The Winter Classic kicked off the 2015 half of the NHL season. We’ve seen a few surprises in 2014 — the Sabres aren’t in the bottom two, the Flames are currently a playoff team, and the mumps can’t stop the Ducks — and now we look into the new year.
How will the playoff spots shakeout by the time the season ends? Here’s one set of possibilities, from an inexpert prognosticator (i.e., me).
Likely Playoff Teams: Blackhawks, Predators, Blues
The Prediction: Hey, look at those utterly safe picks. I predict that the current 1-2-3 teams will finish in the top 3 at season’s end. Way to go out on a limb, self.
But it’s hard to argue that anyone in this division is playing at the same level as the Blackhawks and Predators. Nashville has its reputation for being tough to score against, and they lead the NHL in fewest goals allowed — tied with Chicago. No surprise there. Under Coach Laviolette, though, Nashville has become a far more aggressive and offensive team. They’re fast, they swarm the puck-handler, they frustrate opponents’ zone entries, and they have an oppressive forecheck. And they have the top-scoring rookie so far this season in Filip Forsberg. In four games against the Blackhawks, the Predators have only lost in regulation once (and they’re 3-1-0 against the Blues this season).
For Chicago, it all comes down to how they handle injuries and second-half fatigue. They’re playing playoff-level hockey now, but there’s usually a malaise that seems to hit about 60 games in. If they can prevent or control that slide, Chicago can stay atop the division. If not, Nashville looks tenacious enough to supplant them.
While it would be fun to pick the Jets to sneak past the Blues, Winnipeg doesn’t have the history of being a solid playoff-level team. St. Louis has Brian Elliot back (even if they now have a three-headed monster at the goalie position) and Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Shattenkirk show no signs of slowing down. Winnipeg, on the other hand, just lost Evander Kane to injury again, and is still trotting out Ondrej Pavelec two out of every three games.
Likely Playoff Teams: Ducks, Kings, Sharks
The Prediction: It’s another safe set of picks, although choosing between the Sharks and the Canucks feels like a coin flip. Hell, spots two through five in the Pacific are all within one point of each other in the standings, so it’s like flipping four coins.
Above this Pacific cluster are the Ducks, who still have the best record in the NHL based on points. They’ve done all this while suffering the plague, missing a top scorer for most of the season (Corey Perry), and having to resort to Ilya Bryzgalov in net. There’s a thick line separating Anaheim from the rest of the division, and a second half without the aforementioned obstacles seems like that line will only become more bold.
At the moment, the L.A. Kings are on the wrong side of the line between playoffs and staying home. Regular season inconsistency hasn’t stopped them from going deep into the playoffs in the last few years, and I don’t see it stopping them this season. It would help their case, though, if they didn’t lose back-to-back games against Calgary and Edmonton.
Like I said, choosing between Sharks and Canucks is a coin flip for the final divisional spot. I like that Joe Pavelski kid, so my coin comes up San Jose. I also like the narrative of the Kings and Sharks playing in the first round of the playoffs again.
Wild Cards – Western
Likely Playoff Teams: Jets, Canucks
The Prediction: Yep, my picks for the likely playoff teams in the West are the same eight teams that would make the cut today. There’s such a bright demarcation between the top nine and bottom five that the only real question is whether Calgary has enough to sneak into the playoffs. As fun as they’ve become to watch, I don’t think they have the depth to last all season, nor the possession numbers to overcome the Jets or the top four in the Pacific.
After the Flames, you get a big drop-off. Minnesota is inconsistent, the Avalanche are still reeling from an awful start, and Arizona’s goalie situation is an anchor holding the team down. The Stars have finally put together a solid month, going 7-4-0 in December against mostly mid-level teams. But it’s still difficult to think that a team whose defense is that shaky will be able to surpass Vancouver, San Jose, or even Winnipeg.
It’s still possible — the Jets still insist on using Pavelec as their primary goalie. The difference this season is that he’s not abjectly terrible, merely slightly below average. Oh, and his backup, Michael Hutchison, is performing better than any other goalie so far this seasons. Until and unless they start to regress — and Dallas can figure out how to give up less than three goals per game — I don’t see the West’s bottom teams making too much headway.
Likely Playoff Teams: Lightning, Canadiens, Red Wings
The Prediction: After 38 games, this division has broken down into three groups. You have the teams that score more goals that they give up — Tampa Bay, Montreal, Detroit, and Toronto. You have the teams that don’t — Boston, Florida, and Ottawa. Finally, you have a team with the league’s most abysmal goal differential — Buffalo.
From the teams with positive differential, the Lightning and Canadiens have been trading the top spot. Montreal has the stingiest defense, but doesn’t have a top-20 scorer like Stamkos, Kessel, or Zetterberg. Detroit has another year of experience for what was damn-near an AHL team last year, and probably the best coach in the NHL.
That leaves Toronto on the outside. They score a lot, but they also struggle with possession, and they give up a ton of goals. Inconsistency is the perfect descriptor for the Atlantic teams in the negative differential group. Boston is a recent Cup winner and perennial playoff team, but they rarely look in sync (injuries haven’t helped, either). Ottawa and Florida look more like spoilers than playoff teams. And Buffalo is impressive just being not the worst team in the league.
Likely Playoff Teams: Penguins, Islanders, Rangers
The Prediction: The Metro is the weakest of the divisions, but the battle for the top spot is fascinating. The Penguins are the presumptive division leader, but the Islanders are keeping pace with no signs of fading. On paper, Pittsburgh shouldn’t need to worry. They’ve got the best goal differential in the East, Malkin is playing like a Hart candidate, and Fleury is solid in net. And yet… they’ve gone flat this month. The Islanders haven’t had the best December either, but they’re only in second place because of tiebreakers.
The battle for the third spot is also interesting. The Rangers blew through December opponents to stake their claim, and Washington is barely holding them off. While the Capitals have Backstrom and Ovechkin, and while Holtby seems to have regained some of his form, the Rangers are the reigning conference champs and have a coach and team with the experience to not fade down the stretch. They’re also the gods-damned Rangers, which means they can probably get whatever they want at the trade deadline to paper over any holes in their roster.
Wild Cards – Eastern
Likely Playoff Teams: Capitals, Maple Leafs
The Prediction: I really wanted to pick the Panthers for this. I really did. Seeing Luongo and company sneak into the playoffs ahead of Boston or Toronto is the kind of ridiculousness I love. I even typed them into the slots above. Then I went off to celebrate New Years, had a few drinks, slept in, and looked again. Trying to argue that a team who scores goals at the same rate as the Oilers — even if Bobby Lu holds down their Goals Allowed — is not an easy one. I can’t do it.
I also can’t pull the trigger on the Blue Jackets. Yes, they had the best December of any team in the NHL. Yes, I think they are a playoff-calibre team. Yes, I would like to see them get in ahead of Boston or Toronto (or New York or Washington). But even after a 10-1-1 month, they still have four teams to leapfrog. Mathematically, it’s daunting. It took 93 points to make the playoffs in the East last year. To achieve that, Columbus would need to go something like 26-15-6 in 2015. It’s doable, but difficult. It also means that Toronto, Washington, New York, and Boston would need to all be no better than .500 for the rest of the season. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.
That leaves me with either Toronto or Boston as the last slot, and I like the narrative of Toronto sneaking in ahead of Boston for the final spot. with 44+ games left in the season, that seems as good a reason as any on picking a wild card team. Well, the +11 goal differential for Toronto versus Boston’s -2 is also a factor, but mainly for the narrative.