Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Look Out Eastern Conference - Here Come the Maple Leafs!

Winners of four in a row at home and sporting a 7-3 record in their last ten games, the Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the hunt in the Eastern Conference. As the Christmas break approaches, the Eastern Conference has become a logjam of teams all searching for that elusive eighth and final playoff spot. While it is far too early to be predicting playoff placement, being in the top eight would make for a merrier Christmas then being on the outside looking in.

As of this morning, the Montreal Canadiens sit in the eighth spot in the standings with 33 points and the 14th place New York Islanders are only two points behind the Habs with 31 points. Remarkably, the only team out of the playoff hunt are the Carolina Hurricanes and the 20 points they have accumulated this season. If the NHL wanted parody, they have it - if fans want trades involving teams out of the hunt - they will not be seeing roster moves anytime soon.

While the cream is rising to the top in the East, with the usual suspects leading their divisions and the conference - Washington, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and a resurgent Buffalo Sabres squad in the top four, the Boston Bruins and Atlanta Thrashers are finding a home in the middle of the conference. If these teams keep rolling the way they have been that will leave two playoff spots for eight teams. Who will move up and who will keep sliding down the standings?

The shine is coming off the surprising New York Islanders after a tremendous start. My dark horse pick for the playoffs have come back to earth and some would say they are back where they belong; near the bottom. Playing way over their heads to be in the hunt, this hard working team is starting to slow down, posting a 4-6 record in their last ten games. The trouble for the Islanders appears to be on the road, where they have an abysmal 5-10-5 win/loss record. More bad news could be on the way in Long Island, as Rick DiPietro appears to have suffered a setback in his rehab assignment in the AHL. Expected back soon from a knee injury that required surgery, the Islanders franchise goalie left his second game with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers after two periods with tightness in his knee. If the Islanders were to stay in the playoff hunt, they needed a healthy DiPietro back in the nets and some reinforcements for the roster by trading either Dwayne Roloson or Marty Biron. Much to my disappointment, the Islanders appear set to miss the playoffs again this season.

One team no one expected to be in tenth place on the outside looking in is the Philadelphia Flyers. Once again, goaltending is the Achilles heel for the Flyers. Former Senator, Ray Emery, had respectable numbers after a year in the KHL but his recent abdominal injury, leaves Brian Boucher, Johan Backlund and now Michael Leighton (picked up off waivers today) as the goaltenders in Philly. The Flyers were the first team to make a coaching change this year - are they on the way back up or will they continue the slide down the standings? Unless one of their goalies starts stealing some games, they will continue to struggle.

The Ottawa Senators were dealt a bad hand last night as Jason Spezza suffered a knee injury in the game against the Leafs. Headed for an MRI later today, Spezza was just finding his scoring touch this season and the Sens may fall in the standings if the injury is long-term. While this may be the incentive Alex Kovalev needs to play every game, it may be a case of too little too late for the Sens. Pascal Leclaire will have to return from his injury and reclaim his place as one of the best goaltenders in the league for the Senators to make the playoffs.

The other teams in the mix, the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers are all capable of getting hot and making a move in the standings by the time the Olympic break starts. All three teams have played terribly in their last ten games but New York and Tampa have some all-star players on the roster and could make a move or two to improve their rosters. If Florida can play as a team and David Booth can return this season, the Panthers could make a push; especially with Tomas Vokoun in nets.

An interesting note - any of the teams in the East from Montreal in eighth, all the way down to the Islanders, would be at the bottom of the standings in the Western Conference. Once again, the powerhouse teams are in the West and many good teams in that conference will miss the playoffs while the teams in the East limp into the playoffs. With 30-35 games in the rear-view mirror, things will only get tighter in the East after the Christmas break. Have a great sports day everyone.

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