As the regular season winds down and we start looking ahead to the playoffs, it's easy to look past the wild-card teams. Especially this year. With the Washington Capitals cruising to the Presidents' Trophy and the traditional powers in the West battling for top spot, the wild-card teams are seen as cannon fodder.
But that won't be the case this year. While we still don't know exactly which teams will grab the wild-card spots -- it's especially close in the East -- we do know one thing: you wouldn't want to play these four teams in the first round.
The Nashville Predators would scare me. Coming out of the vicious Central, they don't "feel" like a wild-card team. They feel more like a legit contender. No team in the NHL can match their luxury of playing Shea Weber and Roman Josi for roughly half every playoff game, and Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and Barret Jackman add to a nice, deep D-corps. The Preds will never be confused with the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, but they've become an above-average offensive team under coach Peter Laviolette, buoyed by sniper Filip Forsberg, so they should get enough offense to support their 'D.' And, most importantly, struggling goalie Pekka Rinne has improved since the all-star break, albeit he's slumping again of late. Nashville has no glaring weakness as long as Rinne is merely average, and is a top-four possession team on the year in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. Look out. (Matt Larkin)
When I accepted this assignment, the Minnesota Wild had just won six straight games, including victories over the two teams that have won the past four Stanley Cups. It also included a three-game stretch where they outscored their opponents by a 14-3 margin. And they were facing the Ottawa Senators, who had just been officially eliminated from the playoffs. Baby games, I tell ya. So what happens, well, the Wild go out and lose on home ice to the Senators on Thursday and we’re left to wonder exactly what this team is capable of doing. But I remain undeterred in my assessment that the Wild are ready to do some damage in the first round of the playoffs. I’m not going to sugarcoat things here because, on the surface, they don’t look great. Chances are the Wild are going to face one of Dallas or St. Louis in the first round. They went 1-4-0 against Dallas in the regular season, but three of those losses were in 3-on-3 overtime, where the dangling and freewheeling Stars hold a definite advantage. But let’s see those pretty boys grind out a triple-OT win when it’s 5-on-5 and the rodeo is back in town. In fact, everything about the way the Stars pond-hockeyed their way through the regular season suggests they could be fodder in the playoffs. And the Blues? Well, they’re the Blues and if they lose Game 1 on home ice they’ll tighten up. The Wild, meanwhile, enters with no expectation of winning and can play with far less pressure. (Ken Campbell)
I would not want to face the Flyers right now. First, there's the obvious reason that they're pretty hot right now and Steve Mason seems to be in one of his world-beater moods, but that win over Washington the other night showed just how effective they can be in nasty games. And we've seen Philly win series they weren't supposed to take in the past (Pittsburgh) by suckering teams into a mudfight. Would you really bet against them doing that to another rival - such as the Caps - again? (Ryan Kennedy)
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
A stretch of seven losses in nine games made it appear the Islanders would limp into the post-season, but they’ve won their past three games and have a chance to make a statement Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Regardless of what happens Saturday, though, who would want to face the Islanders in the first round?
While they may not boast the Penguins’ star power, Capitals’ offense or Lightning’s experience, the Islanders have a strong team from top to bottom and there aren’t many holes in the lineup. John Tavares has the ability to change a series, Brock Nelson continues to show he's a talented goal scorer and few players have the two-way ability of Frans Nielsen. On the back end, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have Stanley Cup experience, and even if the Islanders are without Travis Hamonic, both Thomas Hickey and Calvin De Haan have more than enough ability to cover second-pairing duties.
The unknown is Thomas Greiss, but his presence in net could be a good thing. Jaroslav Halak hadn’t been great this season, and Greiss has looked stellar in his past two starts. At 5-on-5, he’s been a better goaltender than Halak, and Greiss has been solid when the Islanders give up high-danger scoring chances. If he’s making the important saves, Greiss can give the Islanders a chance to beat anyone. (Jared Clinton)