The Winds of Change in the East
Coming into the 2008-2009 season, there were a few teams that most thought would easily be the front-runners in the Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh, Montreal and Philadelphia. All three were coming off of very successful seasons. The Penguins finished two wins away from a Stanley Cup championship; The Flyers went from last in the NHL standings to finishing runner-up in the Eastern Conference Finals; and the Canadiens finished as the top seed in the East while carrying the league’s best power play. These teams would set the standard in the East and be the teams to beat.
As this year as progressed, it’s as if last season was an anomaly. Perhaps it’s this year that’s so tough to figure out.
A comparison of the standings last year to this one is enough of a head-scratcher, starting at the top. The Boston Bruins, as of Friday evening, had a one-point lead for the best record in the NHL. Better than the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Better than the San Jose Sharks. A tremendous leap for a team that finished only as the eighth seed in last year’s playoffs with only a two point cushion. They were the team that certainly no one saw coming.
They’re combination of a simplistic offensive game plan and fantastic goaltending from Tim Thomas has given them 88 points and put them nine points in front of second-place Washington. They’ve found a system that has produced results, and they’ve executed it quite well to this point. They are suddenly the team to beat after a first-round exit last year.
So where are the teams who were pre-destined to dominate the East? Philadelphia right now is holding the fourth spot with 71 points, which is about where they were projected. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have proven to be a solid foundation for the offense. Carter’s 59 points are a team high, and his 34 goals are good enough for third in the league.
However, Montreal is currently on a path to self-destruction. Though they sit in sixth with 67 points, they’ve gone 2-7-1 in their last 10 and have looked lost. The recent leave of absence for Alexei Kovalev and now a potential drug scandal on the horizon, this team seems to be doing everything possible to unravel on their centennial season. Without a major adjustment, the decline could be enough to see them fall out of the playoffs.
As for Pittsburgh, they’re the biggest underachiever of the season. Their 62 points sees them on the outside of the post-season in tenth place. Although they are only four points out of the eighth place cutoff, time is short for a comeback, and every point will count.
The amazing thing is that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are among the top scorers in the league, first and third respectively. This isn’t unexpected, but a team with two of the three top point producers would be more likely to be a powerhouse. Not the case in Pittsburgh this year. A coaching change has given a spark as the Pens are 1-0-1 under Interim-Coach Dan Bylsma, but that spark will have to grow with each game for the Pens to avoid missing the playoffs this year.
The rest of the playoff picture at this time is very strange as well. Buffalo and Florida, both of whom missed the playoffs last season, currently hold the seventh and eighth seeds respectively. They share a common thread in their success: they have found solid goaltending. Ryan Miller for the Sabres has finally emerged as the elite netminder Buffalo drafted him to be. Back that up with the coaching of Lindy Ruff, the NHL’s longest tenured coach and goal scoring from the likes of Thomas Vanek (32 goals thus far) and they have been a very competitive club this year.
As for Florida, Tomas Vokoun has found his game, and the Panthers are trying to find their way into the playoff for the first time since 2000. They continue to find ways to win in a tight middle of the Conference, holding onto the last spot for dear life. There’s no margin for error for them.
The whole season has been unpredictable, and the best is yet to come. As the last stretch of the season begins, every point will matter no matter who the team. The teams that seem the most likely to fall out of contention are Montreal and the New York Rangers. The Rangers have had issues all season with scoring goals, and the usually dominant Henrik Lundqvist has been nothing short of mediocre down the stretch.
The way things are set now may not be close to how the season closes. And with the trade deadline fast approaching, things could really get stirred up. Quite a few teams in that group of six teams in the middle of the pack will be looking for a boost. Ottawa, who has been plummeting since the latter half of last season, could be looking to revamp parts of their roster, perhaps even one of their high-profile forwards (Jason Spezza has been listed by some as the most logical candidate). Ottawa isn’t the only potential seller come the beginning of March, but they are the only one who was in the Cup finals only two seasons ago.
Hold on to your socks…it’s going to be a wild end to the season in the wild Eastern Conference.