Playoff Race In the East Going Down to the Wire

There are five teams fighting for the final three playoff spots in the East.  Each team has serious flaws that has prevented them from pulling away from the pack but they all have strengths that allow them to remain in the hunt. Here’s a look at the teams in the race and what they will need to do to reach the postseason.  Teams are listed in the order they are in the standings as of Friday morning, April 2.

Philadelphia Flyers:

The Situation: The Flyers have a lot of offensive talent and are seventh in the league in goals scored per game.  Even with their present wave of injuries, there are a lot of players that can put the puck in the net.  Goaltending remains the biggest problem on Broad Street. The Flyers started the season with Ray Emery who is out for the year with injuries. Michael Leighton was picked up off the waiver wire and surprised everybody by playing at such a high level while the team caught fire in February.  Now Leighton is lost for the season with injuries and the Flyers are relying on Brian Boucher who has had some horrible games.  Boucher is 6-16-3 on the season and is not playing with confidence. His poor play has cost the team some important games, including Thursday nights game on Long Island when he allowed five goals in a little more than two periods and four of the five could be considered soft. 

The Schedule: The Flyers have five games remaining with three of them coming at home. Four of the final five games they have are against contenders including a big game against Montreal tonight and a home and home against the Rangers to close out the season. 

The Outlook: Of all the teams in the race, the Flyers are probably the most likely to miss the playoffs.  Boucher is a serious liability right now.  The Flyers need good but not great goaltending to have a chance to make the postseason, but Boucher isn’t even providing that.  Even if Philadelphia manages to squeak into the postseason, they cannot hope to get far without some stellar goaltending.  GM Paul Holmgren’s failure to acquire an experienced goalie at the trade deadline has proven very costly to this team.

Montreal Canadiens:

The Situation: The Habs biggest problem is finding players to put the puck in the net.  The loss of Glen Metropolit won’t help the  struggling Canadiens offense but getting Marc-Andre Bergeron back in the lineup could certainly help the power play down the stretch.  Montreal should go with Jaroslav Halak in goal as he has been more consistent than Carey Price although both goalies receive little support offensively and have little room for error.  The Habs scratch and claw but their lack of offensive consistency and their failure to pick a number one goaltender have held them back this season.

The Schedule: This weekend is critical for the Canadiens as they travel to Philadelphia tonight before hosting Buffalo Saturday.  The Habs final three games are against non-contending teams (the Islanders, Hurricanes and Leafs) but they can’t afford to take any of these teams lightly. Three of Montreal’s final five games are on the road.

The Outlook: The Habs should find a way to qualify for the playoffs despite their recent slump (1-3-2 in their last six games).  There is just enough offensive ability to get the job done and the goaltending talent is there as well.

Boston Bruins:

The Situation: The Bruins have struggled to score goals all season and last night’s 1-0 loss to Florida was too familiar to Bruins fans.  They miss Marc Savard, their top playmaker.  Savard is an underrated player who makes his teammates better with his strong playmaking.  The Bruins are dead last in the league in goals per game and shooting percentage as they have not found a player to replace Phil Kessel in the lineup this season.  The B’s do have the best team goals against average in the league and the strong goaltending of Tuukka Rask has kept this team in the race.

The Schedule: Boston has three of its final five games on the road. They play a pair of games against the Capitals down the stretch, including the season finale. The fact that the Caps may already have wrapped up the President’s Trophy by then may help.  They also face Buffalo, Toronto and Carolina down the stretch.

The Outlook: Rask’s strong play gives the Bruins a strong foundation. Look for the B’s to find just enough offense to squeek into the playoffs.  Having Toronto’s top draft choice this year will help Boston address their lack of scoring next year’s entry draft.

Atlanta Thrashers:

The Situation: Atlanta has come together since trading Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey before the trade deadline.  Atlanta has plenty of firepower even after dealing their top scorer and new acquisition Niclas Bergfors fitting in well with Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov.  Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec give Atlanta good if not great goaltending.  The Thrashers defense is steady but not spectacular.  The experience of 48-year-old Chris Chelios can’t hurt on a young team which has only qualified for the playoffs once in its history.

The Schedule: The Thrashers face the most difficult challenge here of all the contenders.  They have only four games left and they are all against contending teams including a pair with the Penguins, and single games against the Devils and Capitals.

The Outlook: Atlanta will probably fall just short because of their difficult schedule. This young team has shown resiliance and would not be an easy opponent if they find their way into the playoffs.  If the season was a few games longer, Atlanta would probably make the postseason.

New York Rangers:

The Situation:  Other than Marian Gaborik, the Rangers don’t have any reliable goal scorers.  They tried to get help when they acquired Ollie Jokinen at the trade deadline, but Jokienen hasn’t provided consistent production or any spark.  There simply isn’t enough scoring depth or offensive consistency on this team, although Henirk Lundqvist remains one of the game’s best goalies and gives the Rangers a chance to win nearly every game.  Chris Drury provides good leadership.  There are rumors abounding that if the Rangers fail to make the playoffs, GM Glen Sather and Coach John Tortorella may not be back next season.

The Schedule:  The Rangers have six games left to play although four of them are away from Madison Square Garden.  Three of the games are against non-contenders (Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto) and they close with a home-and-home against the Flyers which could determine which of these two teams makes the playoffs.

The Outlook: The Rangers have an extra game to play and that helps a lot. The schedule is favorable.  New York has a good chance of finding a way to claim the final playoff spot if their inconsistency doesn’t do them in yet again.

PREDICTED FINISH:

6.  Montreal

7. Boston

8. New York Rangers

9. Atlanta

10. Philadelphia

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