Monday, January 2, 2012

Contenders and Pretenders of the Eastern Conference

As I look up and down the NHL Eastern Conference standings, I see both the usual and the.. well, unusual. As usual, the Rangers and the Bruins are both competing for position near the top of the conference. However, they have company: the Florida Panthers? That's right, the Florida Panthers are also giving the top two Eastern Conference teams a run for their money, but are the Cats serious? I've picked six teams from the NHL Eastern Conference. Three of which I think are serious playoff contenders, and three that I think will fall to the bottom of the top eight, or even out of it.


The New York Rangers made the playoffs last year as the number eight seed and were bounced early by then number one ranked Washington Capitals. As the have surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, they have shown three great attributes: great defense, great goal tending, and a solid offense. The Rangers haven't scored the most goals (110, 7th in the east) but they have allowed the second fewest amount of goals against (79). Needless to say, the Rangers' defense has been a wall thus far, and when a team manages to break through, Henrik Lundqvist is there to seal off the break. Not only that, but Marian Gaborik is also playing to a high standards, as he is second only to Steven Stamkos (26) in goals, with a total of 22 goals on the season. All in all, the Rangers look to be a very balanced team that will be tough to drop from the top spot in the East.

It was tough, but I chose the Boston Bruins as the second best contending team in the Eastern Conference. They have scored more goals than the Rangers, and have allowed the least amount of goals (123 For, 68 Against). However, in a head to head match up, I feel that the speed of the Rangers would help edge them past the power of the Boston Bruins. Nonetheless, the Bruins are an extremely close second to the Rangers in my book. Tim Thomas has kept up his torrid pace since winning the Stanley Cup last year, and has retirement rumors from resurfacing. Along with the usual great defense and goaltending, the Bruins have gotten great production from players like Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand. And of course, Zdeno Chara keeps up his normal pace. Not only is he solid as always defensively, but he also has been putting up some offensive numbers, scoring 23 points (16 assists).

Despite loosing out on Sidney Crosby for most of this season, the Penguins have played relatively well, as they set smack in the middle of the top eight in the East. The reason: James Neal. Neal has surprised everyone, as he is tied for third in goals scored in the league with 21. Neal leads the Pens' in goal scoring production, but Evgeni Malkin has also put up his impressive numbers. In fact, 'Geno' has probably played better without Crosby hogging the puck. The combination of Malkin and Neal on the ice has proven to be deadly for opposing teams. Coupled with solid goaltending as usual from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are in a position to compete legitimately in the Eastern Conference.

Now I look at pretenders. These are sorted out from smallest pretender to biggest pretender..

The Senators are currently the number eight team in the league, clinging to a one point lead over Washington. As the season continues, I see the Sens collapsing and falling out of a spot. It won't be a monumental collapse however. It will be similar to the Hurricanes dropping out of the playoffs last year on the last day. They will quietly be bounced, likely by a team beneath them with a better core of players and more experience. The Sens though have come a long way; they've been stuck near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the past few seasons, so even competing for a playoff spot is a win for them. With players like Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Daniel Alfredsson leading the way, the Senators are a promising team. Not this year though.

It seems like the rise of Phil Kessel has fans suddenly believing that this year will be a successful one for the Maple Leafs. However, it seems that the Leafs have too many other holes that must be filled for the Leafs to make the playoffs. Toronto is not currently holding a playoff spot, and will likely finish out of the top eight as they usually do. Kessel alone, no matter how much of a great season he has, will not be able to carry the team. Alright fine, I just looked at the roster, and Kessel is receiving some help from Joffrey Lupul, but it simply won't be enough to propel the Leafs to the playoffs. However, with a little bit of time, maybe a move or two for goaltending, the Leafs may become a team to contend with long term. Like the Senators, this is not the year of the Maple Leafs.

My biggest pretender by far has to be the Florida Panthers. This isn't because I think they will drop out of the playoffs (which they likely won't) but because they won't hold on to the number three spot in the Eastern Conference. An 8-0 loss to the Bruins on December 23rd and a 4-1 loss to the Rangers just a week later have me believing that the Panthers do not have what it takes to remain an elite team throughout the season. The Cats are a minus four in goal differential, and have been saved for most of the season by goaltender Jose Theodore. He is quietly putting together a solid season, posting a 14-8-4 record with a 2.43 GAA and a .918 save percantage on the season. The Panthers will likely ride the performances of both their offense and goaltending, because there is not much in the defense department for the Cats.

NYR Pic: SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers skates behind the net while being defended by Ed Jovanovski #55 of the Florida Panthers on December 30, 2011 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) 
BOS Pic: BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 23: Tuukka Rask #40 and Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins celebrate a shut out win against the Florida Panthers at the TD Garden on December 23, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
PIT Pic: NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 31: Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins plays the puck up ice against the New Jersey Devils during the game at the Prudential Center on December 31, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
OTT Pic: OTTAWA, CANADA - JANUARY 2: Daniel Alfredsson #11 of the Ottawa Senators raises his arms to celebrate his overtime winning goal against the the New Jersey Devils with teammates Milan Michalek #9 and Erik Karlsson #65 at Scotiabank Place on January 2, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
TOR Pic: WINNIPEG, CANADA - DECEMBER 31: Goaltender James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts as Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets celebrates a second period goal at the MTS Centre on December 31, 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Travis Golby/NHLI via Getty Images)
FLA Pic: SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Brian Boyle #22 and John MItchell #34 watch as the puck shot by Brandon Dubinsky #17 (not pictured) of the New York Rangers scores past goaltender Jose Theodore #60 of the Florida Panthers on December 30, 2011 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Rangers defeated the Panthers 4-1. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

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