With roughly 30 games left in the season for each team, playoff races are about to heat up pretty quickly -- and for several teams their place in the postseason is far from safe. Some teams will have to worry more about dropping out than others, and to me the difference between the standings now and the standings in April will be pretty slight -- but there will be a difference.
In the East, I think the only team that's going to drop out of playoff position is Ottawa. I think the Senators will get knocked out and the Washington Capitals
will take their spot. Ottawa looks like it's in a free fall right now and it's come back to Earth. Other teams are starting to catch them and I think with Alex Ovechkin
back in the lineup -- and when Nicklas Backstrom
gets healthy -- the Capitals are only going to get better. Ottawa had its moment in the sun with that great stretch before the All-Star Game, but I don't think they've got the horses to finish the race.
Another team that may have to watch out for Washington is Florida, which is barely ahead of the Caps in the Southeast Division. Florida lost a tough game Saturday against Tampa Bay, which hurts them and they're going to be a team fighting right to the end. If you look at Washington and Florida you'd have to say Washington is the better lineup, but Florida, even when things have gotten tough this season, has managed to get back in first place. I think the Southeast is something we're definitely going to be watching and it'll be a heck of a race right to the end. Right now the difference is just one point, so I wouldn't be surprised if they flip flop by the end of the year.
That said, I do think Florida will make it even if they don't win the division. They're a better team than Ottawa. Their special teams are a little bit better and I think Ottawa has hit its top watermark. I really see the Sens struggling until the end of the year. Also, you see teams like Winnipeg that are six points out and you think it's nothing with so much time left in the season, but in the era of the three-point game it's not easy to climb past teams. For example, Tampa Bay is playing great right now and they've barely picked up ground on the eighth spot.
The other difference for Florida will be that the Panthers used to have a lot of guys who have lost their entire career. Now you've got guys that have won -- guys like Brian Campbell
, Kris Versteeg
and Tomas Fleischmann
. They will take the lead and they will teach the other guys to expect to make plays -- not to expect to fail, but to expect to succeed. Those guys will make a difference in the dressing room and they'll have the puck on their sticks at key times.
The West is very similar to the East, in my opinion. The only difference I see is I don't think Minnesota makes the playoffs. I think they're struggling right now and have a lot of issues. They just don't score enough, they have a lot of injury problems and I just don't think they'll be able to hold on. The team I would pick to get in is Dallas. Dallas has games in hand on the nearest competitors and while it's going to be a battle, I suspect they'll be the only team to make the jump.
I think LA's fine -- I like the way they're playing now. Obviously, Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago are better than anyone else in the West, so I think those teams are all safe barring something drastic. That leaves Minnesota as the weak link and I just think if you look at Dallas defensively, the goaltending and the fact that Jamie Benn
is back and has made a big difference already, I just think it adds up to the Stars taking Minnesota's spot.
I do think there will be some movement up top in the West, however. I think the team that will wind up with the best record in the conference is Vancouver, because they don't have to play as many good teams as anyone in the Central. The Central teams will beat each other up and the Northwest is not nearly as strong, so it will be hard for a team in the Central to win first. Vancouver will get a tough matchup maybe once out of every three games, whereas in the Central the only break you get is Columbus. I do think Detroit will hold onto the division title. They're the best team and they walked into Vancouver and looked pretty good last week. The other teams in the division are solid, but I don't think anyone is playing as well as Detroit right now. Still, the Central is a gauntlet. I suspect that will give Vancouver the opening to slip into the top spot come playoff time.