The long, long NHL season is drawing to a close and with each team having over seventy games in the books, the playoff picture is starting to shape up. With some teams having secured their place in the “second season” virtually months ago, others need every point to break their way into the finals for a chance at Lord Stanley’s cup.
Looking at the Eastern conference, the Boston Bruins find themselves in a position they have not seen since the early 90s. Boston has been the team to beat in the East all season long and with their relentless offence no team is looking forward to playing them in any round of the playoffs. The return of Martin Brodeur from his rare injury makes the New Jersey Devils a tough opponent in the East. When Brodeur went down, the Devils stayed in the hunt behind the surprising goaltending of Scott Clemmensen. Before this season, Clemmensen had played in less than 30 NHL games, but has established himself as more than just a backup with his stellar play this season. Like the Bruins and Devils, the Washington Capitals should be able to win their division, earning a top-three spot in the playoff race. Led by last year’s Hart, Ross, Richard and Pearson awards winner, Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals are a potent offensive threat against any team. With arguably the best offensive-minded defenseman in the league in Mike Greene, the Caps are not a team to be taken lightly as they look to improve on their first round exit from last year. The remainder of the Eastern slots can go to several teams, but Montreal, Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York (Rangers), Florida, Carolina and possibly Pittsburgh look like the teams that will be in the fight for the remaining playoff spots.
The teams able to get a head start on their golf games this year should be Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa, Atlanta and the horrible New York Islanders, who cannot wait for this season to end.
In the Western conference things are much closer than in the East with not much certain beyond the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings leading the way. Halfway through the season there were only ten points separating fifth and fifteenth with almost everyone having a chance to make it in. Barring catastrophe, the Wings and Sharks should win their respective divisions while the Calgary Flames should be able to hang on for first in the Northwest. With those three teams a virtual lock it’s a free-for-all with the “pretender to contender” Chicago Blackhawks being a pleasant surprise in the West. After a horrific start to the season, the Dallas Stars have turned their season around and look to be a serious threat in the West. The Vancouver Canucks, with the addition of several ex-Leafs players, look to be a threat if they can become more consistent in net. The Columbus Blue Jackets are hoping to make their first playoff appearance in club history and if the rejuvenated Rick Nash and goalie Steve Mason continue their outstanding play, look for the Jackets to sneak in. Rounding out the Western conference, look for Edmonton, Anaheim, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Nashville to be in the mix.
The teams left hoping for a high pick in next year’s draft should be the Phoenix Coyotes, the Colorado Avalanche and the injury-devastated St. Louis Blues.
As far as individual points go, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby look to be neck and neck right up until the end of the season. Malkin also looks to lead the way in assists, being challenged by teammate Crosby. Ovechkin looks set to repeat as the leading goal scorer with threats coming from Zach Parise of the Devils and Jeff Carter of the Flyers.
In goal, the Vezina candidates include Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets who, at various times during the season, led the league in both shutouts and goals against average. It is worth noting that Mason also has a shot at rookie of the year honors as well as being a Vezina contender. With perennial contender Martin Brodeur having missed most of the season, Mikka Kiprusoff who has played almost every game in net for Calgary, has a solid shot at the hardware. As for save percentage, Tim Thomas of Pittsburgh, Craig Anderson in Florida and Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota are all potential winners.
This season has been one of the closest in recent years and if past seasons are anything to go by, the top teams from each conference almost never make it through to the Stanley Cup final, which means that once again, virtually any team that makes the playoffs can win it all. Look for a lot of surprises, upsets and great hockey when the playoffs begin in mid-April.
Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, April 2009