Breaking Down the NHL Playoff Bubble and Who's a Real Contender

Alex GruberFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2013

Breaking Down the NHL Playoff Bubble and Who's a Real Contender

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    With about a third of this shortened NHL season already in the books, the playoff picture is beginning to sort itself out. The top teams are separating themselves somewhat, and the bottom squads are firmly established.

    In the middle, though, there is a lot of room for movers and shakers. Teams off to good starts can cool off quickly, while others can rebound from slower starts. Injuries can also take their toll, robbing teams of key assets down the stretch.

    Here, we'll examine the teams sitting at or around the playoff cutoff (the sixth through 10th seeds in each conference) to determine, based on what's happened so far, who will still be playing come May and who will be watching the playoffs on television.

    Note: Standings reflect games played up to and including Feb. 19th.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Currently sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, the Toronto Maple Leafs have certainly improved on what was a dreadful 2011-12 season, in which they dropped all the way to 13th in the East.

    They've embarked on a good run of late, having won six of their last eight, including three shutouts. Two of these have come in the last three games, with deputy goalie Ben Scrivens filling in superbly for the currently injured James Reimer.

    His teammates have aided him with three goals in each of those shutouts, indicative of the club's great depth on offense even without winger Joffrey Lupul. Youngster Nazem Kadri leads the team with 12 points, and James van Riemsdyk has a team-best eight goals so far.

    Phil Kessel, Matt Frattin and Tyler Bozak all have double-digit points as well, while defensemen Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Dion Phaneuf each have at least six points to their name.

    Additionally, the Leafs have only been taken to overtime once, in a win over the Buffalo Sabres. This ability to close out games can combine well with strong offensive production to make them a real contender for the playoffs.

Ottawa Senators

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    Behind the Leafs come their fellow Ontario residents, the Ottawa Senators. I've already detailed how successful some of their top players have been to this point, but unfortunately, the situation has changed a bit in the capital city.

    After a blistering start in January, the Sens have won just three of nine in February and have now lost Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson to a season-ending Achilles injury. Not only do they lose an excellent defenseman, but they also lose their top goal scorer to this point.

    With veteran forward Jason Spezza already dealing with a long-term injury, the Sens are in a world of hurt (sorry) right now. It'll be up to familiar faces like Daniel Alfredsson to shoulder most of the load from here on out.

    Youngster Kyle Turris, who leads the team with 11 points right now, should still be a reliable source of production, but his team will likely look to the older guard to guide it through this difficult stretch.

    The Sens might find consistency hard to come by, but the teams chasing them down are currently no less than three points away and fighting each other for that eighth spot. For now, expect the Sens to remain in the top eight.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Much like last season, the team in second place in the Southeast Division finds themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Last year, the Washington Capitals lost the division to the Florida Panthers by two points and settled for the seventh seed.

    In 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning are even on points (17) with the Carolina Hurricanes, yet occupy the eighth seed. They've won their last two games, against the Panthers and Leafs, but picked up just one point from the prior six games, not including the postponed game against the Boston Bruins.

    The Lightning continue to be dominant on offense, with the most goals scored in the league (59, four better than the second-place Chicago Blackhawks) and two 20-point players in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.

    But as I predicted early on, the Lightning defense has been a problem. They've allowed the second-most goals (47) of all 16 teams currently sitting in playoff positions. Indeed, they've let in an astonishing 23 goals in their last six games played.

    For this glaring reason, I think that the Southeast Division could wind up with only one playoff team this year, as the Lightning just miss out. You can't win games if your opponents outscore you.

New York Rangers

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    In place of the Lightning, the New York Rangers appear to be the most likely team to jump into the fray. Also sitting on 17 points right now, the Rangers have beaten the Lightning twice in February and have taken 11 points out of 16 this month.

    Running into the conference-leading Montreal Canadiens stopped a five-game point streak, but the positive run over the last three weeks has thrust the Rangers into legitimate playoff contention.

    Marquee summer acquisition Rick Nash sat out the loss with an injury, but he currently leads his squad in scoring with 12 points. He was originally on a line with fellow stars Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, but he dropped down to the second line last week to help youngster Carl Hagelin pick up his scoring pace.

    With good secondary scoring emerging from Hagelin and defensive players like Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers are looking to improve upon their 39 goals scored thus far, lower than seven of the eight teams ahead of them.

    But the big key in picking them over the Lightning is defense: The Rangers have allowed nine fewer goals so far. This is crazy, considering they play in a division currently run by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and David Clarkson. Their increased solidity makes them contenders to sneak into the postseason.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Rangers have a division rival on their tails as well, with the Philadelphia Flyers two points back in 10th place. The Flyers have struggled out of the gates, and the Rangers having two games in hand as well as the points lead does not bode well.

    Sure, they've scored seven goals in two separate games (against the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders), but they've allowed five in four other games, leading to a goals-against record worse than that of the Lightning.

    The Flyers have gotten plenty of good offensive production, with four players having picked up at least 13 points so far. This includes top goal scorer Matt Read and budding superstar Claude Giroux.

    But it's that defensive record that's keeping them down. They've got more players with negative plus-minus ratios (12) than with positive ones (10), with Giroux at minus-three and top scorer Jakub Voracek at minus-five.

    The Flyers face the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night but get three games against weak Southeast Division foes before the end of the month, as well as a battle with the Leafs. They'll need to pick up as many points as possible to have any chance of getting back into this playoff race.

St. Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues are a bit of a curious case right now. Their nine wins are third most in the Western Conference, yet they find themselves in a precarious sixth-place spot right now. And it's down to their form in February as the main culprit.

    A 6-1-0 January saw the Blues flying high, but they began this month by going 0-4-1, with four of those games being played at home. To make things worse, netminder Brian Elliott allowed four or more goals in each game filling in for an injured Jaroslav Halak.

    Stand-in backup Jake Allen has stemmed the tide somewhat in guiding the Blues to three wins in the last four, and with Halak due back Wednesday, they'll be hoping to continue that positive run in the coming weeks.

    They've gotten tons of offensive production, with 10 players having at least 11 points, including defenders Kevin Shattenkirk (14) and Alex Pietrangelo (12). But while the defenders are scoring, they're not defending too well.

    Their 50 goals allowed are just one fewer than the conference bottom dwellers, the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets. Elliott's 3.57 goals-against average is a far cry from his excellent stats last season.

    The Blues' strong offense combined with Halak's return to health ought to be enough to revive a stuttering season to keep them comfortably in the playoffs.

Phoenix Coyotes

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    The first team chasing down the Blues is the Phoenix Coyotes. Having gotten points in seven of their nine February matchups (six wins), the Coyotes find themselves in seventh place in the West, one point behind the Blues and one ahead of the two teams behind them.

    They've not been setting the world on fire in the process, though. Their two regulation losses were by a combined 9-2 scoreline, and they allowed the visiting Blue Jackets to score three in a 5-3 home win Saturday night.

    Their offensive core has been average, with Radim Vrbata leading the way at just 12 points and just one other player (Martin Hanzal) in double digits. Additionally, goalie Mike Smith's two shutouts are masking what's been a down year compared to 2011-12.

    The Coyotes have won four of five, including a Monday night blanking of the Calgary Flames. So things do seem to be looking up for them. But they need to make sure their play does not waver back to levels that saw them lose four of five to start the season. They'll make the playoffs, but it'll be tight.

Dallas Stars

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    One of the two teams chasing the Coyotes is the Dallas Stars. Their 17 points are just two worse than the fifth-seeded San Jose Sharks but only two better than the 11th seed, the Edmonton Oilers. As such, they're smack dab in the middle of those two in eighth.

    Additionally, the Stars are the only team among the 16 current playoff teams with a negative goal differential: They've allowed two more goals (45) than they've scored (43). They've let in 14 over their last three games (1-2-0), including seven and four in the two losses to the Flames.

    But the win, coming against the Vancouver Canucks, is one of five such results in the Stars' last seven games. Four of those wins have come on the road, with the other coming at home, as they handed the Anaheim Ducks their only loss in their last 10 games.

    So all in all, it's not been too bad for the Stars. Veteran signing Jaromir Jagr has continued to defy his age, with a team-leading 11 points in 15 games played. They've gotten solid contributions across the board, with five other players boasting at least nine points.

    They can't continue to allow more goals than they score if they want to make the postseason. But they've been the least inconsistent of the teams seeded eight through 10 of late. If they want to make the postseason, the Stars will have to go through one team in particular…

Detroit Red Wings

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    That's right—the Detroit Red Wings are currently not in the playoffs. A disappointing February has seen the usually reliable Red Wings drop six of their last nine, and their minus-five goal difference is worse than that of the Stars.

    New captain Henrik Zetterberg is off to a great offensive start, with 20 points already to his name. Additionally, this season has seen the emergence of 26-year-old rookie Damien Brunner, who is tied with veteran Pavel Datsyuk with a team-leading seven goals to this point.

    So they're getting plenty of goals, but they're also allowing plenty of goals. Their last six losses have seen them allow four or more goals five times, including Tuesday night's overtime loss to the Nashville Predators.

    Jimmy Howard has yet to recapture the form that saw him rank among the best netminders in the league in 2011-12. And some of the guys in front of him have been off their games, with new defensive lynchpin Niklas Kronwall sporting a minus-nine despite his 10 points.

    The Red Wings' schedule is not an easy one over the next couple weeks, with games against the Canucks, Blackhawks and Predators on the horizon. If they continue to struggle, they could find themselves out of contention pretty quickly.

Minnesota Wild

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    The Western Conference's 10th seed belongs to the Minnesota Wild. This could certainly be considered a disappointment, given their free-agent acquisitions of both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter raising expectations.

    Parise has been solid thus far, notching seven goals while working with fellow stars Dany Heatley and club captain Mikko Koivu. But this trio is pulling most of the offensive weight. Their 15 goals are nearly half of the team's league-worst total of 33, tied with the similarly disappointing Los Angeles Kings.

    Defensively, they've been solid enough. Their 38 goals allowed is lower than the previous four teams on this list. They recently held the strong Red Wings offense down in a 3-2 home win, pulling them closer to their division rivals.

    But the lack of secondary scoring is going to really hurt the Wild in the stretch run. Being overly reliant on one line to do all the scoring could burn them out quickly, and if nobody is there to pick up the slack, they can be easily stopped.

    The Wild may only be one point behind the Stars and Red Wings, but they've got the least good going for them other than a decent run of results (3-1-1). Expect them to fall short this season.