Stanley Cup Playoff Projections for the 2013-14 NHL Season at the Olympic Break

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

Stanley Cup Playoff Projections for the 2013-14 NHL Season at the Olympic Break

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Less than seven weeks remain in the NHL regular season following the Olympic break. At this point, the playoff picture is starting to become clearer.

    Teams currently riding high in their respective standings are well positioned to make the playoffs. There's less certainty for those clubs jockeying for the lower playoff berths.

    Many factors will decide where the current contenders finish this season. Players who participated in the Winter Olympics could struggle to regain their form. Clubs that were surging before the Olympic break could have difficulty regaining their momentum. Several teams have roster weaknesses, which, if unchecked, could affect their final placement in the standings.

    Here's a look at the top eight teams in each conference (starting with the Western Conference), brief reviews of their best- and worst-case scenarios and projections as to where they could finish in the standings.

1st Overall Western Conference: St. Louis Blues

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: All of their nine Olympic participants continue playing well when the season resumes. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak silences his critics. They remain among the top five teams in scoring, defense and special teams.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Several of their Olympians struggle following the Sochi Games. Halak remains questionable as a reliable starter, forcing management to overpay for a replacement. As a result, team chemistry is adversely affected.

    Why They'll Land Here: Despite the lingering questions about their goaltending, the Blues have few weaknesses. Their depth at forward and defense should enable them to climb into first overall.

2nd Overall Western Conference: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: None of the 10 players they sent to the Olympics suffer a post-Sochi hangover. Their penalty kill improves. They surge ahead of Anaheim and St. Louis for first overall.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Many of their Olympians struggle to adjust to the NHL grind. The penalty kill remains dismal. They're overtaken by the Sharks and Avalanche.

    Why They'll Land Here: The defending Stanley Cup champions remain among the top clubs in the competitive Western Conference. Their depth and experience should help them nail down second overall.

3rd Overall Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry continue to shine following the Olympics. Jonas Hiller remains steady in goal. Their power play and penalty kill improves. They continue to lead the league in games won after giving up the first goal.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Getzlaf, Perry and Hiller falter after the Olympic break. Their special teams fail to improve. They lose more games when giving up an early lead.

    What They'll Land Here: Their slump leading up to the Olympic break allowed the Blues and Blackhawks to catch up to them in the standings. Given the depth of their challengers, the Ducks could slide to third overall.

4th Overall Western Conference: San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Logan Couture's return from hand surgery significantly boosts their offense. Veterans Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle benefit from the break in the schedule. Raffi Torres' return bolsters their checking-line grit.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Couture is slow to regain his form. Key Olympians Patrick Marleau, Antti Niemi and Joe Pavelski struggle down the stretch. Their power play worsens. They're overtaken by the Avalanche.

    Why They'll Land Here: Couture's return should provide a significant offensive boost. Their experience and depth should keep them among the top teams in the Conference. At the very least, they should hang onto fourth overall.

5th Overall Western Conference: Colorado Avalanche

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Under coach Patrick Roy, their young stars continue to improve. They make a move at the trade deadline to bolster their defensive depth. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov avoids a post-Olympic slump.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Their young scorers falter under the pressure of making the playoffs. They fail to improve their defense. Varlamov struggles to regain his pre-Olympic form.

    What They'll Land Here:  Roy believes in his players, and they continue to reward his faith in them. Their goaltending and offense will keep them in playoff contention. Their lack of defensive depth could prevent them from overtaking teams ahead of them in the standings.

6th Overall Western Conference: Minnesota Wild

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper continues playing well until Josh Harding returns to action. Mikko Koivu (broken ankle) returns in March. Olympians Zach Parise and Ryan Suter continue playing well.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Harding is out for the season, Kuemper struggles and no affordable replacement is found. Koivu is slow to return to form. Another lengthy losing skid threatens their playoff hopes.

    What They'll Land Here: The Wild could use more scoring depth, but their overall team play should keep them in playoff contention. Their hopes rest upon their goaltending. Either Harding returns strong, Kuemper continues filling in well or they seek an experienced rental goalie.

7th Overall Western Conference: Los Angeles Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: They add a top-six scorer who significantly boosts their anemic offense. They reverse their recent slide (winners of only six of their past 20 games) to hang onto a playoff berth.

    Worst-Case Scenario: No scoring help can be found. Slumping forwards Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams fail to improve. They fall out of playoff contention.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Kings are among the top defensive clubs, but their offense is terrible. They're second worst in goals per game and power-play percentage. If they can address this by the trade deadline, they should hang onto a playoff berth.

8th Overall Western Conference: Dallas Stars

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Leading scorers Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn pick up the pace. Kari Lehtonen remains solid in goal. Management bolsters their scoring depth at the trade deadline.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Seguin and Benn struggle under the pressure of carrying the offense. No additional scoring punch can be found. Lehtonen suffers another groin injury. They lose their pre-Olympic momentum.

    Why They'll Land Here: They overcame a rough stretch in January, collecting points in eight of their final 10 games before the Olympic break. If they can build momentum down the stretch, they should clinch their first playoff berth since 2008.

1st Overall Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy. Marc-Andre Fleury remains strong in goal. Kris Letang recovers from his stroke before the playoffs. Management finds an affordable scoring left winger to replace the sidelined Pascal Dupuis.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Crosby and/or Malkin are sidelined or struggle following the Olympic break. Fleury fades down the stretch. Letang is sidelined longer than anticipated. No suitable replacement for Dupuis is found.

    Why They'll Land Here: The website Man Games Lost lists the Penguins as leading the league in man-games lost to injury, yet they've ruled the Eastern Conference this season. Their depth, experience and coaching should ensure they finish atop the conference.

2nd Overall Eastern Conference: Boston Bruins

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: The Bruins maintain their consistency and overtake the injury-battered Penguins. The power play remains among the league's best. Management finds a suitable replacement for injured defenseman Dennis Seidenberg.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Olympians Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Loui Eriksson, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask struggle post-Sochi. The power play goes into decline. No suitable replacement for Seidenberg is found. They go into a late-season slump.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Bruins are playing consistently better this season compared to the past two. They've got sufficient depth and a skilled coach in Claude Julien to at least remain second overall in the East.

3rd Overall Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula return to action in March. Martin St. Louis keeps playing well following the Olympics. Goaltender Ben Bishop remains among the league's top goalies. They bolster their defense by the March trade deadline.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Stamkos is slow to regain his scoring touch. Bishop wilts under the pressure. They fail to improve their blue-line depth and slide down the standings.

    Why They'll Land Here: Despite Stamkos missing most of this season, the Lightning have remained among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Getting their top scorer back will immensely improve their offense. If Bishop remains healthy, they should hang onto third overall.

4th Overall Eastern Conference: New York Rangers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Their ongoing improvement vaults them up the standings. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist remains sharp. Rick Nash turns up his offense. They don't trade Ryan Callahan or Dan Girardi.

    Worst-Case Scenario: They struggle to regain their consistency following the Olympics. Callahan and/or Girardi are dealt and the returns fail to improve their playoff hopes. Team chemistry falls apart and they go into free fall in the standings.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Rangers overcame a slow start to rise into playoff contention. Their consistency since December should keep them moving up the standings. Barring management making a foolish move, they could finish fourth.

5th Overall Eastern Conference: Detroit Red Wings

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Their best players remain healthy following the Olympics. Johan Franzen returns to action in March. Young forwards Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist continue their improvement.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Injuries continue to hamper their performance. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk struggle following the Olympic break. They fail to to gain ground in the standings and fall out of playoff contention.

    Why They'll Land Here: Though a team in transition, injuries have prevented the Wings from placing higher in the standings. Their depth, experience and coaching keeps them in contention. With continued good health, they could reach as high as fifth overall.

6th Overall Eastern Conference: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Their hot streak prior to the Olympic break continues down the stretch. Leading scorers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk remain consistent. Their defensive play improves, easing the burden on their goaltenders.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Kessel and van Riemsdyk struggle following the Olympics. The defense remains terrible and the goalies struggle. They go into another lengthy funk, which threatens their playoff hopes.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Leafs are among the highest-scoring teams (2.82), but they lead the league in shots against per game (36.2). They risk burning out their goaltenders. To ensure a higher playoff berth, their defensive game must improve. 

7th Overall Eastern Conference: Montreal Canadiens

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Goaltender Carey Price continues playing well following the Olympics. Sophomore forward Alex Galchenyuk's return from injury boosts their offense. They also land a scoring forward before the trade deadline.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Price struggles or is injured. Their offense keeps sputtering. No rental scorer can be found. Another lengthy losing skid takes them out of playoff contention.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Habs are 22nd in goals per game (2.46) and give up the 10th-most shots against per game (30.6). Price should ensure they don't fall out of playoff contention. Their offense must improve if they hope to finish higher in the standings.

8th Overall Eastern Conference: Philadelphia Flyers

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Best-Case Scenario: Goaltender Steve Mason continues his strong play. Management bolsters their defense via trade. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds continue to carry the offense. They maintain their momentum while the clubs chasing them (Columbus, Ottawa, Washington) fade.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Mason struggles or is sidelined. Their defense fails to improve. They struggle following the Olympic break and are knocked out of contention.

    Why They'll Land Here: The Flyers worked hard under coach Craig Berube to overcome a slow start and rise into playoff contention. Their struggles earlier in January suggest they cannot afford to slacken. By maintaining their work ethic, they should clinch a playoff spot.