Every year, there are teams in the playoffs who are expected to win and do and teams expected to be quick outs that are. But there's also another group: The Lurkers. These are the teams that might be in the playoffs or just close to the playoffs that no one is talking about, but somehow wind up on a big run when no one expects it. Sometimes these are just anonymous teams and sometimes it's the 7- or 8-seed. Whether or not people realize it, though, the potential for these teams to break through is there.
Here are the teams I think have a shot at making an unexpected run in the playoffs.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 44
SOG: 194 | +/-: -6
When all is said and done, I think Ottawa is going to be the team at the bottom of the top eight at the outside looking in, but the one that's really interesting and really scary of the teams I expect to make it is Washington. I think Washington is a better team than Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg or any of the other teams fighting for that last spot and I'll think they'll make the playoffs. Tomas Vokoun
has been giving them good goaltending, Alex Ovechkin
is starting to score and I think Nicklas Backstrom
will be back. I think they'll end up catching Florida in the Southeast because head-to-head, I just think Washington is the better team. But I think Florida is better than both Ottawa and Toronto so I would say Washington gets three, Florida gets 7 and Toronto gets 8. I think Ottawa is out.
You can sum up why the Capitals are so dangerous in one word: talent. Washington's lineup just scares you. You look at that lineup and you wonder how they're playing for seventh. If coach Dale Hunter
can get them going in the last 10 games, get the power play going a little bit and maybe they make a little trade at the deadline, they will be a very scary team. What's more, I like Ovechkin's game right now. He's flying, he's getting his chances and he's passing the puck. They're going to need great goaltending, but they've been getting the goaltending most of the time lately. If I'm the Rangers or Boston, I hope they finish third. I don't want to see them in the first round.
New Jersey Devils:
Center - NJD
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 53
SOG: 117 | +/-: -6
I really like New Jersey. The Devils are scary because they're playing really well as a team. They're giving up nothing. Martin Brodeur
is playing his best hockey of the year, defensively they're really settling down, Patrik Elias
is playing great, Zach Parise
's playing great, Ilya Kovalchuk
's playing the best hockey he's played as a Devil, and now Adam Henrique
is showing them they've got some other good players on the team. Anton Volchenkov
is playing rock solid defense, too. I think they're a much better team than teams like Ottawa and Toronto, which are right behind them in the standings, and if we're looking at a team that no one is talking about and yet could be the most dangerous team in the East, I really like Jersey. I just really like the way they're playing.
I think you have to put Pittsburgh in that mix, too, particularly with the way Evgeni Malkin
has played, but even as a lower seed I don't think the Penguins would surprise anyone as a team that can make a run. If I'm looking at the top six teams in the East, the Rangers and Boston are easily the top two, but after that I might put New Jersey right there. They're a dangerous team.
I'm not too worried about Chicago. I know they're bad right now but they're like Washington. They're just too good and too talented, and I think Joel Quenneville
will get them straightened out. Even with their current losing streak they won't keep losing like this the rest of the season. They'll be on the upswing come playoff time and that's what the coaches are selling in the locker room. They're saying this is the best thing that's going to happen to them. They're going to find out who they are and find out more about their team by going through a tough stretch. That's what Chicago is saying behind the scenes, and this is a team that could easily turn it around, go 13-3 in the last 16 games and be hot come playoff time. I don't know that they'll be able to pick up ground on Nashville or St. Louis, but I do think they'll be in a good position to make a run with a first-round matchup against San Jose.
Because the Central is so good, San Jose is probably going to wind up facing Chicago, Nashville or St. Louis in the first round -- right now the Blackhawks are the likely opponent -- and I don't think any of those teams is a good matchup for the Sharks. After all these seasons, I just have a tough time believing in San Jose. Chicago is so talented they'll cause some problems, Nashville is rock solid -- they get a point every night -- and St. Louis is great. There's no reason to think 7 or 8 can beat the teams above them, but the sixth team will be a dangerous one come playoff time, and if it's Chicago, San Jose and the rest of the Western Conference elite should be worried.
St. Louis Blues:
I think St. Louis is a team nobody is talking about. Their home record is unbelievable, and they're built for the playoffs with their size, physical presence and their goaltending. The impact Ken Hitchcock has had on this team since he took over is really just unbelievable. Nashville is similar, but I think St. Louis is a better team and while everyone respects them, I don't think anyone really fears them.
The rest of the West ought to though. They are a tough defensive team, and the Blues are definitely capable of beating Detroit, Vancouver or Chicago in a seven-game series. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see them playing for the Stanley Cup in June.