As we approach the All Star Break I can't help but look forward to the Spring season, and what the playoff picture will appear, so here's a bold look at who I think will be in, and who could surprise.
It's a two-dog race in the West, with either the Canucks in the weak North West or any of the three (or four) contenders in the Central destined to take top spot. My personal thoughts are that it will be the Canucks again atop the west, and likey hoisting the President's Trophy. While Chicago, Detroit or St.Louis, Boston, Philly and the Rangers may arguably all be better equipped for playoff hockey, the Canucks division is the softest in the league, and they're due to pick-up some easy points.
That said, I had picked St.Louis to win the Central in my preseason picks. Right now it's the Dead Things riding another lenghty winning streak to the top of the Central, but they've been up and down all year and are known to rest their veterans down the stretch; will they do that at the potential cost of the Division? Chicago has gotten tougher, but need depth D and goaltending, I think they'll end up third in the Central, while St.Louis edges out the streaky-wings for the division and second place in the west. Rouding out the division winners will be San Jose, barely holding off the Kings.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE! Nashville is going to win a round, or two. We've heard alot about their free-agent situations, and whether they offload Suter and Lindback for help up front or hold on and hope for the best, this team is built for the playoffs. They had a respectable showing against the Canucks in the second round last year, and are markedy improved in the offense department, and at positional depth in all aspects. They won't have home ice in the first round, but it won't matter, if they can hang on to sixth spot (and they will) they are destined to play either LA or SJ in round one, and they'll demolish either of those teams, riding a wave of confidence in to a series against Detroit or Vancouver...could be heartbreak against the Nux again this year, but if they see the Wings in the second round the Preds will shut them down. Why? The maturity of their defense, mostly. It wasn't enough in my opinion, to excuse the awful trade of Cody Franson, but the cap space that created may come in to play. If I'm David Poile I hold on to Suter for the playoffs and risk losing him if he doesn't sign. Josi, Klein, Blum and Ellis can all step up today, so if he gets the big offer somewhere else, good riddance. But that's a conversation for another day.
Despite a noted lack of toughness, Vancouver is going to be healthy and rested coming in to the playoffs, much like last year, and if they can avoid a repeat of last year's first round hiccup are going to be a tough test in the post season for any team. I almost hope Detroit takes the West and Vancouver plays Nashville in the Western Conference Championship Series, but more likely it will be St.Louis or Chicago, and either way it's going to be one heck of a showdown, with the Nucks returning to the finals again this year.
Here's another BOLD PREDICTION in the West: The Ducks are flying in to 8th place. They're a hot team right now, and that is swaying my decision slightly, but there's a lot of factors at play here, mostly the Gabby-factor. We saw Bruce Boudreau turn around a star-laden Capitals team mid-season, and despite his rough start in the OC, he's got the Ducks on track, with only one regulation loss in January and a current streak of five wins, three of which have come against playoff teams. They have next to no chance of advancing past the first round. They are short on offensive talent, and that which they do have they will have to run-ragged to get in to the big dance, which will probably cause them to flame out. Kudos to GM Terry Murray for shaking it up and lighting a fire under this group. That of course means that the three remaining Northwestern Division teams that have a shot will miss. Minnesota is free-falling after a surreal start, Colorado will probably be the bridesmaid in 9th, followed closely by another mediocre Flames team. Super-Dale Tallon can't even get the Desert Dogs in to the postseason this year, though, they probably deseve it, and Dallas, beset with injuries, won't be able to keep pace.
IN the EAST
As it stands right now there are three Canadian teams, in order, on the wrong side eighth place in the Eastern Conference: Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. After examining the Elite Eight, as it stands right now, I think one of those teams north of the 49th parallel will supplant the Devils as the only team currently outside of a playoff spot, and squeak in to eighth place. Why? Jersey cannot hold on to Parise, and they won't get anything of immediate help in return. Henrique has come back to reality and the defense is poorly assembled and not deep enough to last a tough playoff push. As for the goaltending...
So who's it going to be? The Leafs, as I predicted prior to the season. Although Kessel is slumping and the goaltending has been mediocre, there's a lot of depth in the T-Dot this season, even if GM Brian Burke doesn't add the goalie and top-six forward he'd like to, they will still scrape in on the strenght of their d-corps, and if they do the electricity around that city could propel them to a surprise win.
Injury woes for the Flyers and Pens will allow the Rangers to hold on to the Atlantic lead, but the Big Bad Bruins will eventually take the Conference win. Rounding out the top three will be the Caps, who will edge out the upstart Florida Panters for the South East Division Lead. The Senators will be buyers at the deadline, shoring up their defense in a minor move, say Hal Gill or Tim Gleason, and will edge out the Pens and Flyers for fourth place in the East, and will beat one of them, hopefully the Pens so they can revive a once great playoff rivalry, in the first round, however, I think it will be a beaten and injured Flyer team taking the fall. The Sens probably have the best synergy in the league, and come playoff time, that counts for quite a bit. They're playing for each other, and for pride, and they have a lot of heart and epth in the bottom six forwards, led by Chris Neil and Zenon Konopka. Paul MacLean will be given the Jack Adams award before the playoffs even start.
Boston will clean the floor with the Leafs in the first round - sorry Leaf-Nation. The Bruins have owned the Leafs all year, and will continue to do so, perhaps even in a sweep. BOLD PREDICTION: Brian Burke says something controversial after the loss.
The Rangers will turn the Cats back in to pumpkins come playoff time in what may be the most boring playoff round ever.
Sidney Crosby will not (should not) play again this season, but Jordan Staal will return, and the defense and goaltending on the Pens are among the best in the league, especially with the return of Kris Letang, who was recently added to the All Star Game. They could use an upgrade in the top six, but have little ammunition left to acquire one. Nevertheless, they've got the horses to beat Ovi's Caps in a thrilling first round series, and author a new rivalry between the two clubs: The Great 8 Vs. The Malk Man - the Malk Man shall deliver.
This will make for one awesome Eastern Semi-Final, with the Bruins eaking out a seven game series win over the Pens, and the Rangers squeezing by the Sens, setting up an original-six Eastern Conference Final with the Bruins going toe-to-toe against the Rangers. The gang from the Big Apple have the gritt and goaltending to hang with the Bruins, but they don't have the offense.
Am I the only one who thinks the Bruins and Canucks are on a crash course?