Dark Horses: Who Will Claim the Last Two NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Spots?

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIMarch 14, 2011

Dark Horses: Who Will Claim the Last Two NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Spots?

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    With just under a month to play, the NHL playoff race is heating up. In the Western Conference, only the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and perhaps San Jose Sharks are locks for playoff positions. Both the Wings and Canucks are ahead in their respective divisions by large enough margins that they have plenty of breathing room down the stretch.

    That leaves nearly a dozen teams competing for the other playoff spots in the West, with San Jose at the top of the herd (86 points) and the St. Louis Blues (71 points) on their last legs. If only the Eastern Conference was as wide open.

    The spectrum has narrowed greatly out East, with six teams already primed to make the postseason and just jockeying for position. The Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens may be separated by only eight points, but the seven points that separate Montreal from anyone else in the conference has allowed an avalanche of teams one more chance to get into the postseason.

    And those seventh and eighth positions shouldn't be taken lightly. Even with the point disparity, it would be the seventh-place Flyers and eighth-place Canadiens who went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Every team has a weakness to be exhibited, so for the teams battling just to get into the playoffs, they could become the usurpers of the future.

    Only problem is, of the six legitimate options vying for the final two playoff spots, none of them as of yet has emerged as a serious playoff contender. Some are on the comeback tear while others are par for the course, and some, sadly, are sinking ships. This leaves the all important question: Who will make the playoffs between these six teams?

Let's Go to the Chalkboard First

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    Before we begin, we should probably take a look at the statistical probability and mathematics behind each team and its upcoming playoff run. Currently, the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres hold down the two positions, each with 76 points.

    Though the Sabres have played less games than New York, they are even in regulation wins. Remember, tie-breaking procedures this year will exclude shootout victories from the process. More than likely, for either one of these teams to still have a hold on their playoff position, it'll need to post records just above .500 for the rest of the season.

    For Buffalo, that equates to its final 13 games with a 7-6 record and total of 90 points.

    For the Rangers, that equates to their final 12 games with a 6-5-1 record and 89 points.

    We're also eliminating the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and Florida Panthers from playoff contention. Sorry folks, but if you believe that any of these teams can hit 89 points this year (winning out, basically for Florida and NYI), you have too much faith.

    So it'll take 89 points to make the playoffs in this very specific scenario, assuming all other things are equal and teams don't take on a sudden power surge or failure.

    Eighty-nine points. Who has their work cut out for them as we come to the exciting conclusion?

New Jersey Devils, 68 Points

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    The New Jersey Devils were picked by nearly everyone, including this pundit, to be top of the pops at the start of the NHL season. Never mind where they had been placed in the playoffs, the fact of the matter was that the acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk to the already dominating Devils roster made for one tough adversary this year.

    Then, something incredibly odd happened. The Devils suffered injuries, chemistry problems, poor coaching, and a poor show from Kovy. New Jersey fell to 10-29-2 at the halfway point of the season. Only 10 wins from a franchise that was scheduled to be stellar.

    Following with our logic of 89 points and you're in, the Devils would have to go 32-8-1 over their next 41 games if they wanted to even smell the playoffs.

    Sure enough, New Jersey is on pace to do just that. The Devils have been on a magnificent tear over the last two months, losing only three games in regulation. They are currently 32-32-4, their first record of .500 all season.

    Now, with 14 games to play, New Jersey still has a lot of work to do and has to keep streaking towards the top. Only four of those games are against the teams they're trying to catch, including an epic battle on April 9 against the New York Rangers.

    The team has relied heavily on Kovalchuk's performance, too, as well as the return to prominence of Martin Brodeur. Kovalchuk has 15 goals down the stretch and the best goalie to ever play the game is back to form with 14 wins after starting the season with only five.

    The Devils are still an incredible long shot, but may be the fiercest of adversaries if they were to sneak into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    Record needed to reach the playoffs: 10-3-1 (42-35-5 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 8-3-3 (40-35-7, 87 points overall)

Atlanta Thrashers, 70 Points

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    Down in Atlanta, Ga., trading Ilya Kovalchuk away was meant to signal the beginning of a complete and total reconstruction that could make the Thrashers one of the league's easiest-to-beat teams. This year has proven to be anything but that scenario, as the Thrashers have battled through the worst to claim a nice little niche in the eastern hunt.

    A series of moves and swaps have put the Thrashers in a great position to make the playoffs, yet there is still some uncertainty as to whether or not they can apply themselves. Atlanta did have a hold on the lower half around mid-season, but the team has played more towards its expectations lately.

    The Thrashers have a lot to boast about during their refurbishment. Dustin Byfuglien is easily the league's top defensemen this season and will probably earn Norris Trophy honors. Andrew Ladd is having a career year with 26 goals and 53 points, totals reflective of him finally living up to his true potential.

    The Thrashers even have one of the league's top 10 power play units and are looking more like a team than they did during the Kovalchuk tenure. At 29-28-12, Atlanta is clinging to a better than .500 season. But those positives still come with a lot of negatives.

    Like most teams in the Southeast division, the Thrashers have a real problem containing opposing offenses, surrendering more than three goals per game. Shuffling goalies Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec seems to be of little help for the situation. Atlanta also has the league's worst penalty killing unit, stopping a paltry 76.4 percent of power plays against.

    Record needed to make the playoffs: 9-3-1 (38-31-13 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 4-7-2 (33-35-14, 80 points overall)

Toronto Maple Leafs, 70 Points

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    Go ahead, ask Brian Burke about the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager isn't budging, insisting that a playoff berth really isn't in the sights of his team. Burke has spoken time and time again about his philosophy on building a championship, and he's made it more than apparent that this way wouldn't be ideal.

    Tell that to Mikhail Grabovski or Clarke MacArthur, who are working seasons that are the best of their careers. MacArthur and Grabovski have combined for 57 goals and 58 assists, giving them the top two spots for Toronto scorers.

    And while Phil Kessel may have missing posters circulating throughout Toronto, the real missing persons report should be filed on the netminding. With the call-up of James Reimer to the Leafs fold, fans are forgetting quickly about the already forgettable year Jean-Seabstien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson were having. In fact, fans may soon be forgetting about the Monster altogether.

    Despite the positives, this team is still only a game above .500 (30-29-10) and it traded its franchise player of the past decade, Tomas Kaberle, to a division rival around the deadline. Typical Brian Burke.

    Record needed to make the playoffs: 9-3-1 (39-32-11 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 4-6-3 (34-35-13, 81 Points overall)

Carolina Hurricanes, 72 Points

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have been consistently inconsistent all this season. As a team that thrives on scoring and goaltending, Carolina has gotten plenty of both for part of the season, and lapses in both for the other part.

    Truth be told, Carolina's still very much alive and a real wild card in the final weeks to the finish. Jeff Skinner is a bona fide rookie of the year candidate who has been a top forward day-in and day-out. His combination scoring, along with the leadership of Eric Staal, leaves the Canes with a dynamic one-two punch of offense that is tough to best.

    But the Canes will need more out of former Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward than just the occasional 40-save outing. If Ward has the endurance and strength he's known to have during Carolina's run, he too will be a tough opponent.

    Where Carolina is consistent, however, is in getting six games above .500. It's done it three times this year, and has followed each mark with two consecutive losses, except that its third time, also the most recent, led to a four-game losing streak that is still active.

    Carolina's playoff hopes may lie solely with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a high-scoring division rival with which it still has three games to play.

    Record needed to make the playoffs: 8-4-1 (39-32-11 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 7-4-2 (38-32-12, 88 points overall)

New York Rangers, 76 Points

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    This season has been one of the most trying for New York Rangers fans in recent memory. Patience has been key after the Rangers battled through injuries aplenty and constant trade rumors that would result in the literal gutting of their young squad.

    In fact, it is the youngsters that have carried the load for 70 games thus far this season. Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan are on pace for their biggest years, Derek Stepan is a Calder dandy, and defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are continuing to evolve into top fleet options.

    Incorporate New York's goaltending prowess with Henrik Lundqvist, and you're looking at an almost certain Vezina nomination. Though he may not be in the top five in wins, Lundqvist can single-handedly keep the Rangers in games early and late. So how is it that this team is so close to missing the playoffs again? That is where the frustration begins.

    The Rangers are fifth in the conference in goals for and tied for second in goals against. Their goal differential is fourth in the conference. Despite losing the mystique of playing in Madison Square Garden, they have one of the best road records overall. The Rangers are towards the middle of the pack in special teams, a change from their typical terrible power play and awesome penalty kill ways.

    New York even made smart acquisitions this year, steering clear of the Brad Richards debacle in favor of Bryan McCabe and Wojtek Wolski in exchange for the values of Michal Rozsival, Tim Kennedy, and a draft pick. They've even thrived through a terribly off year for star forward Marian Gaborik and injured captain Chris Drury. So where's the turnaround? 

    Perhaps the most important number for the Rangers, however, is seven. The Rangers have won seven games in the shootout, more than any other team in the East. So though it may help them absorb points, there's no guarantee it'll bail them out of a tie-breaker.

    Record needed to make the playoffs: 6-5-1 (42-35-5 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 6-4-2 (42-34-6, 90 points overall)

Buffalo Sabres, 76 Points

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    Much like the Rangers and Devils, the Buffalo Sabres had their fair share of woes this season. Buffalo started 3-9-2 despite being projected to do much better by most pundits. The start was distressing enough, so when Buffalo turned the ship around only to lose Derek Roy indefinitely, it was another issue.

    Lately, though, the Sabres have picked up where their opponents are leaving off, amassing plenty of points amidst sinking competition. Buffalo is 15-7-3 in the last two months and has elevated to its highest standing of the year, seventh place.

    Maybe it has been the stellar play of Thomas Vanek or the upstart swing with Tyler Ennis. Maybe the scoring talents of Drew Stafford with the loss of Roy or perhaps the rejuvenation in Jordan Leopold's game are to blame. Or maybe it's just Miller Time, and the goaltending of Ryan Miller has been just that much better in the last little while.

    But for Buffalo, a team ranking in the top 10 in offense this year in a front-loaded Eastern Conference, perhaps just playing consistent hockey has gotten them this far. It's had ups and downs, but few of them were as drastically up or down as any of the five previous teams.

    As of this writing, the Sabres have control of their own destiny and one of the easier paths into the playoffs. Now its up to them to make it happen by staying the course.

    Record needed to make the playoffs: 6-6-1 (40-33-9 overall)

    Predicted Finish: 7-4-2 (41-31-10, 92 points overall)

Final Totals, Please

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    So, assuming these are our final standings, here's a look at how these six fizzle out for the final playoff positions.

    7. Buffalo Sabres (41-31-10, 92 points)
    8. New York Rangers (42-34-6, 90 points)
    9. Carolina Hurricanes (38-32-12, 88 points)
    10. New Jersey Devils (40-35-7, 87 points)
    11. Toronto Maple Leafs (34-35-13, 81 points)
    12. Atlanta Thrashers (33-35-14, 80 points)

    So, is it really already set in stone? Absolutely not. If anything, this analysis allows us to look at New Jersey as having a serious chance at keeping the streak alive and making the push, whereas the Hurricanes, Sabres, and Rangers have little to achieve to keep themselves above water.

    Both New York and Buffalo recognize this the most, and playing just above .500 is the key. Who will be winning come the end of the season? We can't wait to find out.