The Penguins returned from the All-Star Break today and every day lately it seems Evgeni Malkin saying “we’re going to make the playoffs” is becoming headline news.
Maybe if Malkin predicts the Penguins are going win the Stanley Cup it should be news.
With just over two months to go in the season there is no excuse for the Penguins not to make the playoffs in this conference.
Maybe the bigger question for the Penguins right now is whether they’re a team that can move into the second tier of teams in the conference. A team that can cause some noise and give the Washington Capitals a scare.
In the Eastern Conference it’s the Capitals and everyone else.
If we’re to break down the conference into tiers, here’s how the conference should be looked at as of now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Rangers
Detroit Red Wings
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils
LIGHTNING A THREAT TO WASHINGTON BUT WHO ELSE?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the one team viewed by evaluators as the No. 2 team in the conference that emerges by the spring and can get to the Stanley Cup Final.
After Tampa it’s a bunch of maybes when it comes to the large group of teams moving into that second tier of the conference and being a threat to the NHL leading Capitals.
ON THE REST OF THE PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Trending Up: The Florida Panthers have the three key ingredients to a long playoff run. Goaltending, a legitimate No. 1 defenseman in Ekblad and a No. 1 dynamic two-way center in Barkov. There’s a very good mix of veterans and youth but they’re still a team where it remains a wait and see situation. Are they a team that can certainly win a round? Sure, but too early to anoint them a contender to win the conference at this point but they’re trending into that direction and have the opportunity to make a splash at the deadline with cap space and some money left in the budget.
Trending Down: The New York Rangers have more holes in their game than they’ve had in four seasons and New York’s a team living off Henrik Lundqvist’s great start in the first six weeks of the season. Over the past 20 games they have been one of the bottom-5 teams in hockey. Yet, it’s a group with lots of experience, a blue line that is built for the playoffs and of course Lundqvist who can hide a lot of holes when he’s on top of his game as he was earlier in the year.
With the Rangers you can’t write them off just yet, even though they don’t look right. The struggles of Rick Nash, Chris Kreider have been a big issue but potential is still there for the Rangers to emerge as a threat again in the East if Kreider and Nash among others come around. That’s better than having to rely on things like bottom-6 scoring. A team that’s currently trending down but the arrow could be point up again six weeks from now.
Even: The Boston Bruins season has been up and down. They’re a team for stretches that has a lot of intrigue about them and other stretches where they look like a borderline playoff team. The positive is their ability to put the puck in the net, 2nd in the conference in goals and the No. 2 power play in the NHL. Adding a top-4 defenseman would go a long way towards the Bruins becoming a team that could cause some noise in the conference.
Trending Up: The Pittsburgh Penguins have reached that critical point after a coaching change. They’re now near that six week mark where NHL types say a true evaluation starts to begin with the adrenaline rush likely coming off. Once the adrenaline rush came off under Mike Johnston in late November 2014 (let’s not forget the Penguins were playing great offensively early in his tenure) the Penguins started heading south and never recovered.
Sullivan’s aggressive up-tempo style has the Penguins stars playing like stars again. It was the biggest development that had to happen and it has. If that trend continues along with exceptional special teams play and Fleury maintaining a .925 save type save percentage, the Penguins have a great chance to not only make the playoffs but to finish second in the division where the Rangers and Islanders are very vulnerable.
At the end of the day, though, for this group is that while the blueline might be good enough for the regular season, it’s a group that you’re just not going to be able to win with over a seven game series, especially multiple rounds. The playoffs is just Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"
Trending Down: The New York Islanders season should be looked at as a disappointment to this point. After their first round exit against the Capitals last season, the Islanders had the look of a team that was bound to take that next step in 2015-2016 due the group of young forwards they have. Most concerning has been the dip offensively. They are no longer the type of dominant possession team we saw last season that made it a unique group.
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk being out has hurt but the issues have been upfront. John Tavares has 16 goals and 34 points, while some key young players from last season have seen their production dip significantly. Anders Lee scored 25 in 14-15, he has six this season. Ryan Strome has just 17 points after a 50 point season. If this season continues to look like one where the Islanders are not a true Cup contender, then New York has to give strong consideration to dealing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. New York plays 20 of their final 35 games on the road (10-8-3 road record). Starting on February 19, they begin a seven game road trip and play 12 of 14 games on the road from Feb 19 through mid-March.
Even: The Detroit Red Wings are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games but 9-8-3 over last 20. They have a great young talent in Dylan Larkin but they’re not a team that does anything great. 20th in the league in scoring, 12th in goals against, mediocre special teams — 18th in power play, 14th in penalty kill –. Nothing more than a team that can win a round.
Even: Cory Schneider gives the New Jersey Devils a fighting chance to stick around in the playoff mix until the end. New Jersey, though, has been a team with a lot of luck so far. This is one of the worst offensive teams in hockey that has had to rely on some surprising seasons from the likes of Lee Stempniak (14 goals), Kyle Palmeri (20 goals), and even Bobby Farnham (7 goals) who seven goals has provided needed depth scoring on the fourth line. Unlike the Rangers where there is a higher percentage for high-end players Rick Nash, Chris Kreider to start producing to their ability, the odds are not strong of Stempniak or Palmeri maintaining the pace they’re scoring at this season.
Trending Up: The Carolina Hurricanes 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, are right in the mix of a playoff spot with 54 points and have emerged as a surprise team in the past month. Carolina does a great job limiting offensive chances from the opposition, allowing the fewest shots per game. They have one of the NHL’s best group of young defensemen, good possession team upfront, but until the goaltending improves, it’s hard to take the surprising Hurricanes serious just yet.
Trending Down: The Ottawa Senators went on a tear to reach the post-season last year and will need a similar second half again. Only three points from a playoff spot, Ottawa comes out of the All-Star break in a huge game against the Penguins with the two teams separated by two points. Ottawa plays a loose style, run-and-gun type hockey. They just can’t keep the puck out, allowing 3.02 goals per game, 29th in the League, and are also allowing the most shots per game at 33.1.
Trending Down: What is there to say about the free falling Montreal Canadiens? Can Carey Price save them from falling off a cliff?
Even: The Philadelphia Flyers have been trending up in the standings over the last month but it’s a team overall that is where you’d expect them to be. Statistically still in the playoff hunt but not really in the reality of things. The Flyers like the Hurricanes are headed in the right direction, some promising signs on the blueline starting to develop for them, but what is going on with the forward group? Former college coach Dave Hakstol has been regarded as doing a solid job so far with the structure he’s put in place but do the Flyers have a Mike Johnston on their hands in a coach who handcuffs the star players? Numbers down a across-the-board.