Breaking Down the Top Playoff Races After the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline
The passing of the NHL trade deadline has shifted the focus of the hockey world to the playoff race, where there are many clubs fighting for division titles, home-ice advantage or just to earn a spot in the 16-team tournament.
As of April 4, there are only six teams more than four points out of a playoff spot, which means that 24 fanbases still have plenty of reasons to be excited for the final month of the 2013 season.
This year's playoff races could result in the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets all making the playoffs, which would be a refreshing change for the NHL. These three teams have two combined playoff appearances since the 2006-07 season.
Let's look at a breakdown of the top playoff races in the NHL.
Who Will in the Southeast Division?
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One positive thing about the new realignment plan for the 2013-14 season is the elimination of the Southeast Division, which has been the worst division in the league over the last two years.
The Florida Panthers won the division last season with 94 points, which was the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Through the first three quarters of 2013, the Winnipeg Jets hold the top spot in the division with 38 points, which wouldn't be good enough to earn a playoff spot if this team were in another division.
Here is how the Southeast standings look as of April 4:
|2||Winnipeg Jets ||39||18||19||2||38|
|4||Tampa Bay Lightning||35||16||18||2||34|
Two weeks ago, it looked liked the Jets were well on their way to winning their first division title in team history and making the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Winnipeg.
However, they have lost five straight games, which has allowed the Capitals to climb back into the race. Washington has a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games, and this team looks much more confident than it did during the first half of the season.
The key for Winnipeg (my pick to win this division) is winning at home in the final few weeks of the season. Seven of its last nine games are at the MTS Centre, where the Jets are just 8-9-0 after being nearly unbeatable at home for a majority of the 2011-12 season.
Only two of those nine games are against teams in a playoff spot, which gives the Jets a great opportunity to beat the weakest teams in the East and earn the points they need to clinch a postseason berth. The Capitals have 11 games remaining, but six of them are against playoff teams.
The combination of having a stronger roster than last season plus an easy remaining schedule with lots of home games gives Winnipeg the best chance to win the division and earn the No. 3 seed in the East playoffs.
Key Game to Watch: Tuesday, April 23—Winnipeg at Washington
Battle for Northeast Supremacy
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It's great to see the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins battling for the top spot in the Northeast again, but overall, this has become one of the most competitive divisions in hockey this season. It's the only division with four teams in a playoff spot in the East standings.
Here's an updated look at the Northeast standings:
|1||Montreal Canadiens ||37||24||8||5||53|
|2||Boston Bruins ||36||24||8||4||52|
|4||Toronto Maple Leafs ||37||20||13||4||44|
|5||Buffalo Sabres ||37||14||17||6||34|
The Leafs have had a great season and will end their seven-year playoff drought in 2013, but it's a two-horse race for the division title. Boston and Montreal will battle for the top spot in the division, and it may not be decided until the final few days of the season because these rivals have lost two straight games in regulation just one time.
Winning the division is a very important goal for both of these teams because it will guarantee them a second-round matchup that doesn't include the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will likely finish atop the Eastern Conference. The Penguins are the biggest threat to Boston and Montreal in the Eastern Conference, so the ideal situation is to avoid Pittsburgh until the conference finals.
Of all the division races in the final month of the season, this one will be the most competitive and exciting.
Key Game to Watch: Saturday, April 6—Boston at Montreal (final head-to-head matchup of regular season)
The Northwest Division Title Race Is Finally Exciting
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The Vancouver Canucks have dominated the Northwest since the 2004-05 lockout with five first-place finishes and four consecutive division titles.
That streak could end in 2013. The Minnesota Wild are a legitimate threat in the division right now, and with their impressive core of young players at forward and on the blue line, this team is going to be a Western Conference contender for five to seven more years.
Since both of these teams have lost two in a row, the Edmonton Oilers have now entered the division title race with their five-game winning streak. They currently sit five points back of the Wild and Canucks, both of whom have 44 points.
|1||Minnesota Wild ||36||21||13||2||44|
|2||Vancouver Canucks ||36||19||11||6||44|
|3||Edmonton Oilers ||36||16||13||7||39|
|4||Calgary Flames ||35||13||18||4||30|
|5||Colorado Avalanche ||36||12||20||4||28|
Even though the Oilers have made a nice run in the last two weeks, the division title race is between Minnesota and Vancouver.
Nine of the Wild's final 12 games are against teams in a playoff spot, or two points away from a postseason berth. Five of those matchups are home at the Xcel Energy Center, where Minnesota has a 13-4-1 record. The Wild have lost three of their last four games, but prior to that, they went on a seven-game win streak.
After making so many changes to their roster in the offseason, including trades, major free-agent signings and calling up top prospects, it was going to take some time for this Minnesota team to gel and develop chemistry, especially on the blue line. The Wild are finally playing as a cohesive unit, and the crispness of their passing and the effectiveness of their power play has really improved over the last month.
The Wild are playing their best hockey of the season right now, and after acquiring a top-line winger in Jason Pominville from the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, Minnesota has become one of the deepest and most well-balanced teams in the league.
Vancouver has a good team with plenty of playoff experience, but its offense is struggling (ranks 21st in goals scored) and the power play (ranked 29th) has been awful this season. The Canucks also have to finish the season against the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers in their final four games.
Minnesota is the favorite to win the Northwest Division for the first time since the 2007-08 season, but this will be a fascinating race. The Canucks will make the race competitive until the last week.
Key Game to Watch: Tuesday, April 9—Minnesota at Chicago
Edmonton Oilers Making the West Playoff Race Exciting
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The playoff race in the Western Conference is fascinating because the difference between the the San Jose Sharks in fifth and the Dallas Stars in 13th is just nine points.
There are so many different teams who could make the playoffs in the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the West, including a few clubs that haven't tasted the postseason in several years.
Two of those teams are the Edmonton Oilers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Edmonton has built a solid foundation of talented young players who have bright futures ahead of them. One player who has taken the next step in his development this season is top-six winger Taylor Hall, who has 41 points in 33 games.
Hall and the Oilers have taken sole possession of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, and after they didn't give up any veterans at the trade deadline, Edmonton will make a strong push for its first postseason berth since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2005-06.
Playing important games late in the year is a new experience for many of the Oilers' core players, and the way that they have embraced this challenge while also winning games is an encouraging sign.
The Blue Jackets are another wonderful story this season. They upgraded their top-six in a major way by trading for New York Rangers star winger Marian Gaborik on Wednesday without giving up any of their three first-round picks in the 2013 NHL draft.
Since Columbus now has an elite goal scorer to go with its deep blue line and strong goaltending with Sergei Bobrovsky, they won't be an easy opponent for anyone in the final weeks of the season.
Below the Blue Jackets are the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators, who both have lots of playoff experience.
It would also be unfair to rule out the Phoenix Coyotes as a playoff team in the West. Phoenix is a strong defensive team with good goaltending and a veteran core that understands what it takes to win meaningful games late in the year.
The playoff race in the West is wide open and there are four or five teams with a great chance to earn the seventh and eighth seeds. At the moment, the favorites for the eighth spot are the Oilers and Blue Jackets.
Islanders and Rangers Batting for Final Spots in East Is Great for NHL
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The New York Islanders and New York Rangers rivalry might be regaining some of its luster again, which is great news for the NHL.
These two in-state rivals had a fierce rivalry throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and with the Islanders building a playoff contender and moving to Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season, expect some fierce battles between these teams over the next few years.
The Rangers and Islanders will be among the many clubs trying to capture one of the final two spots (assuming just one Southeast team qualifies) in the East because there are five teams in the conference with a 98.6 percent chance or better (via Sports Club Stats) of reaching the postseason.
Here's what the playoff race looks like in the East as of April 4:
|7||New York Islanders||38||18||16||4||40|
|8||New York Rangers||36||15||12||9||39|
|9||New Jersey Devils ||37||15||13||9||39|
|10||Winnipeg Jets ||39||18||19||2||38|
After a horrible start to the season, the Flyers are still firmly in the playoff race. Like the Islanders and Capitals, Philly is playing its best hockey of the year right now.
With a difficult schedule and not having Ilya Kovalchuk in the lineup because of an injury, the Devils will likely continue their slide down the standings in the new few weeks.
The Rangers added four players (forwards Ryane Clowe, Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore) at the trade deadline to bolster their depth and grit. New York has the goaltending needed to win games late in the season with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, so it's hard to imagine them falling out of the playoff race.
The other team that will join the Rangers in the final two playoffs spots in the East is the Islanders, who have an easy schedule remaining. The Islanders are playing with a ton of confidence right now.
None of the five teams listed above were sellers at the trade deadline, which shows that each club's ownership thinks the playoffs are a realistic goal. We are going to have an exciting playoff race in the East during April.