In our continuing look at the playoff picture, it's my turn to stand up and give you my predictions on just what we'll see when April 11th rolls around, and the dust has settled in the NHL.
Feel free to take a look at what I've cooked up and respond in our comments!
As people have mentioned, not many teams seem to want to make trades with the standings so close in the West, but in the East, things are already beginning to settle out...though I think there are some interesting wild cards that could still come back to impact the standings. Here's how I see the East shaking out.
1) Philadelphia Flyers - Between Sergei Bobrovsky's strong rookie campaign and an offense that is firing on all cylinders (anyone else a little surprised that Claude Giroux currently leads the Flyers in points?), they've got a small margin on the Pens in the Atlantic Division, and a big cushion between themselves and the rest of the Conference. I don't see the Flyers falling out of the top spot, but I could see them making a move to add some depth. (Not a goalie, though. I think they make the decision to roll with Bob, Boucher, and/or Leighton in some combination or another.)
2) Montreal Canadiens - Make no mistake, the Boston Bruins are good (we'll get to them in a minute, in fact), but Montreal has been right there with them in the Northeast all year, and I just can't shake the feeling that they're going to find a way to pass their perennial rival for the Division crown. Carey Price is finally showing why the team felt comfortable dealing Jaroslav Halak, and when Mike Cammalleri comes off the IR it will be as big a boost to their offense as a trade deadline acquisition.
3) Washington Capitals - Alexander Ovechkin has told every reporter following the Caps that he doesn't care about personal glory - he wants his team to succeed in the playoffs this year. I think the Russian Machine has been saving up his energy for a push, and his recent explosion of offense (including a four point night against Tampa Bay on Friday) is just the start. Speaking of teams with goaltending questions, though - you have to wonder if they're really comfortable with Neuvirth, Holtby, and / or Varlamov in net for a playoff push. Don't forget that Alexander Semin may also fire up their offense when he returns from the IR as well.
4) Boston Bruins - Though they may get edged in their division, I think the Bruins have something special this year, particularly with Tim Thomas playing absolutely lights out hockey. Despite losing Marc Savard, they just keep rolling, and I suspect that they'll make a move for a scoring forward at the deadline to help make up for Savard's absence.
5) Tampa Bay Lightning - The poster child for Rags to Riches in the NHL this season, Steve Yzerman is a lock for GM of the year, and I wouldn't be surprised if Guy Boucher gets a lot of Jack Adams votes. The real key move may be the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson - probably the best netminder they've had since their trip to the '04 Cup Finals. They'll be in it right to the end for the SE division crown, but I see them falling just short.
6) Pittsburgh Penguins - As impressive as the team's performance without Crosby and Malkin has been, I really wonder how long they can keep playing above their heads, and how the loss of supporting players like Mark Letestu will affect them. With Malkin done for the season, and Sidney Crosby not expected to be back in the lineup until early March, that's a long stretch of games for any team to slog through without their best players. They'll still make the postseason, but they'll fall back a bit into the pack.
7) Carolina Hurricanes - Southleast division no more. The Canes have been on fire leading up to the All Star Break, and since then they've come back kicking and punching their way into the playoff picture. With teams like the Rangers and Thrashers struggling, I think the Canes will be able to carve out a spot for themselves in the postseason - marking the first time that three teams from the SE division will take part in the playoffs.
8) Buffalo Sabres - "But Matt," you say, "What about the Rangers?" What about them, indeed. Their offense keeps fizzling at the worst possible times, and I don't think Henrik Lundqvist can push them into the postseason at the point without a big trade to fire up the offense, shore up the defense, or BOTH. Buffalo, on the other hand, started rough but has really come on over the last couple of months. I think that they'll probably make a move to try and get a bit more scoring at the deadline, but their 145 goals for is actually pretty darn good, and Ryan Miller seems to be playing back at his Olympic form.
9) Atlanta Thrashers - The Thrashers started this season like a house on fire, but someone must have finally called out the ladder trucks, because they've cooled off hard. The loss of Tobias Enstrom has affected their blue line badly, and Dustin Byfuglien hasn't been able to find the back of the net lately. With a GA/GF differential of -20, even the often steller performances of Ondrej Pavelic won't be enough to get this team going. They could surprise me if they make some kind of big move at the deadline (rumor is that Rick Dudley has been trying to get help already, and has shipped around quite a few of his veteran forwards), but...
10) New York Rangers - As I mentioned, it's been a very inconsistent season for the Rags, and I just don't see them finding their way back to the playoffs. Perhaps Vinny Prospal can get them going, but with Marian Gaborik MIA on the score sheet lately, and the team on another losing skid of late, I just don't see them getting back into it.
11) New Jersey Devils - After falling off of the face of the earth to start the season, someone finally told Marty Brodeur that the season has started, and the team in front of him has responded in kind. After winning 7 of their last ten, they're finally back into competitive hockey, and have played well enough that I think they'll shoulder past a few other teams before the end of the season...which is kind of a shame, actually, because a lottery pick this season might be just what the doctor ordered to replenish their depleted prospect pool.
12) Florida Panthers - The Panthers continue to be a "two steps forward, one step back" team this season, including perfecting the art of blown leads and OT heartbreakers. With talk that Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun, and Bryan McCabe (among others) could be shipped out at the deadline, don't be surprised if Dale Tallon dumps as much salary as he can before going into the Draft and free agency.
13) Toronto Maple Leafs - As entertaining as Optimus Reim is to watch, the Leafs are done. They were done in December, and we're just waiting to see what Brian Burke decides to do with guys like Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin.
14) New York Islanders - The injuries to Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit ended the Isles' season before it started, but give them credit for making a go of it early on. After a record setting losing streak, they finally seem to have gotten...if not good, at least entertaining, but the simple fact is they've only won 17 times in 52 games, and I don't see them making it past the 30 win mark.
15) Ottawa Senators - The rebuild is on in Ottawa, and the team seems to be making GM Bryan Murray's job easier by showing that just about all of them want out of this town RIGHT NOW. Expect to see Kovalev, Phillips, Fisher and perhaps even higher ticket guys like Sergei Gonchar and Jason Spezza on the trading block, while the continuing round-robin in goal has turned into a long spiral of frustration. Despite Eugene Melnyk saying that Murray and head coach Cory Clouston are safe, I wouldn't be shocked to see both of them out if the Sens continue to get deeper into the wilderness.
So, there you have it - how I see the East shaking out. Just for a bonus, here's how I see those potential Playoff matchups going...
Philadelphia v. Buffalo
Montreal v. Carolina
Washington v. Pittsburgh
Boston v. Tampa Bay
Crazy? Maybe, maybe not, but I think that I'd watch just about every one of those games...