NHL Teams Most Likely to Heat Up in Final Month of 2013-14 Season

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMarch 11, 2014

NHL Teams Most Likely to Heat Up in Final Month of 2013-14 Season

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    Marianne Helm/Getty Images

    Hot streaks are hard to predict but they frequently have a huge impact on the final standings. Last year it secured playoff spots for teams like the Islanders, Rangers and Sharks, but it proved too little and too late for Columbus, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Which teams will get hot this year, and what could it mean for them?

    There a number of ways that analytics can help determine which teams are most likely to pick up a few extra points down the stretch.

    First, the ease of a team's schedule can be calculated by figuring out how many points an average NHL team would earn playing those same games. There can be a four to five point swing right there.

    Analytics can also help quantify the potential impact of a key trade. A top-line player can swing the balance by a couple of points over 20 games, or more if it's a goalie. 

    And there are always other factors to consider. An underlying improvement in possession play, a player coming off a hot Olympics can all foreshadow a hot stretch.

    While no one can truly predict which teams will get hot, a close look at each of these factors can help narrow down the possibilities to the following 10 teams that could have the right conditions for a winning streak. Let's begin!

    Possession statistics from Extra Skater. All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


10. Nashville Predators

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: One of the reasons why the Predators offense has struggled is because they're the only NHL team that hasn't gotten to shoot against Pekka Rinne's string of injury replacements.

    The Predators have actually outshot their opponents by 32 shots this year and yet have been outscored by 38 goals. That should stop now that their star goalie has returned and posting a .921 save percentage in the four games since his return to health.  

    That's not to say that the Predators are more reliant on Rinne than usual. While the Predators did indeed historically adopt a non-puck possession system with a tight dependence on their goaltending, they started to go a different direction this season. On the year they are up to middle of the pack possession-wise, and their rolling 10-game average is currently 55.4 percent, right among the league leaders.

    Leading the Way: With David Legwand off to the Detroit Red Wings, Shea Weber is now alone as the team's leading scorer.

    Very little needs to be said about a player who is already widely recognized as one of the world's greatest defensemen, but suffice it to say that his shutdown defensive play and cannon from the blue line are both critical to the team's success down the stretch.

    Less is written about their star sniper Patric Hornqvist, who needs just four more goals to become only the sixth player to score 100 goals in a Predators uniform.

    Hornqvist has potted 94 of those goals since 2009-10, which is far more than Weber (75), Legwand (69) or any other Predator has managed in that span. His 1,043 shots are also double of any Predators except those two.

    Potential Impact: There's little hope of a playoff spot this year no matter how hot the Predators might get.

    The Predators are eight points out of a playoff spot with three teams between them and the eighth spot. All they can really do is make a statement and prepare for next season.

    Nashville's schedule is actually a little tricky. Eleven of the remaining 17 games are on the road, and three games are against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks.

    Just like last year, when they won only two of their last 15 games, the Predators are also on a cold streak, having gone 2-5-2 over their last nine. If any goalie can catch fire and turn this team around, it's Rinne.

9. San Jose Sharks

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    TONY AVELAR/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: Everything is finally coming together for the San Jose Sharks.

    The team is returning to health, with Logan Couture, Raffi Torres and Adam Burish back in the lineup, soon to be followed by Brad Stuart and Martin Havlat.

    The team consequently decided to stand pat at the trade deadline, confident that they already had the right players in the right roles. Having watched them go 7-2-1 over their last 10 games, it's hard to argue with their logic.

    Leading the Way: The San Jose Sharks are absolutely stacked down the middle.

    Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture are the team's leading scorers, and have combined for 85 goals and 220 points on a team that has scored 199 goals. Whenever a goal is scored it's quite likely that at least one of these four players was in on it.

    Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is another player to watch, hot off an incredible performance for Team Canada in the Olympics.

    Potential Impact: The Sharks are fourth in the Western Conference, just one point back of the defending Stanley Cup champions in Chicago and tied with Colorado.

    They have a slightly easier than average schedule the rest of the way and should be able to hang on to the final home seed, and possibly even improve it by a position. The Avalanche actually have the toughest remaining schedule.

    That could give the Sharks the positioning and momentum they need to potentially reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in what will be 17 playoff appearances.

8. Florida Panthers

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: On the surface everything may look like its trending down for Florida.

    They lost two key players at the trade deadline, Marcel Goc and Mike Weaver, and are still without the services of Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky. They have also gone a distressing 3-9-0 over their last 12 games.

    A deeper look reveals some surprising potential for a hot streak. They have an easier than average schedule, with 11 of their remaining 18 games at home, and against below average opponents (except for one dreaded tour through California). An average team would bag 21.5 points in those 18 games.

    While the team's goal differential is a dreary -50, their shot differential is only -59. Part of the reason is the phenomenon where teams that are trailing tend to take more shots than their opponents, but mostly it is because they have been allowing opponents to score on a higher percentage of their opportunities than they are. And that's where their one key trade deadline pickup can come in.

    Leading the Way: Roberto Luongo is back.

    The bad news is that Luongo allowed exactly three or four goals in his last six starts in Vancouver, winning only a single one of those games. After a shutout against Buffalo, he also allowed four in his second game as a Panther against Boston.

    The good news is that Luongo is somewhere he wants to be, and has something to prove.

    Potential Impact: The Florida Panthers are already playing for next year.

    While going on a roll might cost them a higher spot in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, it will give them some confidence and momentum on which to build this offseason.

7. Dallas Stars

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Why They'll Catch Fire: It's almost as if the hockey gods don't want Dallas in the postseason. For years, the Stars have been among the best non-playoff teams, resisting elimination until the final weekend.

    Things were going to be different this year. Dallas completely re-invented itself, from the front office to the bench to the team that was put on the ice.

    But alas, once again the hockey gods conspired against this team, hitting them with late season injuries to Rich Peverley, key defenseman Stephane Robidas (traded to Anaheim) and starting goalie Kari Lehtonen.

    Maybe this year will finally be the one where the Stars overcome the adversity. They are shockingly the seventh-best possession team in the league, and have gone 10-3-2 over their last 15 games.

    Leading the Way: Newcomer Tyler Seguin is fifth in the NHL with 66 points and Jamie Benn is 19th with 60, making the Stars one of only six teams with two 60-point players.

    The real question is actually in nets. Can Kari Lehtonen get back between the pipes soon and, if not, can Tim Thomas re-capture some of the magic he once had as a Boston Bruin? He'll be playing behind a much better blue line than he had in Florida, and with much more to prove.

    Potential Impact: Dallas is hanging onto the eight and final postseason position with 72 points. Phoenix is within one point, while Vancouver and Winnipeg are four points back.

    The Stars have a pretty tough schedule the rest of the way. Eleven of their final 18 games are on the road, and they're taking on the St. Louis Blues three times, along with single contests against powerhouse teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh.

    There's no question the odds are stacked against the Stars, but they're an underrated possession team with something to prove.

6. Ottawa Senators

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    Brad Watson/Getty Images

    Why They'll Catch Fire: The Ottawa Senators may be cold right now, but the conditions are right to turn things around quickly.

    Ottawa plays 10 of their remaining 17 games at home, and against slightly below-average competition.

    The Senators added Ales Hemsky at the trade deadline, who appears to be just the right catalyst for Ottawa's scoring line of Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.

    Finally, the Senators are a much better possession team than they're given credit for. Depth players Matt Kassian and Mark Borowiecki are actually the only two players with whom the team has allowed more attempted shots than they've taken.  

    Leading the Way: The Senators are at their best when each of Craig Anderson, Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza are playing at full speed. That's what made last year's playoff appearance so amazing when Ottawa was at times without the service of all three.

    Karlsson is leading the team and all of the NHL's defensemen with 58 points in 65 games, Spezza is catching fire thanks to Hemsky, which leaves goalie Anderson.

    If he can recapture even a taste of last year's form, when he led the league in save percentage and goals against average while finishing fourth in Vezina voting then (and only then) the Senators could be in business.

    Potential Impact: It might already be too late for Ottawa, who are 12th in the Eastern Conference and three points out of the final playoff position.

    Recent losses against marginal teams like Edmonton, Calgary and Nashville were games they could no longer afford to walk away from without two points.

    The Senators had a nice 11-4-4 run from just after Christmas until the Olympic break, and while they have the potential to do that again, it may have been too little and too late.

5. Montreal Canadiens

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Why They'll Catch Fire: Adding Thomas Vanek could provide that jolt of additional offense that the Canadiens have long needed.

    Unlike in Buffalo and Long Island, Vanek's line won't be the lone scoring threat. The top line will continue to instead feature Max Pacioretty, who is one of the league's most overlooked snipers.

    Pacioretty's 30 goals are currently tied with Sidney Crosby for sixth in the NHL, just three goals back of his 2011-12 total. Only seven NHL players have scored more goals over the past three years than Pacioretty.

    Leading the Way: The suggestion that the Montreal Canadiens are a candidate for a hot month requires a big, fat asterisk.

    If the injury Carey Price suffered in the Olympics is severe enough to keep him out of the lineup and/or leaves him anywhere short of top form, then the Habs are unlikely to go anywhere, no matter how many goals they score.

    Montreal is a strong team, but it's not without its flaws. The Habs are a weak possession team, although that appears to have been turning around recently.

    And though they have one of the league's top defensive pairings in P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, their blue-line depth could be a problem. In that sense, Mike Weaver could turn out to be almost as valuable a trade deadline acquisition as Vanek.

    Potential Impact: Montreal is currently hanging onto fourth place in the Eastern Conference, sitting second in a pack of 10 teams within 10 points who are all fighting for five playoff spots.

    The teams that get hot are the teams that are going to make the postseason or, in Montreal's case, win the valuable home seeds.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: The Tampa Bay Lightning have the easiest remaining schedule in the league.

    Eleven of their remaining 17 games are at home, and only one of their remaining games is against one of the eight teams with 80 points or more.

    An average team would earn 1.26 points per game playing the rest of Tampa Bay's schedule, which is 0.25 points per game more than the teams with the toughest (Winnipeg, Colorado). That's an extra four to five points.

    Leading the Way: Martin St. Louis may be gone, but Steven Stamkos is back.

    Is Stamkos the greatest goal scorer in the world? He had an amazing 14 goals in 16 games before his injury, and has led the league in goal scoring in two of the preceding four seasons. Stamkos has outscored Alexander Ovechkin 199 to 196 over the past five seasons, and in 25 fewer games.

    As for Ryan Callahan, he may be no Martin St. Louis, but the hard-working veteran contributes in a number of other ways, just as critical to a young team like Tampa Bay. He takes on top opponents in defensive situations, blocks shots, throws hits, kills penalties and virtually anything else that's required to protect a lead, or shake things up when trailing.

    Finally, there's Ben Bishop, who is quietly having a Vezina caliber season, and Victor Hedman, one of the league's most underrated defensemen.

    Potential Impact: The Lightning need to catch fire, and do so quickly. They were 2-4-0 going into the Olympic break and 1-4-2 coming out of it.

    The Bolts have consequently fallen to a fifth place in the Eastern Conference, four points up on the eighth and final position.

    A hot streak can solidify their playoff position, give them the momentum they need and possibly even steal one of the home seeds from either Montreal or Toronto, who lead them by two and three points respectively.

3. New York Rangers

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: Adding the defending scoring champion would boost any team's record, especially one with below-average scoring.

    Even without his superstar linemate most of the year, Martin St. Louis has still managed 62 points, which is tied for 13th overall. That huge influx of scoring, and the momentum that it will help generate, could fuel a major tear on a team that has already gone 19-8-2 since just before Christmas.

    The Rangers are playing only six of their remaining 17 games at home, but they are against a slightly softer set of opponents than most. They also have the fifth best possession numbers in the league this year, and have won the possession game an amazing 14 straight games.

    Leading the Way: With this increase in scoring, the Rangers can go as far as star goalie Henrik Lundqvist can take them.

    After a slow start King Henrik has really come on strong, posting a sparkling .945 save percentage in his last 13 games going into the Olympic break. He stumbled the first three games after the Games, but settled down in a 4-2 victory over Carolina before shutting out Detroit.

    Potential Impact: There's a real opportunity for a surprise team to come out of the Eastern Conference, much as New Jersey did in 2012 or Philadelphia in 2010. A hot New York Rangers team could be this year's best dark-horse pick.

    The third and fourth Eastern Conference home seeds are still up for grabs, and ready to be torn out of the hands of Canada's lone two playoff contenders, Montreal and Toronto. Grabbing one of these slots could guarantee the favorable postseason positioning required to fight their way out of a tight pack.

2. New Jersey Devils

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: Given their schedule, a league average team would earn 21 points in New Jersey's remaining 17 games, or 1.23 points per game. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning have an easier slate of opponents the rest of the way.

    Add to that the fact that the Devils have the sixth-best possession numbers in the league and yet are 20th overall, and there is significant room for a big late season surge.

    Leading the Way: A lot of New Jersey's success is going to depend on Cory Schneider.

    Expected to take over the starting job from Martin Brodeur, the former Canuck has instead split the duties, despite dominating the legend in save percentage .918 to .898. Strangely, Brodeur has managed a much better win-loss record anyway.

    Schneider is coming off of a couple of bad games against San Jose and Detroit, but went into the Olympic break allowing two goals or fewer in 13 of his last 14 starts.

    Potential Impact: Could the New Jersey Devils make the playoffs?

    The Devils currently sit at 69 points, two points back of the two teams tied for the final postseason position, Detroit and Columbus. Standing in between them are the Washington Capitals. Not only do the 11th-place Devils have to catch them, but they have to fight off the Senators, who are a single point behind them.

    It won't be easy, but if you're looking for a team to get hot and steal a playoff position, look no further than the Garden State.

1. Los Angeles Kings

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Why They'll Catch Fire: Everything is lining up in Los Angeles' favor.

    The Kings picked up some key offensive support with Marian Gaborik, have one of the softer schedules that includes two trips through Alberta and are consistently one of the league's top possession teams.

    Possession is really one of the key points here. This is a team that plays so frequently in the opposing zone that not a single player starts more of their shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive. There is also not a single player with whom they allow more attempted shots than they take.

    Leading the Way: Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty are both coming back from incredible Olympic success, both personally and as part of a great team. That type of experience can have a huge impact on the team to which they have returned.

    The Kings were slumping along at 2-9 going into the Olympic break and have been a perfect 7-0 coming out of it, including allowing just seven goals in their last six games.

    Another key player to watch is Dustin Brown, who has two goals and six points since the Olympic break. Their captain signed a huge extension and then got off to a really slow start, but has finally had his hard work start to pay off. The timing couldn't be better for the Kings. 

    Potential Impact: It could be 2011-12 all over again.

    The 2012 edition of the Kings were very much like the current version. They were just as solid possession-wise, but struggled to score goals. They acquired some key talent in Jeff Carter, and then really came on strong late in the year.

    Their final 16 games of the 2011-12 season resulted in a 9-4-3. Expect at least as much this year.

    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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