What if the NHL Playoffs Started Today? The Eastern Conference Edition
Now that the NHL is halfway through its 82-game schedule, with all 30 teams playing at least 41 games, the Stanley Cup playoffs don't seem so far away anymore.
In a little over three months from now, 16 teams will take to the ice for the start of a new season. Each team will have an equal shot at lifting the Stanley Cup in June.
I decided this would be a good time to predict what would happen if the 2011 NHL playoffs were getting underway at this moment. In this slideshow, I will break down the Eastern Conference round, starting with the top eight seeds and predicting who would represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final.
All statistics presented in this slideshow, including current playoff seeds, are as of the end of games played on Sunday, Jan. 9.
The Top Eight Seeds
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1. Philadelphia Flyers
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Boston Bruins
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Washington Capitals
6. New York Rangers
7. Atlanta Thrashers
8. Montreal Canadiens
No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens
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In this matchup, the Flyers would meet up with the Canadiens in a rematch of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers won in five games to eliminate the Cinderella story Canadiens.
The Flyers would come into this series with captain Mike Richards as their leading scorer. Richards has 37 points this season. Daniel Briere leads the team in goals scored with 21 and has 33 points, good for fourth on the team.
On defense, Andrej Meszaros has a team-leading plus-25 rating. Matt Carle leads the defensemen in points with 20 points so far in 2010-11.
Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, who played much of the playoffs last year, was waived on Jan. 3 and is currently playing for the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League.
However, Philadelphia still has Brian Boucher, who played 12 games in last year's playoffs. He finished with a record of 6-6 and posted a .909 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. He is currently 10th in the NHL with a .921 save percentage and fifth with a 2.23 GAA.
Sergei Bobrovsky is a rookie who has gotten off to a solid start with the Flyers. Although he has no playoff experience in North American hockey, his regular season numbers to date give hope. He has a record of 15-6-3 with a .915 save percentage and 2.57 GAA.
On the flip side, the Canadiens are led on offense by Tomas Plekanec, who has 32 points this year. However, he is the Habs' only 30-point scorer. Brian Gionta leads the Habs in goals scored with 15 this year.
James Wisniewski, who was acquired from the Islanders, has 27 points, which leads all Montreal defensemen. However, he has an abysmal minus-17 rating and won't be a key player. Left wing Andrei Kostitsyn leads the team in plus/minus rating, but has only posted a plus-eight rating to date.
After Jaroslav Halak was traded in the 2010 offseason, the Canadiens will be looking to Carey Price in the playoffs. Price played four games last year, but was only credited with one loss. He had a .890 save percentage and 3.56 GAA. In 19 NHL playoff games, he has a record of 5-11 with two shutouts and averages a .890 save percentage with a 3.48 GAA.
Prediction: The Flyers triumph over the Canadiens once again. Philadelphia has more offensive depth, and Boucher makes a better mentor to Bobrovsky than Alex Auld could be to Carey Price.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Atlanta Thrashers
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This probably wouldn't be one of the most exciting matchups in recent Stanley Cup playoff history, but it would be a chance for two teams who haven't had much playoff success recently to start working their way toward the top again.
Steven Stamkos currently leads the Lightning with 57 points, and Martin St. Louis is in second with 53 points. However, beyond St. Louis and Stamkos, there is a significant drop-off in offense. Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell are the only other players that have more than 20 points this year.
Simon Gagne, who was supposed to be a key addition to Tampa Bay's offense, has been limited to 25 games this year because of injury. He has posted just seven points and has a disappointing minus-21 rating.
Brett Clark leads the Lightning defense in scoring with 17 points, but has a minus-nine rating. Stamkos, who is looking more like a complete player, leads the team in plus/minus rating with a plus-nine.
Only five Tampa Bay players have a positive plus/minus rating.
In goal, Dan Ellis played six playoff games with the Nashville Predators in the 2007-2008 season. He had a record of 2-4 with a .938 save percentage and 2.52 GAA.
Dwayne Roloson, who was recently acquired from the New York Islanders, is considered an NHL veteran but has not played in the playoffs since the 2006 Edmonton Oilers went to the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the Oilers' Stanley Cup Finals run, he went 12-5 with a .927 save percentage and 2.33 GAA.
Mike Smith is in his fourth season with the Lightning but has not yet played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He currently has a record of 10-5 with a .883 save percentage and 3.20 GAA.
One of Atlanta's leaders on offense is Andrew Ladd, who has won two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks and Carolina Hurricanes. He has 36 points this year. The Thrashers boast nine players with 20 or more points on the season.
As far as points go, it is defenseman Dustin Byfuglien who has stepped up. Not only does he lead all defensemen with 41 points, he is also the team's leading scorer.
Bryan Little leads the team in plus/minus rating with a plus-15.
Ondrej Pavelec has come back strong after collapsing in Atlanta's home opener. In 31 games, he is 15-9-5 , and his .930 save percentage is second in the NHL, while his 2.33 GAA is ninth.
Chris Mason came to the Thrashers after spending the last two years with St. Louis. He is 7-7-2 with a .891 save percentage and 3.81 GAA. He made the playoffs with the Blues in 2008-09, where he went 0-4 with a .916 save percentage and 2.34 GAA.
Prediction: Atlanta over Tampa Bay for the upset. Tampa is not as good as their current place in the standings indicate, and Atlanta is showing more signs of an improved team.
No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 New York Rangers
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The Bruins and the Rangers have not met in the playoffs for over 35 years. In 1973, the Rangers eliminated the Bruins, who had defeated them in the 1972 Stanley Cup Final.
However, this is an entirely different time, so it's time to consider which team who had a disappointing finish to their 2010 season will bounce back.
Milan Lucic is the Bruins' leading scorer with 28 points, while Patrice Bergeron is second with 27 points. In addition to being the team's leading scorer, Lucic has also scored the most goals with 16. The Bruins have four other players who currently have more than 20 points, including David Krejci, who has 15 assists.
On defense, Zdeno Chara leads all defensemen with 17 points on the year and has a plus-14 rating. Nathan Horton, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in the offseason, and Andrew Ference lead the team in plus/minus rating with identical plus-15 ratings.
Tim Thomas, the 2009 Vezina winner, continues to lead the Bruins in goal. So far this year, he is sixth in the NHL with 18 wins and is first in save percentage (.944), goals-against-average (1.84) and shutouts (five). In the playoffs, he has a 10-8 record in 18 games and averages a .924 save percentage and 2.25 GAA.
Thomas is backed up by Tuukka Rask, who is 3-8-1 in 13 games this yeaer. In 13 playoff games, he is 7-6 with a .912 save percentage and 2.61 GAA.
The Rangers' leading scorer is Brandon Dubinsky, who has 36 points in 43 games. He is well on his way to his fourth consecutive 40-point season. Rookie Derek Stepan is second on the team with 24 points
Dan Girardi leads all Rangers defensemen in scoring with 20 points, and rookie Michael Sauer has the highest plus/minus rating with a plus-11.
Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers' franchise goalie since the 2005-2006 season. He currently has 18 wins, which is tied for sixth in the NHL. His .923 save percentage is ranked seventh, and his 2.33 GAA is ranked ninth.
Unfortunately, Lundqvist has not been strong in the playoffs. In 30 playoff games, he is 14-16 and averages a meager .894 save percentage and 3.01 GAA.
Martin Biron signed with the Rangers after playing last year with the New York Islanders. He played with the Flyers in the 2008 and 2009 postseasons, where he had a record of 11-12 with two shutouts and averaged a .911 save percentage with a 2.76 GAA.
Prediction: Bruins over Rangers. The Rangers' rookies, while solid, do not have the playoff experience, and Thomas is getting too good to fold once again.
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Washington Capitals
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The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals once again meet up in the playoffs. It would be their first meeting since the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, which the Penguins won in dramatic fashion in Game Seven.
If this series got underway today, Sidney Crosby would be out of the lineup thanks to a mild concussion. He is the team's leading scorer with 66 points and 32 goals and is first in the NHL in both categories.
Kris Letang is the second leading scorer with 36 points, which leads all Penguins defensemen. He also leads the Penguins with a plus-21 rating.
Alex Goligoski is another defensive standout for the Penguins, with 23 points and a plus-20 on the season. Crosby also has a plus-20.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury has rebounded nicely after a rough October and is now tied for sixth in the league with 18 wins. His 2.29 GAA is ranked seventh. In 62 playoff games with Pittsburgh, he has a record of 38-24 with an average save percentage of .903 and an average GAA of 2.78.
The Penguins also have reliable backup Brent Johnson. Although he only played part of Game Seven in last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against Montreal, he has averaged a .910 save percentage and a 1.90 GAA in 13 NHL playoff games.
Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals are looking for some playoff success after failing to get further than the second round in each of the last three years.
Alexander Ovechkin is the Caps' leading scorer with 44 points, but is nowhere in the NHL scoring race. Alexander Semin, who is the third leading scorer with 35 points, leads the team in goals with 18.
On defense, Mike Green leads all Capitals defensemen in scoring with 20 points, while John Carlson is the plus/minus leader with a plus-11.
Michal Neuvirth is in his first year as a goaltender with the Caps. He is currently 14-6-3 with a .911 save percentage and 2.56 GAA. However, he has no Stanley Cup playoff experience.
Semyon Varlamov was a gem for the Capitals the last team the Penguins and Caps met in the playoffs. This year, he is 8-4-2 with a fourth ranked .928 save percentage and a GAA of 2.08, which is second among goalies.
In 19 playoff games with the Caps, Varlamov is 10-9 with an average save percentage of .913 and an average GAA of 2.47.
Prediction: Not to be a homer, but I pick the Penguins over the Capitals. The Penguins have more experienced netminders, and Crosby's return will propel the Penguins to the top once again. Washington has also been known to not be as defensively sound as the Penguins.
The Four Remaining Teams
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So, who would be left after the end of this round, and where would they be seeded?
1. Philadelphia Flyers
3. Boston Bruins
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
7. Atlanta Thrashers
Eastern Conference Semifinals Matchups
1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7. Atlanta Thrashers
Prediction: The Flyers will not let another team make a magical run through the playoffs. They have seen this before, and there will be no reason for them to not get past Atlanta.
3. Boston Bruins vs. 4. Pittsburgh Penguins
Prediction: Although the Bruins have owned the Penguins in the regular season, Pittsburgh will send the other black and gold guys packing. They have no trouble winning playoff series on the road and would spoil Boston's home-ice advantage.
Eastern Conference Final
1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 4. Pittsburgh Penguins
Prediction: The Flyers knock out the Penguins to defend their Eastern Conference title. The Flyers' slightly better defense, led by Meszaros, will be key to the series win.
What if This All Changes?
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The question here probably shouldn't be what if everything changes, but what happens when it does change?
Obviously, these matchups will likely be totally different come April. There are a few teams on the outside looking in, but not by a large margin.
The Eastern Conference standings are also very close, and some teams could change position between now and the end of the regular season.
Based on how the standings change, I hope to revisit this series on a couple of occasions before the end of the season. I hope to do it once a month, or at the minimum, at the three-quarter mark of the 2010-11 campaign.
In the meantime, you can discuss what you think of my predictions in the comments and stay tuned for what I think would happen in the Western Conference matchups.