With the all-star break this weekend, we're officially at the mid-way point of the season. Every NHL team has played between 44 and 50 games, and it's certainly time to start scoreboard and standings watching. Thanks to the NHL's artificial parity there are a lot of teams right on the playoff bubble.
That means some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. With that in mind, here are our picks for teams currently on the outside that will sneak in come April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa simply has too much talent not to pick things up in the second half and sneak back in (its possession numbers put them in the top half of the league). Steven Stamkos has the league’s second-best points-per-game average, and he’ll be a huge boost when he returns from injury. They also have a nice trade chip in Ben Bishop that they can use to shore up the blueline (Kevin Shattenkirk, anyone?). This team very much reminds me of the Kings, one that knows there’s no need to blow it out in the regular season when playoff seeding is meaningless. Not only will the Lightning make the playoffs, they’ll make a strong push for the Cup. (Edward Fraser)
Los Angeles Kings
About this time five years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were mucking around the Western Conference, losing almost as many games as they were winning and flirting with both a playoff spot and disaster. And we all know how that turned out. After 46 games this season, the Kings are once again mucking around the west, winning a couple more games than they’ve lost, not able to score much and not looking like much of a contender. That will change. First of all, Jonathan Quick has to come back at some point and March seems to be the target date. So the Kings will win the trade deadline when a rested and motivated Quick gets back into the net. Second, the Kings are too good, too experienced and too pedigreed for this to continue. Look for the Kings to make a second-half surge, aided by a healthy Quick in the last quarter, and squeak into the playoffs. Just like they did five years ago. (Ken Campbell)
The Dallas Stars will have to pass four teams if they expect to make the post-season, but they have two of the best offensive horses in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to lead the charge. I expect the Stars to do something about their goaltending before the trade deadline and when they do squeak in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them favored if they matched up against Minnesota in the first round. (Brian Costello)
One could have been predicted the Lighting would take a step back this season, but not even the most bold prognosticator would have picked the Bolts to be last in the Eastern Conference with the all-star break in the offing. The injury to Steven Stamkos has hurt in a big way, but Tampa Bay still has an incredibly talented roster that is simply underperforming right now. That hasn’t been helped by the lack of consistency from either of their goaltenders. The good news is that with 34 games remaining, the Lightning are only five points out of the final Atlantic Division playoff berth and five points back of the final wild-card spot. That is far from insurmountable for a team that boasts Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman. Stringing together a couple wins could have Tampa Bay right back in the mix. (Jared Clinton)
The Kings are hovering around a playoff spot right now and have been doing it without star goalie Jonathan Quick. Once he returns (a timeline would be nice, but what can you do?), Los Angeles gets a huge boost. Even though Peter Budaj has pretty good stats, I think the Kings will just play bigger with Quick back, because he can be that security blanket. Also, Anze Kopitar has four goals right now and there’s no way his pace stays that low. The big man is shooting at five percent right now, down from 14 percent the year prior. If he even moderately gets on track, the Kings will be back in the post-season, no problem. (Ryan Kennedy)