Eastern Conference Teams with Most Momentum Heading into Stanley Cup Playoffs
Going into the NHL playoffs with some momentum created by a successful final month of the regular season doesn't guarantee a deep postseason run, but it gives players the confidence needed to perform at a high level in the first round.
We see players and teams go into the playoffs with momentum each year, and many of them are successful. The most recent example is last year's Los Angeles Kings, who went 12-4-3 going into last season's playoffs and went on to become the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup.
With all of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference clinched, let's take a look at the teams with the most momentum heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
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The Washington Capitals would not have won the Southeast Division without a late-season climb up the standings led by captain and superstar forward Alex Ovechkin.
The Russian winger has scored 22 goals in his last 20 goals, which is a remarkable accomplishment. This impressive goal-scoring form has vaulted Ovechkin to the top of the Maurice Richard Trophy race and the forefront of the Hart Trophy debate.
Ovechkin's performance impacts his team in a major way. His teammates feed off of his energy, and the team has a heightened level of confidence when he dominates opponents like he has over the final month of the regular season.
Consistently strong goaltending also gives teams a ton of confidence heading into the playoffs. Braden Holtby has a solid 8-1 record in April with a .936 save percentage as the Capitals' No. 1 goalie. His play over the last three weeks has reassured his teammates and the coaching staff that he's ready for the grind of the playoffs.
Washington has an 8-1-1 record in its last 10 games and will also have home-ice advantage in the first round, which it didn't have last season.
The Capitals didn't play a lot of top competition this year because the Southeast Division had very few quality teams, but opponents shouldn't underestimate this group going into the playoffs.
This team has plenty of postseason experience and a motivated captain who wants to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career.
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Sidney Crosby's absence from the lineup has not prevented the Pittsburgh Penguins from winning games and scoring goals on a consistent basis.
This team has won 22 of its last 26 games, a run that started with the team's perfect month of March (15-0).
The trade deadline acquisitions of Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray have given this team extraordinary depth, which has allowed it to dominate opponents despite the fact that Crosby, No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang and shutdown blueliner Paul Martin have all missed at least 10 games due to injury.
Pittsburgh ranks first in goals scored and second in power-play success with four quality lines for opposing coaches to game-plan for each game. In their last nine games, the Penguins have scored an average of 3.8 goals per game.
With plenty of depth, talent and Stanley Cup-winning experience, the Penguins will enter the playoffs as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh's recent success (7-3 record in its last 10 games) has given this team plenty of momentum going into the postseason.
New York Islanders
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There is a lot of excitement on Long Island because the New York Islanders are headed to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
One of the reasons behind the Islanders clinching a playoff berth is a remarkable performance by veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov in the second half of the year.
The Russian netminder has gone 15-4-5 with a .918 save percentage since the start of March, and the stability he's given the team at the most important position on the ice is the No. 1 reason for its turnaround in 2013.
In addition to Nabokov's impressive performances, superstar center John Tavares has also played at a high level for New York.
The 22-year-old forward is one of the top Hart Trophy candidates with 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists) in 47 games, and he has also impacted the team with his strong leadership and improved defensive play. Since the start of March, Tavares has tallied 22 points in 26 games.
The Islanders are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games, and their 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia on Thursday was the team's first regulation defeat in April (12 games).
They will benefit greatly from the excitement that their playoff run has built over the last few weeks on Long Island. There is a buzz in the air near the Nassau Coliseum that hasn't been felt in a long time.
New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers have gone 9-3-1 since the start of April and clinched a playoff spot with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night.
There are a few players who have played a key role in the team's success, but nobody has been more important than star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has a 9-3-1 record this month with a .931 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA. New York has struggled to score goals consistently and its power play has been ineffective for most of the season, and without Lundqvist's incredible performance over the last two months, this team would still be fighting for a playoff spot.
After making a couple of bold trade deadline moves, this Blueshirts squad finally has the depth and skill needed to make a deep playoff run.
New York is playing its best hockey of the season going into the playoffs, which will make this team a difficult opponent to beat four times in a seven-game series. The Rangers' confidence has never been higher in 2013 because of Lundqvist's dominance and the team's recent success following the trade deadline.
Toronto Maple Leafs
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The excitement and buzz around Toronto created by the Leafs earning a playoff spot for the first time in nine years has been incredible over the last week. Entering this season, the Leafs were the only NHL team that hadn't made the postseason since the 2004-05 lockout.
Led by the stellar performance of young goaltender James Reimer and the emergence of Nazem Kadri as a legitimate star, Toronto will have a tremendous opportunity to reach the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Leafs are 9-4-1 in their last 14 games (5-2-2 in their last nine games vs. playoff teams), with Reimer starting in all of those matchups. The 25-year-old netminder came into this season under a lot of pressure to perform at a high level and establish himself as the goaltender of the future in Toronto, and to his credit, Reimer has lived up to expectations.
Reimer is 19-7-5 with a .926 save percentage this season, and his consistently strong play in net has been a major reason behind the Leafs' improvement on the penalty kill (28th in 2011-12 to third in 2013).
The Leafs have also played well on special teams in April with six power-play goals and just three power-play goals against. Special teams plays a large role in determining the outcomes of playoff games, so it's encouraging for Leafs fans to have their team excelling in this area late in the season.
The city of Toronto couldn't be more excited for the return of playoff hockey. The team will feed off of this energy and receive an emotional boost from the electricity of the crowd at every postseason game at the Air Canada Centre.