Back to work.
It has been a most enjoyable two weeks of Olympic hockey. But now, it's time to get back to the NHL. With roughly 20 games to go in the season, the first few strokes have been painted on the playoff picture. So let's take a look ahead and who's going to be dancing in April on the East Coast:
Washington, New Jersey, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo can start selling tickets now. No point dwelling on the obvious. The only team at risk here is Buffalo, who entered the break on a stink boat, but they can't help but ride Miller's wave next week, so count them in.
Toronto - The Bruins are licking their chops at the prospect of the #1 pick coming from the Leafs this spring.
NY Islanders and Florida - While both of the these teams are only 6 points out of the final spot, both squads are in a freefall. The Islanders didn't really expect to contend this season, and the Panthers have publicly declared that they've tipped their King on the board.
With five spots taken and three teams in the stands, that leaves 7 squads in the circle to squeeze their butts into 4 chairs when the music stops. 6 of those teams are within 5 points of each other, and they're all playing mediocre hockey right now. So it may be a matter of who defaults into the final slots. Let's start with the obvious exception…
Carolina (IN) - Everyone wrote this team off in November, and again in December when the expected recovery failed to come. I refuse to give up on this team (sure, I'm biased, I'm a fan). The Canes went into the Olympic break as one of the hottest teams in the East, winning 8 of their last 10 games. They already blew their shot at the #1 pick at the draft, so they might as well hold on to their assets and keep driving for the final spot. Don't be surprised if they get it. The Canes finished last season as the hottest team in the league, and I believe they'll do it again. If they don't make the cut, they'll miss by a hair.
Philadelphia (IN) - The Flyers hold a slight edge, as they're currently 2 points ahead of the pack, and the only team remaining with a winning record over the past 10 games. As always, much depends on their goaltending down the stretch. Expect their goal-scorers to find their way after a needed two week break. Jeff Carter may be particularly motivated after missing his chance at an Olympic medal by Getzlaf's ankle.
Montreal (OUT) - The Canadiens' season was lost on July 1st of last year. It's remarkable that they're this close. Montreal has fewer games remaining than the rest of the pack, which puts them at a big disadvantage. There may be pressure to make some moves at the deadline, but I don't see any quick fixes to this broken roster. Maybe next year.
BOSTON (OUT) - This time last year, the Bruins were just coming down to earth after their torrid start to the 08-09 season. It's been downhill ever since. Contract squabbles, injuries, and cold spells have made the team an after thought in the East. Even with key players getting healthy recently, the confidence on this squad is low. Count them out, but just barely.
Tampa Bay (OUT) - The Lightning is a hard team to read. There is reason for hope: Stamkos is emerging as one of the league's best. Lecavalier and St. Louis are rested and probably bitter over being snubbed for the Winter Games. Their hodge-podge defense acquired last summer has had time to come together, and their goaltending has actually been a bright spot for a change. There's also reason for gloom, mostly stemming from off ice incompetency. Bottom line is they'll be in the hunt down to the final whistle, but will ultimately fall short. Watch for the Panthers to play spoiler for their in-state rivals, as their final two matchups are against Florida.
NY Rangers (OUT) - If they could just score a goal every once in a while, this team might just have a prayer. Never has a team so drastically been unfit to play the style of play of their coach. Torterella loves the high tempo offensive attack, but outside of Gaborik, they don’t have the horses. Maybe it's time to hand the reigns over to Messier and admit that Glen Sather was better suited for the 80's.
Atlanta (IN) - Everything is wacked up in Atlanta this year, so why not pick them to make the playoffs? The Thrashers have low fan expectations, they've come to expect disappointment. They've already dealt Kovalchuk, so teams may underestimate their drive. But Atlanta has the scheduling edge among the bottom feeders. They have 13 of their remaining 22 contests at home, the most of this bunch. They still have some talent up front, and Pavalec no longer has to worry about his starting job. I'm counting them in.
So here is my prediction for the Final Standings in the East:
4. New Jersey
10. Tampa Bay
11. NY Rangers
14. NY Islanders