Every single Eastern Conference playoff contender has question marks. Could the underdogs rule this spring?
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s NHL games were a microcosm of the Eastern Conference. On Wednesday the Philadelphia Flyers, clawing for the last wild-card spot, knocked off a juggernaut Washington Capitals team that clinched the Presidents’ Trophy before any other East team even clinched a post-season berth. On Thursday, Steven Stamkos was furious at his Tampa Bay Lightning after they lost 3-0 to Montreal, claiming the Bolts had “too many passengers.” Meanwhile, the sizzling Pittsburgh Penguins won for the 10th time in their past 11 games. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders won. The New York Rangers lost to a Carolina team on the outside of the playoff picture.
It’s a mess out there, isn’t it? This year’s Eastern Conference race is the muddiest, wildest and least predictable in recent memory.
Last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers were stacked. They met in the Conference final to no one’s surprise. In 2013-14, the Penguins and Boston Bruins fell short of considerable expectations, with the Rangers and Montreal Canadiens reaching the conference final, but we could at least say two sturdy contenders existed entering the post-season. What can we say about this year’s group?
The Caps remain the class of the East, no doubt. They were THN’s Stanley Cup finalist pick in the summer and remain our choice in our Playoff Preview edition currently on newsstands. They deserve that status. They have an outstanding goalie in Braden Holtby who historically plays even better in the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s breakout means Washington can ice two dynamite scoring lines every night, deploying Alex Ovechkin with him or Nicklas Backstrom. A healthy John Carlson solidifies a sturdy, versatile blueline. And, of course, Justin Williams’ presence adds a layer of experience and winning pedigree this franchise has sorely lacked.
Still, coach Barry Trotz has never been past the second round of the playoffs. Nor has Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holby, Carlson or any Caps regular save for Williams, Mike Richards, Brooks Oprik and Matt Niskanen. Washington is merely an adequate possession team, too, ranking 12th in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. Don’t get me wrong – I believe Washington will win three playoff series this spring – but my point is that, for this year’s “slam dunk” pick in the East, the Caps have a lot of question marks. And as my colleague Ken Campbell pointed out on this week’s podcast, the they haven’t played meaningful games for months.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the team whose captain just called out its players, were supposed to be our No. 2 favorite in the East and at least the best bet to come out of the Atlantic. But they’ve been woefully inconsistent and have now lost top-pairing blueliner Anton Stralman indefinitely with a fractured leg. That pulls them right back to the pack.
The Florida Panthers? A fun team to root for but inexperienced given all their youth. They aren’t old and wily as a whole just because they have Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. They also just lost their second-half MVP, Vincent Trocheck, to a “week-to-week” lower-body injury.
The Boston Bruins? They suddenly can’t score, they’ve lost six of seven and they’re just one point up on Detroit in the Atlantic, a.k.a. one point away from being out of the playoffs.
The New York Islanders have won three straight to create some breathing room in the wild-card hunt but have highly questionable goaltending as long as Jaroslav Halak remains injured. Thomas Greiss had an NHL-best .930 save percentage before Halak went down. Since taking over as the Isles starter, Greiss sits at .906. The Isles just lost the irreplaceable Travis Hamonic to a knee injury, too.
If the Detroit Red Wings can squeak into the playoffs, they’ll have to overcome uncharacteristically weak goaltending, too, not to mention Dylan Larkin hitting a second-half wall as his body adjusts to the longest schedule he’s ever played.
The New York Rangers have the personnel to contend. They boast the conference’s most bankable goalie in Henrik Lundqvist and admirable depth at forward and on defense. But they have the weakest possession numbers of any Eastern Conference playoff hopeful. To the commenters whose “eyes glaze over” when they see the word “possession”: bad possession teams don’t win Stanley Cups. Ever. Look it up. This is relevant information.
And that leaves the two most fascinating teams in this zany Eastern Conference race: the bitter rival Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Both looked like cute, cuddly underdog stories a few weeks ago, but they’re suddenly teams no one wants to meet in round 1. That’s how upside-down the East is right now. No team is playing better hockey than Pittsburgh as the calendar reaches April. I’m blown away by how the Pens have responded sans-Evgeni Malkin, as I predicted a collapse. Instead, coach Mike Sullivan has found magic playing Phil Kessel on his “own” line, no Crosby, no Malkin, and Kessel has finally looked comfortable out there now that he can be the primary puck carrier. He’s caught fire. Crosby, of course, has been the best player in the game since the New Year arrived.
The Flyers are an equally inspired group under coach Dave Hakstol. Shayne Gostisbehere won’t stop making the Calder Trophy discussion interesting, and while Claude Giroux continues to be Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn’s breakout has really changed this team’s fate. The big power forward has 39 points in his past 40 games. He’s realizing his potential.
It’s nearly impossible to make sense of the Eastern Conference circus right now. Let’s enjoy it. No team is safe, not even top dog Washington, and that could yield some dynamite first-round playoff series.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin