With just two and a half weeks left in the NHL season lets have a little fun and see how the playoffs would match-up if they were to start right now. Remember, the playoff format has been changed from last season. The top three finishers in each of the four divisions will make the playoffs along with two wild card spots for each conference. The top division winner in each conference will play the second wild card team, as the other division winner plays the top wild card team. This then leaves the second and third place teams in each division. These two teams will meet in the first round, just enhancing the inner division rivalries.
We will start out east. Sitting at the top of the conference, and the Atlantic Division, the surging Boston Bruins look like they are the favorite to come out of the East. However, Pittsburgh is always tough and the Rangers seem to be finding their stride down the stretch, so things could be very interesting as the season out east begins to wind down.
As of right now, the three teams making it in the Atlantic Division would be the first place Bruins, second place Canadians, and third place Lightning. Tampa is on their longest point streak dating back to when they won the Stanley Cup in the 2003-2004 season. The Montreal Canadians made a splash at the trade deadline to grab scorer Thomas Vanek from the Islanders to add a little more depth to their line-up for the stretch run. No explanation is needed for the Boston Bruins. They are about as deep as they come from top to bottom. They are my favorite to come out of the East, but the competitiveness of the NHL today anything can happen.
In the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins are leading the charge, like they have for much of the season. Making the late charge after a horrible start, the Flyers are now finding themselves in the playoff mix sitting in third place in the division. Captain Claude Giroux has found his scoring touch and the rest of the team has followed his lead. The New York Rangers are the hottest team in the division right now on a four game winning streak, and with the trade deadline addition of Marty St. Louis, they look for a little more playoff experience, and a little bit more scoring then Ryan Callahan provided.
Finally we have the two wild card teams. There are four teams tied with 80 points, but the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings are the two teams shown in the two slots. People laughed at me before the season started when I picked the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs, or just be in the playoff hunt. Lets just say I will take my apologies at anytime from all who laughed at me. Still in the hunt, however, are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and I will go as far to include the New Jersey Devils who are sitting at 75 points right now.
My pick to come out of the east needs to be the Boston Bruins. The only team that comes close in the east to match their depth is the Penguins. However, you can never count anyone out in the NHL.
Moving west, this is the superior conference in the NHL and it looks that barely anyone out east will be able to compete with anyone in the west. With three teams over 100 points, and likely to be four or five by seasons end, my Cup winner will be out of the west this year.
Starting in the ever so tough Central Division, we have the red hot St. Louis Blues leading the charge at 103 points. In a division where everyone thought that the Blackhawks, who are in second, would win outright this season after their amazing cup run last year, the St. Louis Blues are only a little bit of a surprise to the NHL community this season. Probably the biggest surprise coming out of the St. Louis camp would be the play of Alexander Steen this season. Having a career year, Steen, along with usual suspects in Backes and Oshie, are leading the charge. Probably the biggest surprise in this division is the third place Colorado Avalanche. New head coach, and my pick to win the Jack Adams award for coach of the year, Patrick Roy grabbed the bull by the horns and utilized this young and talented team, making their opponents look like fools this season.
In the Pacific, we have the usual suspects at the top with San Jose, LA and Anaheim. The Sharks currently occupy the top spot in the division, but the Ducks are breathing down their neck just two points back right now. At points of this season, the Ducks were considered the best team in the NHL and, in my opinion, are a very good favorite to come out of the west this year, or at least make it to the west finals. Finally, we have the Kings quietly doing their thing in third place in the division. With their cheap deadline deal with the Blue Jackets acquiring Marian Gaborik, this team is always a threat to score. If Gaborik can stay away from the injury bug that has plagued him for nearly his entire career, the Kings look to bring themselves back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now for the two wild card teams in the west. First we have the streaky Minnesota Wild. The Wild would add Matt Moulson at the trade deadline to make what should be three complete lines that should be a threat to put the puck into the net. However, this is not the story. Coach Mike Yeo is having trouble in finding chemistry within his lines, but saw a ray of hope in their overtime victory Sunday night in Detroit. You also can't talk about the Wild without talking about Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper has taken over the number one role between the pipes with injuries to Josh Harding and Nik Backstrom and has ran with it. Sitting in the second wild card is the Phoenix Coyotes. With the Stars not too far behind, the margin for error is not that big for Phoenix. One thing that might trouble the Coyotes is the injury to their goalie Mike Smith. One can only wonder how far they can go without their number one.
As to who is coming out of the west, this is going to be very difficult. However, I am going to have to take the Chicago Blackhawks because with the majority of the team from last season, they know what they have to do to get the job done. They are also my pick to win the Cup and win the first back to back since the Red Wings did it in 1997-1998.