NHL’s Eastern Conference Still Wide Open

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are looking to finally get past the second round in the playoffs this season.

It’s almost March, and there is still very little clarity about the beast of the East in the NHL. There is very little suspense regarding the top seed; the Washington Capitals have been in cruise-control seemingly from the start. But does that make them the odds-on favorite? Not really, especially considering the ongoing surges of the conference’s recent heavyweights.

A quick look now at the Eastern Conference contenders and their prospects for making a substantial playoff run in 2016 (records as of 2/28):

Washington Capitals (45-12-4, 94 pts.)

The pressure is on the Capitals — not in the regular season, of course, but in the postseason. For a franchise that has not advanced past the second round since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, it’s fair to wonder, “If not now, then when?” Alexander Ovechkin is a surefire Hall of Famer, but the addition of T.J. Oshie could prove huge in complementing not only Ovie, but the team’s other stars. Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the club with 64 points, and Nicklas Backstrom trails Ovie by just one with 57. Braden Holtby is a solid if unspectacular netminder, but he will be under as much scrutiny as anyone come playoff time. The Caps’ biggest challenge in the postseason will likely be themselves and avoiding the mistakes that have held them back in recent years.

Florida Panthers (35-19-8, 78 pts.)

One of the nicest stories in all of hockey is the Florida Panthers and 44-year-old All-Star Jaromir Jagr. It is Jagr who leads the team with 45 points, and you won’t find any Panthers topping the NHL’s offensive leaderboards. But this efficient team has won a number of close games and is not only getting the most out of 36-year-old goaltender Roberto Luongo, but also fellow netminder Al Montoya. Health will be key for the Panthers, who aren’t quite as deep as some of their competitors. Florida has still proven itself to be a pesky team and will not be an easy out in the playoffs. First things first for the Panthers: hold off the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic division.

New York Rangers (36-20-6, 78 pts.)

Quietly, the Rangers are right back near the top of the Eastern Conference standings again this season. They won’t win the Metropolitan division, but they could well be headed for a playoff date with their cross-town rivals, the New York Islanders. The Rangers are experienced and have had recent playoff success despite not winning the Cup. They have a top-level goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, but what’s been puzzling in 2015-16 has been their inability to sustain success on the road. The Rangers are 22-6-3 at home but only 14-14-3 away from Madison Square Garden. What should give them confidence, however, is how well they’ve handled the Capitals in the postseason. Should they meet again this year, undoubtedly more of the pressure will be on Washington.

Tampa Bay Lightning (36-22-4, 76 pts.)

This may well be a team no one wants to face in the postseason. The Lightning have caught fire, winning six straight, and have legitimate hopes of overtaking the Panthers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Steven Stamkos has been front-and-center in this run, scoring a goal in each of Tampa Bay’s six wins and 23 in his last 26 games. A year after winning the Eastern Conference, the Lightning are looking for a chance to take care of some unfinished business. If Ben Bishop can play like he did in the 2015 postseason, Tampa Bay could well complete the task that they couldn’t a year ago.

Boston Bruins (34-23-6, 74 pts.)

The Bruins are a hard team to figure out, but they appear to be in better shape than the team that collapsed and missed the playoffs a season ago. They have struggled at home but thrived on the road, going 13-16-3 at the Garden but 21-7-3 away from it. At times they have been downright steamrolled at home, yet possess a very respectable +20 point-differential. Brad Marchand is tied for third in the NHL with 32 goals, and center Patrice Bergeron leads the team with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists). Goalie Tuukka Rask’s numbers have dropped off from last year but he has been on a roll of late and is still one of the better netminders in the conference. In terms of potential playoff opponents, the Bruins may have trouble with Washington or Tampa Bay in the postseason but have always given the Rangers and Penguins fits and may also find some success against a playoff newbie like the Panthers.

New York Islanders (33-20-7, 73 pts.)

The Islanders lost a heartbreaking series to Washington last year, but has come back strong in 2015-16. Thomas Greiss has played very well, giving the Isles depth at the position behind Jaroslav Halak. John Tavares is having another terrific season, as New York is likely headed toward a date with the Rangers. In a deep conference, the road will be tough for the Islanders, putting added emphasis on Tavares and Kyle Okposo.

Detroit Red Wings (31-20-11, 73 pts.)

The Red Wings are all but assured of extending their NHL-record postseason streak to 25 years. The club has not seen much success in the postseason since winning back-to-back conference titles in 2008-09, but the Wings seem to have found their answer at goaltender in Petr Mrazek, who is tied for second in the NHL in goals against average (2.10). The Wings do not currently have a player with 20 goals, but they are a balanced group led by left winger Henrik Zetterberg and center Pavel Datsyuk. Both players have more assists than goals but bring veteran leadership to the team, as well. Mrazek holds the keys to Detroit making a run in the playoffs. A year ago, the Wings took Tampa Bay to a decisive seventh game before falling short.

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-21-8, 70 pts.)

The Penguins nearly suffered the same fate of the Bruins last year, ultimately backing into the playoffs before getting whitewashed by the Rangers. The stellar seasons of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin give hope for the Penguins despite a rather pedestrian season in net for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins have beaten the teams they’re supposed to this season but it’s fair to wonder how they’ll respond against a playoff-caliber team in a long series. There is an inconsistency factor that separates this team from the championship club of 2009, meaning their ability to win in the postseason relies on a lot going right — namely, continued production from their star players.

The “Rest”

The team on the outside looking in that appears to have the best chance of getting in is the Philadelphia Flyers. They currently sit three points back of Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot and have shown flashes this year, with goalie Michal Neuvirth ranking in the top 10 in the NHL in GAA. The three teams bunched with the Flyers could all theoretically make a push, but neither the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, nor Ottawa Senators appear poised to do any damage even if they do crack the field. The Montreal Canadiens were once considered a threat before Carey Price’s injury, and there is always the possibility of the team regrouping when/if Price gets healthy this year. But realistically, none of these bubble teams look like legitimate threats.

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