Try as I might, I cannot imagine the Southeast division being represented by four teams in the upcoming playoffs. This leaves the Atlanta Thrashers and the Carolina Hurricanes to grind it out for the final spot.
Obviously there are still the Buffalo Sabres (missing the key playmaker in Derek Roy, though) and the Florida Panthers (too prone to losing leads and one-goal games on the other hand) in the rear view mirror. Even though they are right behind the ‘Canes in the Eastern Conference standings they would not only need to collect points, but also leap over more than two teams each in the standings in order for their chase to be successful. In the world where you get points even for overtime and shootout losses, it might be too much of an uphill struggle.
Between the Thrashers and the Hurricanes I have my sights on the latter, as Carolina has more explosive shooters, is a more well-rounded team and has… metaphysics on their side.
It is relatively easy to single out the Raleigh-based team captain Eric Staal (five GWG, the most by a forward on either team) and the young phenom, Jeff Skinner (a Calder Trophy favorite), as the chief game-changers between Carolina and Atlanta.
The Thrashers’ major offensive strength, in a quite unprecedented fashion, comes with their defensive corps, as Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom lead the team in scoring at the All-Star break. This can soon change as the Swede will be out for the next 2-4 weeks with a fractured finger. It is difficult to tell how his absence can affect the offensive prowess of the “Big Buff”, who used to be paired with Enstrom. Even a cursory look at Byfuglien’s statistics shows that his defensive drawbacks have already affected his plus/minus (only plus-3 at the break), which ought to have been much higher given the defenseman’s strong scoring this season.
Carolina seems to have an edge in team makeup and structure as well. If I am fighting for life after the regular season, I am taking the unit which has had more time together to gel. The backbone of the Hurricanes in goal (Cam Ward), defense (Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo) and forwards (Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, Jussi Jokinen, Erik Cole) has been intact for an extended period of time.
On the other hand, Atlanta underwent major lineup reconstruction last spring and summer, first trading Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey Devils (and getting several players back) and then trading for four Chicago Blackhawks in Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and since departed Ben Eager. In comparison to their 2008-09 lineup, taking into account only significant players (minimum 50 GP and min. 30 points scored), the Thrashers have only three such contributors on the team now: Enstrom, Bryan Little and Ron Hainsey (since Rich Peverley played a part of that season for Nashville Predators).
Contrary to Atlanta, Carolina can depend on (including Ward) seven players with longer tenure together (the aforementioned group, excluding Cole and Jokinen, who joined the Hurricanes mid-season two years ago).
On top of everything else, there is also an intangible of… destiny.
For the last five seasons, the Hurricanes, almost interchangeably, either failed to make the post-season or went very deep in the Stanley Cup chase. Starting with the post-lockout season when they won it all, they went out of this sync only once. It was four and three years ago that Carolina missed the playoffs altogether in consecutive seasons, only to come back strong the following year and reach the conference final.
It is anybody’s guess if the ‘Canes are bound to make some noise come mid-April. In order for that to occur, however, they first need to bounce their Southeast Division foe out of the dance. And the best thing is they still have four games between each other to fight it out on the ice.