranglehold on the Pacific. But they needed to fight for a playoff spot in the final weeks, only to get embarrassed by St. Louis in the first round.
Teams don't usually turn red-hot to ice-cold on a dime, but this is definitely not a good sign at all.
San Jose's decline last year was a little more steady, but in a shortened season, the Sharks need to figure out something fast if they want to make it to the playoffs again.
This is a bold prediction, but there are too many good teams in the Western Conference, and not enough playoff spots.
Verdict: Out (barely)
St. Louis, like Detroit, really isn't a bubble team, but they are on this slideshow just because of where they stand right now.
The Blues should be fine, but they have been a little disappointing since a good start, giving up a total of sixteen goals in two games against Detroit and one against Nashville. They have since bounced back, beating Detroit in overtime and grabbing two points in Calgary, but one thing remains true: These Blues are not quite as good as last season's version.
This is simply because Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott cannot be expected to be as good as they were last year, and while Halak has been battling an injury, Elliott has been proving that fact.
The Blues have scored many more goals than last year, but they have given up a lot more as well. They will make the playoffs, but it would not be surprising if they started the playoffs out with two games on the road.
The big question heading into this season was whether the Lightning would be more like the 2011 version, which made it to Game Seven of the Conference Finals, or the 2012 version, which didn't make it into the playoffs.
They started out looking like the 2011 version but now look like the 2012 version.
The Lightning are not a bad team, but they are not very deep behind Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Teddy Purcell, and rookie sensation Cory Conacher.
Tampa Bay will come very close but will barely miss out on the playoffs.
Toronto, this is the year. The Maple Leafs will finally be playing hockey in mid/late April.
Wait a minute, everyone will.
Anyways, Toronto actually does have a good team this year. They have been getting scoring from a good number of players, and Ben Scrivens has been decent in net.
The fact is, there are not eight teams in the Eastern Conference that are better than the Maple Leafs. You read that right.
The Maple Leafs will finally return to the playoffs, grabbing one of the final two seeds in the East.