Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

NHL contenders fight for playoff seeding

By GAURAV VERMA | March 30, 2017

With all 30 teams playing fewer than 10 games in the regular season, the playoff picture is already beginning to take shape. But what might be most noticeable to NHL fans is the absence of a certain team from the playoff picture: the Detroit Red Wings. This season brings an end to the Red Wings 25-year playoff streak.

In the Eastern Conference, three of the League’s annual top contenders sit perched atop the standings. The Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers sit first, third, and fourth in the conference, respectively, and the Montreal Canadiens trail the Rangers by three points with a game in hand.

These four are joined atop the conference by a basement dweller team from last season: the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team is led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who is sporting a stellar 1.99 goals against average, and wing Cam Atkinson, who leads the team with 33 goals.

The defense, led by Seth Jones, Jack Johnson, David Savard and star rookie Zach Werenski, has been key for Columbus. The team is ranked second in the NHL in goals against. The team has played some of its strongest hockey over the past month and looks poised to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile the Rangers, a veteran team led by star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Capitals, led by Alexander Ovechkin, are certainly threats to go deep in the playoffs. However, the two teams have historically struggled in the postseason. The two franchises, particularly the Capitals, have recurrent themes of dominance in the regular season that gives way to postseason disappointment. Picking one of the two teams is a risky bet, despite them looking strong on paper.

As such, the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins, are the best bet to meet the Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The team’s offense is the best in the League, led by scoring threats Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. On defense, however, the team is average. Ultimately, the Penguins’ lackluster defense could prove to be their downfall in the playoffs, so I expect the Columbus Blue Jackets to emerge from the East to play in the Stanley Cup.

Rounding out the Eastern Conference playoff picture are the Ottawa Senators, who look poised to lock up the sixth seed. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes will be fighting for the final two spots, with the Philadelphia Flyers having an outside chance at the playoffs. While the Maple Leafs and Bruins currently have the inside track toward the final two spots, the Bruins have collapsed at the end of the last two seasons, leading them to fall out of the playoff picture.

It has been a stunning fall from grace for the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and made it to the finals again in 2013. The team had a strong young core with players such as forward Tyler Seguin and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, only to trade them away for pennies on the dollar. The once promising team has now fallen into NHL purgatory thanks to incompetent management that is unwilling to adapt the tough and physical team into one suited for the faster-paced modern NHL.

Without any prospects of a top draft pick or of luring top players to the team via free agency, the Bruins look poised to remain in mediocrity, barring a management change, and I expect them to once again miss the playoffs. Ultimately, it will most likely be Toronto and Tampa Bay locking up the last two seeds in the East, but neither have much of a chance at dethroning the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

In the Western Conference, the playoff picture looks more clear. The eighth place St. Louis Blues hold a commanding 11-point lead over the ninth place Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spot. Their road to the Stanley Cup Finals, however, will likely have to go through the Chicago Blackhawks, making an appearance for the Blues unlikely, as the Blackhawks look poised to lock up the West’s top seed.

As always, right wing Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks, but their depth goes beyond Kane, with veterans such as center Jonathan Toews, defenseman Duncan Keith and right wing Marián Hossa, who have been among the NHL’s best for years. Adding to their mix of talent, the Blackhawks also have a group of young, energetic players such as wings Artemi Panarin and Ryan Hartman. The team’s weakness, however, lies in its specialty units, particularly the penalty kill, and it remains to be seen if that is going to be their undoing come playoffs.

Likewise, the road to the finals will not be easy for Chicago, as they will likely have to face some of the NHL’s best squads in the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames have been playing some of their best hockey lately.

Of these teams, I believe the Oilers have the best shot at upsetting the Blackhawks. At their core, the Oilers are a young and talented team, built by years of high draft picks that are now ready for NHL stardom. These youngsters include centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and defenseman Oscar Klefbom, who are backed by a solid group of veterans, such as wings Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle and defenseman Kris Russell. Should this group continue their impressive play, I believe they have the potential to surprise us in the playoffs.

Although they are struggling, it would be irresponsible to count out the second-ranked Minnesota Wild and the defending Western Conference champions, the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks have struggled mightily on offense, ranking near the bottom third of the League in goals per game. Defensively, however, they have been one of the best in the League, ranking third in goals against. Ultimately, I think the Sharks will fall to one of the hot teams in the middle of the table such as Anaheim, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Wild are an extremely well balanced team that has played consistently strong hockey until this past month. But the team has a number of experienced and talented veterans such as forward Eric Staal, center Mikael Granlund and left wing Zach Parise, as well as defenseman Ryan Suter, who I think could push the Wild in the postseason.

The team has had very little rest over the past month, due to a compressed schedule, and I firmly believe that Minnesota can overcome their struggles once it matters in the playoffs and even represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Blue Jackets.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

News-Letter Special Editions