With about two-thirds of the NHL season in the books, it appears Buffalo, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Washington are locks to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, while Carolina and Toronto are done. That leaves nine teams battling for four spots. The four teams with the best goaltending will survive. Here’s how they stack up.
Atlanta: Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg have done a good job keeping the Thrashers in the hunt. With Kari Lehtonen returning soon from injury, the crease is about to get crowded. Can Lehtonen make the difference? Can he play well enough to be used as trade bait? Add the potential distraction of dealing unsigned sniper Ilya Kovalchuk at the deadline and the Thrashers will miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
Boston: Reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas backstops the Bruins and phenom Tuukka Rask is a more than capable backup. Thomas is a competitor and while his numbers don’t measure up to last year, he’s still within shouting distance of the league’s best in save percentage and goals-against average. Thomas and Rask will deliver Boston to the post-season.
Florida: Can Tomas Vokoun lead the Panthers to the playoffs? Since mid-December, Vokoun has been lights-out for the Cats and he will need to keep it up down the stretch. Backup Scott Clemmensen showed last year in New Jersey he can get the job done should Vokoun falter. Nonetheless, there is too much “one step forward and two steps back” with this team. Florida will once again miss the playoffs.
Montreal: The Habs wouldn’t be in the mix if it weren’t for Jaroslav Halak, who has made it clear he wants to be a No. 1 goalie. Carey Price, however, is Bob Gainey’s chosen one. The two goalies are close statistically this season and the team is the definition of mediocre, basically playing .500 both at home and on the road. Montreal will miss the post-season.
New York Islanders: Perpetually injured goaltender Rick DiPietro is back in the lineup, while Dwayne Roloson has helped the Isles climb back into the race. Can DiPietro stay healthy down the stretch? If not, Roloson and Martin Biron will not be enough to get them into the playoffs. Regardless, Scott Gordon deserves strong consideration for the Jack Adams Award.
New York Rangers: The Blueshirts have the best goalie of the playoff wannabes, hands down. However, the Rangers risk overworking their starter, as King Henrik rarely gets a breather and will be relied on heavily by Sweden in Vancouver next month. The Rangers will make the dance, but exit early.
Ottawa: GM Bryan Murray thought he solved his goaltending problems when he acquired Pascal Leclaire from Columbus last season. Unfortunately, Leclaire has proven to be physically fragile and the Sens have struggled at times. Brian Elliott has been inconsistent and his lackluster play of late opened the door for rookie Mike Brodeur. Can those two get the job done? Coach Cory Clouston (one of Gordon’s chief competitors for the Jack Adams) and company find a way to sneak into the post-season.
Philadelphia: Floundering with Carolina, Michael Leighton went to Philadelphia through waivers where he has revived his career and turned around a listing Flyers team. His performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Philly. Reclamation project Ray Emery is back and healthy. Unfortunately for the Flyers, Emery is not and never was the answer. Unless Leighton can replicate his recent incredible 10-game run – where he won eight and earned points in nine games – the Flyers will not make it.
Tampa Bay: Every time it appears the Lightning is headed for prosperity, goalie Mike Smith suffers an injury. Early in the season, backup Antero Niittymaki was more than solid when filling in, but of late has looked very average. This team has enough talent and skill that it should make the playoffs, but inconsistency has been the only constant in Tampa. Smarting from Olympic snubs, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis and Steven Stamkos will lead the Lightning into the playoffs.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.