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Mishkin’s Musings: Taking a look at the Eastern Conference Playoff Race

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning
No Longer “Nine For Eight”

Shortly after the All-Star Break, I wrote a column in which I speculated that in the East, only nine teams would contend for the eight available postseason slots. At the time, the ninth-seeded Florida Panthers trailed the Boston Bruins by seven points for the final wildcard berth, but the Panthers had four games in hand on the Bruins. I figured that the other Eastern teams on the wrong side of the playoff cut line were too far behind. I was wrong, as the past six weeks have illustrated. The Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators joined the Panthers as legitimate threats to the Bruins.

The Flyers may have squandered their opportunity to catch the Bruins, however, after surrendering a one-goal lead in the final seconds last Saturday in Boston. A regulation win in that game would have pulled the Flyers to within two points of the Bruins. Instead, the Bruins rallied for an OT triumph and followed it up with a win over Detroit on Sunday. Philly, in the meantime, dropped another game Sunday in New Jersey and fell seven points behind Boston. The Bruins also have two games in hand on the Flyers. Philadelphia, if it hopes to make the playoffs, must not only make up those points on the Bruins, but also must overtake the Panthers and Senators.

So the Flyers may be cooked. Florida and Ottawa, on the other hand, are very much alive. The Panthers trail by four points and the Sens by five. But catching the Bruins won’t be easy for either club, as ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside accurately detailed on Monday. Still, both the Sens and Panthers have the opportunity to make up ground because they each have multiple games left against Boston. The Bruins twice play at Ottawa (including a contest on Tuesday night) and Boston faces Florida three more times. If the Sens and Panthers can do damage in those head-to-heads versus Boston, the Bruins’ lead will become even more precarious. One other note on Ottawa, which has gone 8-0-1 in its last nine games. In addition to their two home games against Boston, the Senators also face Toronto three times down the stretch. While it’s true that Toronto will be likely geared up to disrupt playoff aspirations of a rival, the Sens will expect to gain points from those matchups against the struggling Maple Leafs.

As the Flyers discovered on Saturday, though, head-to-head matchups are only helpful if you win them. From the Bruins’ perspective, they just need to avoid being swept in those head-to-heads with the Sens and Panthers. A Boston split of the two games against Ottawa prevents the Sens from gaining ground. And if the Bruins win just one of the three Florida games, then the Panthers would net only a two-point gain.

In fact, if the Bruins continue their current surge (4-0-1 in the last five), they could make a run at Washington, which holds the first Wildcard spot. Boston trails the Caps by six points, but has two games in hand. They play twice in D.C. before the regular season concludes.

So unlike in late January, there are now 10 teams in the running for the East’s eight spots. But the eighth and final slot is Boston’s to lose.

Tough Road To The Final

As for the top seven Eastern clubs, their primary goal is to make the playoffs. But all seven seem to be in a secure spot. So what can we expect once the playoffs begin?

Certainly, upsets happen in the playoffs and a top seed losing in the first round is not unprecedented. But those surprising results are called “upsets” for a reason. The victorious team was a clear underdog. But this year, there may not be any clear underdogs when the Eastern Conference playoff matchups become set. As of Monday, the top seven teams in the East were currently separated by only eight points. And those seven ranked in the top 11 of the league’s overall standigns. The Canadiens, Lightning, Red Wings, Islanders, Rangers, Penguins and Capitals have all enjoyed terrific seasons and each is capable of reaching the Final. Should the playoff-tested Bruins earn the eighth slot, they too would join that conversation, even though they’ve endured an uneven year so far.

Look at the potential playoff matchups. Would any team be considered a clear-cut favorite over its opponent? That’s been the standard in the West over the past few years, where five or six teams seem equally matched. On their road to the Stanley Cup last year, the Kings had to beat the Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks in the first three rounds. In all three series, they were the lower seed. But in none of those series were they true underdogs. Expect the same to occur for whichever Eastern club reaches the Final this year. That’s because more Eastern teams are joining the elite class of the NHL.

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