As we near the end of the first month of the season, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. Fifteen teams, eight will make the playoffs and seven will not. You only have to look back to last year to see the importance of every point. The Flyers got into the playoffs on their last game of the season by winning a shootout. Then they were good enough to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The players realize this and that is why we are seeing some up-tempo, very exciting hockey games early in the season.
What eight teams will make the playoffs? Three teams that I think have the least chance are Florida, Atlanta and Ottawa. These teams do not have enough talent to win consistently over an 82-game season. Since the Eastern Conference is so competitive, the only two teams that are locks are the Penguins and the Capitals. That leaves ten pretty good hockey teams battling for six spots. Now we have to decide which four will most likely come up short, or which six will be able to have solid seasons. We narrow it down a little more by saying that Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal are the most likely to succeed. That puts five teams in, three out, and seven left to battle for the final three spots — New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres, and the Carolina Hurricanes.
This is where it becomes very difficult to pick. Toronto, Carolina, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders are very improved over last year. Toronto has better goaltending and Rick Kessel for the whole year. Carolina has opened with seven road games and were 4-3 — very impressive. Tampa Bay has Stamkos and has the highest goals per game average in the game to date. The Islanders have DePietro healthy and Tavares has a year under his belt. I think two of these teams will qualify — Tampa Bay and Toronto. That leaves one spot for the Rangers, Devils, and Sabres to fight over. The Rangers are playing well without three of their top players. When Gaborick, Drury, and Prospal get back, they will become better offensively and Lundquist in goal is excellent. The Devils and Sabres are off to slow starts. I don’t think they can turn it around. The Devils made a big mistake signing Kovalchuk. He doesn’t fit in there and his price tag has left them with no depth. Brodeur can no longer make up the difference. Buffalo needs Miller to be great every night. He is a tremendous goalie, but not enough for the Sabres to make it. The Rangers get the nod for the final spot.
Predicted Order of finish in the Eastern Conference —
1. Washington — weaker conference
2. Pittsburgh — once healthy
3. Boston — goaltending duo
4. Montreal — speed and depth
5. Philadelphia — strong defense
6. Tampa Bay — Stamkos, Malone and hungry
7. Toronto — high motivation
8. New York Rangers — Lundquist
9. Carolina — a little short
10. New York Islanders — maybe next year
11. Buffalo — Miller is not enough
12. New Jersey — McClain one and done
13. Ottawa — couldn’t happen to a nicer guy — Brian Murray
14&15. Atlanta and Florida — hockey is failing in the South
I think that ‘runs the gauntlet’. Thanks, Steigy.
That’s the view from 207.