With the end of the All-Star weekend, now begins the race to the finish; the quest for the playoff berth; the jockeying for position among the playoff contenders.
Amazingly, the Detroit Red Wings stand atop the NHL after vying with New York, Chicago, and St. Louis in the games preceding the All-Star break. I say amazingly because Detroit (like San Jose and Anaheim) are an aging team in the process of rebuilding, but they have lost none of their luster nor competitiveness or their ability to achieve excellence. The NHL Central Division is right now the strongest division in the league; the Red Wings are facing the stiffest competition among all the other teams and yet they stand atop not only their division but the league as well.
And this was a team that had started off slowly last October but as I said back then I knew Wings coach Mike Babcock would not allow his team to remain moribund for very long. The fact that they lead the President’s Trophy stakes is a reaffirmation of Babcock’s coaching genius. As I stated in my last column, the odds of an Original Six Stanley Cup final taking place this summer are very real.
Although the Philadelphia Flyers are only three points behind the Rangers, and are blessed with a rich crop of fine young players with enormous upside, I am not sanguine about their chances to win the Atlantic Division or even go far in the 2012 playoffs. The Flyers are still plagued with inconsistency (especially in net). Their first game after the All-Star break was a shootout loss against the Winnipeg Jets (a team they have yet to beat in three tries this season). Even more ominous the Flyers combined record against the Bruins and Rangers is only 1-5-0. The Flyers might reach the conference finals only if the Bruins and the Rangers are both eliminated in the first round and I don’t see that happening.
Another compelling story is the race between Florida and Washington for the Southeast Division title. Given the strength of the other divisions it is imperative for either team to win the division outright because the way the Eastern Conference race is shaping up the team that finishes second in the Southeast will likely miss the playoffs altogether.
The Caps under Dale Hunter have taken advantage of a slowdown in the Panther’s fortunes. Since December 8, the Panthers have gone 6-7-7 meanwhile the Caps have slowly, step-by-step, brick-by-brick, re-established themselves in the Southeast divisional race.
The Caps are not playing at the high octane level they were under Bruce Boudreau but since Christmas Washington has been gaining more than its losing. They haven’t exploded yet and that is what they need: the team needs to ignite and go on a long, destructive tear through its opponents. Dale Hunter is slowly establishing his credentials as an NHL coach. He has subtly and patiently re-tooled the Caps to reflect his personal vision of the team.
The question is: can they retain their stranglehold on the Southeast division or will the Panthers regain their claws and pounce upon the throne?
As it stands right now the Caps have an uphill fight. This week they suffered an overtime loss and a devastating outright loss to the Florida Panthers in what was a must-win game for both teams.
Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago have taken turns vying for the President’s Trophy lead but another team that has gone unnoticed is the Nashville Predators. Nashville is ranked third in the NHL yet they remain unnoticed. The Predators have long been cursed by the fact that they play in the Central Division. If they played in any other division their playoff record would have been much better. (If they played in the Southeast division—where they truly belong—they would be way ahead of the division leaders right now). The Predators are a non-superstar team that never draws headlines or gets prime-time TV coverage yet they play strong, solid, fundamental hockey that baffles and hamstrings the best teams in the NHL (they have a 6-2-1 record against the Red Wings, Blues, and Blackhawks combined).
Keep your eyes on the Los Angeles Kings. Ever since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach the Kings have only suffered two outright defeats under his tutelage. Although presently in second place in the Pacific, the Kings are among the playoff seeds in the Western Conference. If they can maintain their pace they will definitely get a playoff berth and that is where the real fun will begin.
As of right now my personal nominees for 2012 playoff spoiler status are St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Blues are the stronger team in team points, offense, and defense but Los Angeles is close-behind in goals-allowed, is superior on the penalty-kill, and has the edge in power-play offense and short-handed offense.
If there are two teams which have the potential for ruining my prediction for an Original Six final it is those two, especially Los Angeles. Don’t forget Darryl Sutter has played the spoiler before. It was his San Jose Sharks who beat the President’s Trophy winning St. Louis Blues (led by Joel Quenneville) in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. It was Darryl Sutter’s sixth-seeded Calgary Flames that came within one goal of winning the 2004 Stanley Cup against John Tortorella’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
History can repeat itself and it often does.