Before a busy slate of games started Thursday the Eastern Conference had four teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs, tied for the two wild-card spots for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 80 points. That means these last few weeks of the season are going to be an absolute dogfight in the East.
And for the teams scrambling to qualify for the postseason, certain players have emerged to lead the way.
The Capitals are 4-0-2 in their past six and collected an impressive five of six points in a three-game trip through California. Considering that, it's hard to ignore how Joel Ward is playing. Entering Thursday, Ward had the same amount of goals (22) as Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. That gives you some perspective right now for the year he's having.
Perhaps more important, if Washington can squeeze into the playoffs Ward has a history of scoring big goals in the postseason. That's really impressive for someone who is supposed to be a third-line player.
Ward played in Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League after me, became their captain and played really well. He went undrafted, so he had to go play Canadian university hockey at the University of Prince Edward Island. The Minnesota Wild gave him a chance and he played in the American Hockey League. All he's done since then is grow as a player. It was only a few seasons ago with the Nashville Predators that he was one of the leading goal scorers in the 2011 playoffs, totaling seven goals and 13 points in 12 games.
It's going to come down to the wire for Washington to make the playoffs. I don't write anybody off, but it will come down to Game 82 for several teams.
One of those teams is Toronto, which has dropped in the standings while losing six straight. The Maple Leafs' chances of getting back in the hunt hinge on goaltender Jonathan Bernier. James Reimer hit a rough patch but the goaltending hasn't been a problem in their recent slide. Toronto is giving up a League-high 36.2 shots per game entering play Thursday. Quite frankly, a lot of their warts have been hidden by their goalies.
Reimer was struggling with his confidence and I didn't like the way Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was so public about his assessment of him. It just created unnecessary drama and eroded Reimer's confidence. But the big picture is they were too dependent on their goalies.
It's not a sustainable formula for winning. Bernier has been awesome. It's been a huge season for him while earning the No. 1 spot. But this is the most games he's ever played in an NHL season. He hasn't played this many games since he was in the American Hockey League.
I also want to talk about the return of Steve Stamkos, who has emerged as the unquestioned leader of a Tampa Bay Lightning team looking to make a run in the East. I got to talk to Stamkos last week and I was just blown away by the maturity, professionalism and confidence that he has. He has come back from his broken leg and hasn't missed a beat. Pretty much every game he has played he's still going to those hard areas and getting the puck and paying the price to get to the middle of the ice.
He still looks explosive and he's done a fantastic job of taking over for his mentor, Martin St. Louis. He's a pro in every sense of the word. He's had a great impact on that group since taking over the captaincy after St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers.
He's taken over that team in a respectful way. Not in a "It's my time" kind of way. It just seems like this is the natural evolution of things. He's still very emotional over how Marty's not there, but also very appreciative of getting Ryan Callahan and the fact that he was able to glean as much from Marty as he did. Now that's part of his DNA and he can exhibit those traits on a daily basis; that's the bigger picture.
For each of these teams to qualify for the playoffs and potentially make a run, they're going to have to rely on some of these important players.