I've enjoyed seeing Mike and Matt go out on a limb in their vision of what the NHL playoff picture may look like come the second week of April. If you thought that we were all the same person, we're not. In fact, Matt and Mike only agree on one pick in the top eight of the Eastern Conference! That was for their top seed in the playoffs. While I'm inclined to agree with the top seed, I will politely disagree with some others after the jump:
As you probably know by now, I'm a relative newcomer to Blue Jackets hockey. In fact, just about a year ago when it was announced locally that the Springfield Falcons would be the primary affiliate of the Jackets, my first reaction was, "you gotta be kidding me!" Yes, I live in Massachusetts. I'm an Eastern Conference guy. So it's with a particular sense of pride that I've assembled my Eastern Conference breakdown.
Before I begin, I have a geographical pet peeve with the NHL. How is Pittsburgh in the "Atlantic" when they are about six or seven hours away from the ocean, and Boston is in the "Northeast" when they are literally right on the ocean? But I guess if the Dallas Cowboys can be in the NFC East, anything is possible.
1) Philadelphia Flyers - When we decided we would post playoff picks, my inclination was to place the Flyers behind the Penguins in the Atlantic Division, making them an overall #4 seed. Although the Pens continue to remain competitive without their two big guns, the Flyers, led by former Springfield Falcon Danny Briere, simply have too much horsepower to finish anywhere other than first. Let's not overlook December 4, 2009 as a big day that is key to the current success of the Flyers. That's the day that Peter Laviolette was brought in as head coach. He took over a team that started hot last season, but had started to flounder and had played themselves out of the playoff hunt. Enter no-nonsense Pete, and the Flyers not only made the playoffs with a final game of the season shootout victory over the New York Rangers, but made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. This team is for real, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them still playing come June.
2) Boston Bruins - This is my "local" team. UGH. I am not a "Boston" guy for ANY sports. I don't like Comcast Sports New England and NESN is even worse. I've been to Boston many times. It's a fine place, just not my cup o' tea. Personal prejudice aside, I really wanted to put the B's in 9th on the outside, looking in for the playoffs. Bottom line, I just can't do it. I was secretly hoping for Montreal to overtake the Bruins, but after watching what Puck Daddy is calling "the game of the year" from Feb. 9th (an incredible 8-6 shellacking of the Habs, with fights galore), this is a club that despite so much youth and perceived "no name" talent, I forecast them to be the Northeast Division champions.
3) Tampa Bay Lightning - This club is firing on all cylinders. The
theft errr, acquisition of Dwight Roloson was sheer brilliance by Stevie Y and company. Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell (former Manchester Monarch) along with a cast of others who most teams would salivate to put in their lineups, makes this my pick for best of the Southeast. One of the more disturbing stats for this club is that as of February 11th, they have given up more goals than they have scored. Worse, after +/- leader Steven Stamkos (+12), Steve Downie (!) is a +6, Martin St. Louis is a +5, three players are in at +1, then everybody else is in the red.
4) Washington Capitals - Although I feel confident with Tampa Bay winning the Southeast Division, the Caps will keep it close. The erratic play of Alexander Ovechkin aside, the rest of the team has underacheived in the first half of the season. Last season, everything seemed to go right for Washington. This season has been a reality check for them.
5) Pittsburgh Penguins - Currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins are a mess. Their two studs, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are sidelined. Malkin is done for the season and Crosby is questionable with his concussion issues. The latest talk about Sid the Kid is a return in March. Unfortunately for the Pens, that's likely to be too little, too late. The Penguins have had a strong defense all season, with Kris Letang second on the club in scoring. With our own Mike MacLean charitably referring to Matt Cooke as a feminine hygiene device recently, this team can continue to grind out wins in the short term. Long term however, they are going to need more to succeed this spring.
6) Montreal Canadiens - Despite my ardent hopes that Le Rouge, Blanc et Bleu de les Habitants de Montreal would overtake the Bruins, after Wednesday's game in Boston, I'm just not seeing it. I was perhaps jaded last weekend when Carey Price blanked the New York Rangers at the Bell Centre in Montreal. I would have to conclude that the Rangers are not the Bruins. Carey Price thus far this season has delivered as the Canadiens "goalie of the future". I have seen him play too many poor games over the past couple of seasons to feel comfortable with him. Has the first half been because of him, or a sound defense in front of him? If indeed, the Price is right, the Canadiens could go deep in this season's playoff.
7) New York Rangers - Matt Wagner, you broke my heart! How could you not see all the good and the positives that are the New York Rangers? Oh yeah, that's right...these days there aren't many. Yes friends, I am a lifelong New York Rangers fan. Right now, the Rangers are playing well enough to lose on a nightly basis. If I'm not in a Blue Jackets game thread here on The Cannon, it's because I'm wasting another night begging, hoping...pleading for some offense by the Blueshirts. Most nights my prayers go unanswered. What had been a sure thing in Henrik Lundqvist, has been anything but that for the past couple of weeks. As much as I wish I could seed the Rangers as #1 and have them go all the way to the finals, unlike my esteemed colleague Mr. Wagner, I think the Rangers will make the playoffs. Barely. Then after the first round, I will wait until MSG Network shows their annual replays of the 1994 cup run. Like the movie "SlapShot", I've got most of the Devils series and Canucks series committed to memory.
8) Carolina Hurricanes - Of all the peculiarities in the NHL, the momentum of the All Star festivities and the national attention of the "Cane-iacs" (oh how I hate that name!), the Hurricanes should keep the Thrashers just out of the hunt and qualify as the #8 seed. Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Erik Cole have all turned up their game of late. Rookie Jeff Skinner has had a tremendous season and should easily be the Calder Trophy winner as the Rookie of the Year.
9) Atlanta Thrashers - After a great start, the Thrashers have fallen on some hard times. Currently in the midst of a four game losing streak, much like the Rangers, Atlanta needs to turn it around and do so quickly to make a run at Carolina.
10) Florida Panthers - It would appear that the Panthers have thrown in the towel on the season. A playoff longshot at best, currently seven points behind the eighth place Hurricanes, the Panthers traded their second leading scorere, Michael Frolik to Chicago. Stephen Weiss leads the Panthers with 37 points. David Booth has returned following last season's concussion suffered after a Mike Richards open ice check.
11) Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres got off to a miserable start this season and have been trying to dig themselves out of that hole ever since. Currently riding a streak of 7-3-0 in their last ten, they trail Carolina by four points. Led by Ryan Miller in goal, the Lindy Ruff led club is a nice blend of veterans and youth (Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis). I'm not seeing the Sabres jumping into the playoffs, but if they did, I would not be surprised.
12) Toronto Maple Leafs - In a way, the Leafs remind me of the New York Football Giants of the 1970s and early 80s. They jam pack their building every single time. They get by on reputation. Oh, and did I mention...they suck! In the mid 80s however, the G-Men brought in a guy named Parcells and things turned around for Big Blue. What have the Leafs done since the 80s? The 70s? Yikes! Something good to say about the Leafs? I met Johnny Bower the past couple of summers. He is truly one of the most wonderful guys you'd ever want to meet!
13) New Jersey Devils - With the failed John MacLean experiment behind them, "Old Reliable" Jacques Lemaire, returned in just enough time to prevent the Devils from getting the prize in the draft lottery. Now Martin Brodeur is on the shelf. Ilya Kovalchuk and his gazillion dollar contract have done nothing for the Devils. Maybe next year.
14) Ottawa Senators - Can you beleive the Sens had 94 points and were a five seed last season? Me neither. Since last spring, things have gone from bad to worse for the boys in the Canadian Capital. The best thing to say about Ottawa's season is that they'll be treated kindly come draft time.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers New York Islanders - The Islanders are hideous. Rick Dipietro cracks me up. Brent Johnson cracked him up. You could probably bring up the entire roster of the AHL Sound Tigers, put Islanders jerseys on them and except for John Tavares, nobody would know the difference. Or care for that matter.
There you have it! According to my magical, mystical crystal ball (which is seldom wrong, might I add!) I present the following playoff matchups in the first round in the Eastern Conference:
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
As if this wasn't enough excitement for you, I'll have my Western Conference playoff picks up on Saturday!