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Ranking the 8 Hottest Teams in the NHL Heading into the Playoffs

Rob VollmanContributor IApril 13, 2014

Ranking the 8 Hottest Teams in the NHL Heading into the Playoffs

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    Timing is everything, and catching fire right before the playoffs can make the difference between a deep run and an early exit. A hot stretch to end the regular season not only suggests that everything is working, but gives a team the confidence and momentum needed to get the right start to the postseason. Which teams are the hottest right now?

    To answer that question I looked at each playoff team's record down the stretch. Breaking it down into various areas like scoring, defense, goaltending, possession and quality of opponents helped rank each of the league's hottest teams.

    Turn over to find out which teams are firing on all cylinders, which players are fueling that drive and which teams have the right conditions to continue.

     

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

     

8. Los Angeles Kings

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    Gene J. Puskar

    What They've Done

    The Los Angeles Kings closed out the season with a shootout loss to Anaheim, their fifth loss in the past seven games.

    Their inclusion on this list is a nod to their having won 14 of their previous 17 contests. When that fuller length of time is considered, the Kings are one of the league's hottest teams.

    Since the Olympic break the Kings have shut out their opponents four times and held four other foes to a single goal. On their end, they haven't been shut out since losing to Philadelphia, 2-0, on February 1.

     

    How They Did It

    The Kings are known for their defensively committed, physical, possession-based play, and not for their consistent ability to score.

    But the team is moving in the right direction on that second front. After being held pointless in his first three games as a King, trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik has 16 points in 16 games. That should take some scoring pressure off of Anze Kopitar, who nevertheless has 12 goals and 11 assists since the Olympic break.

     

    Will It Continue?

    No team wants to lose the Los Angeles lottery and play the Kings in the first round. Any victory is bound to be a Pyrrhic one where the exhausted winner makes their playoff exit the very next round.

    The Kings are one of the most physical teams in the league. They have, however, been vulnerable in short stretches this year, and that's all it will take to end their season. In addition to this past cold stretch, they had three separate five-game losing streaks prior to the Olympic break.

    On the other hand, if the Kings get hot they become nearly unstoppable, much as they were in 2012. Never underestimate this team, the perennial Western Conference dark horse.

     

     

7. Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    What They've Done

    Minnesota has won five of its last seven, the only losses coming to Chicago and Nashville. This was a welcome turnaround for a team that went 3-5-4 in its previous 12 contests.

     

    How They Did It

    Trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov has been on fire since joining the Wild.

    Undefeated in regulation time, the new netminder has a 7-1-3 record in Minnesota, a .911 save percentage, a 2.12 goals against average and a team-leading three shutouts, including back-to-back donuts against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.

    That's not to give their goaltending all the credit. Early in the March the Wild began to reverse a season-long negative trend in their possession numbers and have largely been playing even once again.

     

    Will It Continue?

    A hot goalie can take a team far in the NHL playoffs. Big wins recently over St. Louis, Boston, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles suggest that the Wild are capable of pulling off an upset.

    The odds are obviously stacked against Minnesota, which is making only its fifth postseason appearance in its 13-season franchise history. But the Wild can be competitive with even the league's best when everything's clicking.

     

     

6. Anaheim Ducks

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    Jae C. Hong

    What They've Done

    With a shootout win over Los Angeles on Saturday night, the Anaheim Ducks are cruising into the season's final game with an 8-2-1 record over their last 11, fueled by a 40-29 scoring edge. Of course, only two of those games were against playoff teams.

     

    How They Did It

    Except for a short period in late November, the Ducks have been able to consistently convert on a higher portion of their scoring opportunities than their opponents.

    This season the Ducks have scored on 10.2 percent of their shots (or 11.1 percent over the last 11 games) compared to 8.5 percent for their opponents.

    Anaheim's offense is led by its two high-scoring superstars. Since the Olympic break, Anaheim has gone 12-6-3 behind Corey Perry (13 goals, nine assists) and Ryan Getzlaf (two goals, 18 assists).

    The Ducks have scored at least two goals in 16 straight games. During that span they've topped five goals on five occasions.

     

    Will It Continue?

    The Ducks proved a lot of analysts wrong by not only matching last year's franchise-high .688 winning percentage, but actually exceeding it.

    Their long-predicted collapse never occurred and they are flying into the postseason higher than ever. Over the course of the season, there have been only two seven-game stretches where four regulation-time losses can be found. Bruce Boudreau now has an amazing 111-55-22 record as the team's head coach.

    All that said, and given their mediocre possession-based play and their lackluster performance against non-playoff teams since the Olympic break, my stance is that the Ducks remain vulnerable to an early upset.

    As one of the analysts who earlier predicted their demise, this opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.

     

     

5. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara

    What They've Done

    Tampa Bay has a record of 11-3-2 over the last fifth of the season, its three regulation-time losses occurring only when it failed to score at least three goals (excluding a 3-2 shootout win over the Islanders).

     

    How They Did It

    Tampa Bay has scored 52 goals in its last 16 games, a 3.25 average, up from 2.88 earlier in the season.

    This hot stretch began two games after Martin St. Louis was traded to the Rangers and three games after Steven Stamkos returned from injury. It was the tail end of a 3-8-2 cold stretch, which included dropping five of the first six games after the Olympic break.

    Stamkos is leading the way with 11 of those goals along with six assists. Calder candidate Ondrej Palat is next with six goals and 11 assists. Free-agent Valtteri Filppula has four goals and 11 assists while star defenseman Victor Hedman has contributed two goals and 12 assists.

     

    Will It Continue?

    Tampa Bay's success can continue unless its opponents find a way to neutralize its star sniper and/or if its goaltending should slip.

    So far there's no sign of a problem in nets, as the Lightning are 3-0 and have allowed just four goals in the almost three full games since Ben Bishop was injured.

    Beyond that the Lightning are guided by great coaching and a large group of quickly developing rookies.

     

     

4. New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II

    What They've Done

    Despite a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to Montreal to cap the season, the Rangers are still 9-2-2 in their final 13 games. Granted nine of those were against non-playoff teams.

    The Broadway Blueshirts posted a 25-12-4 record in the season's second half.

     

    How They Did It

    The Rangers have finally completed their adjustment to Alain Vigneault's coaching system, and have lost the possession game just nine times in the second half of the year.

    Derek Stepan has scored a point in 15 of the season's final 22 games to climb to second in team scoring. Leader Mats Zuccarello has four goals and 10 assists in the final 13 games, and veteran Martin St. Louis has started to come to life with four points in the final three games.

    In nets Henrik Lundqvist has posted a .940 save percentage over his last 10 starts.

     

    Will It Continue?

    For those who believe that Boston and Pittsburgh can be bumped off, the New York Rangers are an excellent dark-horse choice to come out of the Eastern Conference.

    They have been one of the league's best teams in the second half, a feat that was accomplished with good depth and consistent possession-based hockey. Excluding the league's most dominant forces, this is the mid-tier team I feel most comfortable endorsing.

     

3. Montreal Canadiens

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    Chris O'Meara

    What They've Done

    With a thrilling 1-0 overtime victory over the New York Rangers in its final game, Montreal closes the season with an 11-3-1 record in its final 15 games, during which time the Canadiens have outscored their opponents 47 to 34.

     

    How They Did It

    It's no coincidence that Montreal's latest hot streak began with the healthy return of Carey Price.

    In one final pitch for the Vezina trophy, the Canadiens' star goalie has posted a .932 save percentage down the stretch, including a 41-shot blanking of the Rangers.

    The scoring has been led by Max Pacioretty, who had nine goals in the final 11 games to end the season with 39, the most for a Montreal player since Vincent Damphousse 20 years ago. That gives Pacioretty 87 goals over the past three seasons, 36 more than Tomas Plekanec in second place.

     

    Will It Continue?

    The Canadiens are generally not a strong possession team and spend a little more time in their own end and/or without the puck. They are consequently quite dependent on their star goalie and the abilities of their top threat to consistently find the back of the net. Pacioretty is the only player on the team with more than 20 goals. 

    That's not to say that Canada's lone playoff team will get knocked out in the first round. In addition to the aforementioned weapons, the Habs have two great defensemen and a great blend of youth and experience up front. In addition, Montreal is one of the few teams to have success against Boston lately.

     

2. Colorado Avalanche

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    What They've Done

    Colorado may have lost 5-1 to San Jose on Friday night, but it was only its second loss in 10 games and its lone defeat over that span in regulation time.

     

    How They Did It

    The Avalanche are winning the close games.

    Their recent 8-1-1 stretch was fueled by two overtime victories, two shootout victories, a single-goal regulation win and one empty-net victory. Only two of their eight wins was in any way decisive, a 4-1 victory over Edmonton and a 4-0 shutout of St. Louis.

    Of Colorado's 52 wins this season, 10 have come in overtime and five have come in shootouts. Thirteen have been decided by a single regulation-time goal and 13 others with an empty-net goal. Only 11 wins have come by a decisive margin, the lowest of any playoff-bound team. In total, they earned 89 points in close-game situations, 15 more than any other NHL team.

     

    Will It Continue?

    Colorado is hot, but it's as nerve-wracking as it is exciting to be in that many close games.

    Things could change on a dime if just one or two things start going wrong. Matt Duchene's recent injury, for instance.

     

1. Boston Bruins

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    What They've Done

    The Bruins have lost only two games in regulation time since dropping a 4-1 game to Montreal back in January.

    Boston posted a 15-1-1 record in March, but 1-1-3 in April. In total, the Bruins are 19-2-6 since February 1.

     

    How They Did It

    Boston has been successful at both ends of the ice and in every facet of its game.

    The Bruins haven't been shut out since a 3-0 loss to Colorado on the third game of the season. In fact, they've been held to a single goal only twice since that aforementioned loss to the Canadiens.

    Not only is Boston strong offensively, but also defensively. The team has posted four shutouts over that same span and has held opponents to a single goal six times.

     

    Will It Continue?

    The Bruins are a complete team that is firing on all cylinders. They are truly dominant and should continue to emerge victorious...unless they face the Canadiens.  

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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