1. The Washington Capitals have dominated the Eastern Conference all season. The Capitals lead 2nd place New Jersey by 16 points and all but officially clinched home ice for the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, those numbers could be a little misleading. No other team in Southeast Division is better than .500 and Atlanta who sits in 2nd place in the Southeast, sits 10th in the Eastern Conference. Washington holds a 16-3 record against the Southeast division.
Strengths: Offense. Washington leads the NHL in goals with 277. That is 47 more than the #2 ranked team. Washington has outscored their opponents 277-198, over 1 goal a game. Staggering statistics. Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in scoring and along with Alex Semin, Nick Backstrom, Mike Green and a slew of others, the Capitals are a fantasy hockey managers dream.
Weakness: As good as Washington has been, their defense and goaltending still raise questions. It appears that coach Bruce Boudreau will go with young netminder Semyon Varlamov for the stretch run and playoffs. That could change however and veteran Jose Theodore has been better as of late. Washington sits 16th in the NHL in goals against. Not a stat usually worth of a #1 overall team. Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina were acquired at the trade deadline to strengthen the defense along with forwards Eric Belanger and Scott Walker, 2 defensively responsible forwards in hopes to bring down the goals against.
Prediction: The Capitals will win the Presidents Trophy and cruise in the first round of the playoffs. After that, all bets are off as the Caps still need to prove they have enough defense and goaltending to win the Stanley Cup.
2.The New Jersey Devils had another solid win last night at Prudential Center 5-2 over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. That victory made it a season series sweep for the Devils over Pittsburgh and propelled them to 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. The Devils now lead the very tough Atlantic Division by tiebreaker. The Devils once again have had a solid season with a defensive system orchestrated by coach Jacques Lemaire.
Strengths: Defense and Goaltending. Once again Martin Brodeur has had a very solid season and leads the NHL with 38 wins. A no name defense made up of Paul Martin (inj), Mark Fraser, Andy Greene, Mike Mottau, Colin White, Martin Skoula and Bryce Salvador have only given up 166 goals all season, #1 in the NHL.
Weaknesses: Scoring Depth. Zach Parise is having an outstanding season with 32 goals and Travis Zajac has 58 points. Add Jamie Lagenbrunner and Patrik Elias to the quartet of scorers but the Devils see a big drop off in production outside of these 4 players. Andy Greene has 30 assists but no Devils defensemen is really a threat to score.
Prediction: The Devils will grab home ice for the first round of the playoffs but will fall short of reaching the Atlantic Division title. In games where Pittsburgh does not play the Devils, the Penguins hold a 12 point edge. The Devils lack of scoring depth will hurt their chances of going deep into the playoffs.
3.The Buffalo Sabres have once again had a solid season. Ryan Miller has become a folk hero in the last month after carrying Team USA on his back during the Olympics. He has had some help as this is a very workman like team that plays hard for longtime coach Lindy Ruff. The Sabres have lost 3 straight games and have played 2 games on their current 5 game road trip. The Sabres look to get on track with upcoming games in Florida against the Lightning and Panthers.
Strenghts: Goaltending, balanced scoring and coaching are all areas that the Sabres are sufficient. Ryan Miller is second in Goals Against Average at 2.21 and first in Save Percentage at .929. The Sabres have 7 players with at least 13 goals and 3 more with 9 goals to lead a very balanced attack. Coach Lindy Ruff gets his team to play hard every night.
Weaknesses: Star Power. As balanced as the Sabres are, no one player they have is dominant as Vanek has lost some of his scoring touch from a few years back. The Sabres overall have a pretty solid team in all areas and are capable of beating anyone in the playoffs especially if Ryan Miller gets hot.
Prediction: The Sabres will hang onto to the Northeast Division and finish 3rd overall. They do have the capability to beat anyone in the playoffs and see them giving any 2nd round opponent a very hard time.
4. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had another terrific year led by Sidney Crosby. He has raised his game once again and is fighting Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals. If Pittsburgh didn't have to play the Devils, they would be 2nd in the Conference hands down. After another tough loss in New Jersey last night, the Penguins saw themselves move to 4th in the Conference. However the defending Stanley Cup Champions have plenty to be thankful for.
Strengths: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin are arguably the best 1, 2 punch in the game. Crosby has raised his game another notch and has reached the 40 goal mark faster than at any other time in his career. The Penguins have lots of depth in scoring led by the emergence of Jordan Stall. Marc-Andre Fluery is 1 of only 2 goalies in playoff contention in the Conference to win a Stanley Cup and that experience will be extremely valuable come playoff time. The defense is solid and can add a little scoring punch.
Weaknesses: Not many. The Penguins rely on Brooks Orpik for a physical game, however the one weakness Pittsburgh has is they don't like being hit. A team that hits and plays physical can knock Pittsburgh off their game and give them a better chance of winning.
Predicition: Now that their schedule is Devils free, look for the Penguins to finish 2nd in the Conference and once again go deep in the playoffs.
5.The Ottawa Senators were the hottest team in the playoffs before the Olympic Break, but since then have gone 1-5-1 and have dropped in the Eastern Conference standings. They acquired Andy Sutton at the deadline to bolster their toughness and defensive game but have yet to see rewards. The Senators offense has disappeared only scoring 9 goals in 7 games and scoring 1 or less goals in 6 of those 7 contests. Ottawa needs to turn it on soon or will find themselves backing into the playoffs or missing them outright.
Strengths: Balanced scoring. The Senators have 5 players with at least 16 goals and 33 points. Toughness: Anton Volchenkov, Andy Sutton, Chris Neil, Matt Carkner, and Jarkko Ruutu lead a group of tough and physical players.. Very good for the playoffs, it makes you think that the Senators are making up for their lack of toughness that kept them from winning the Cup back in the late 90's.
Weaknesses: Star players aren't playing like star players. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are having sub-par years by their standards and the fans standards. Alfredsson is on pace for his lowest point total since the 99-00 season where he had 59 points but only played 57 games.
Spezza's attitude has been questioned his entire career and this season is playing down to those expectations. Spezza has 16 goals and 22 assists and is a -9 for the season. By far his lowest output in his last 6 seasons. Inconsistency has also marred the season for the Senators. They were unbeatable before the break and now can't even score a goal.
Prediction: Look for Ottawa to continue on their slide. They will make the playoffs, but this team was playing way over their heads before the break. A 7th seed will likely be for Ottawa.
6.The Montreal Canadiens have come out after the break on a mission. Montreal has won 6 in a row and moved up to 6th in the Eastern Conference. Montreal made several moves during the offseason acquiring Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri. Tomas Plekanic has had a breakout year and leads the Canadiens in scoring.
Strengths: Balanced Scoring. The Canadiens have three 20 goal scorers and 8 players with at least 10 goals. Jaroslav Halak has gotten the nod as the #1 goalie and has won his last 6 starts.
Montreal is also peaking at the right time heading into the playoffs.
Weaknesses: Montreal is a small team and doesn't play very physically. The Canadiens can skate and move quickly but don't like getting hit and aren't a very playoff ready team.
Prediction: The Canadiens will grab the 5th seed in the playoffs but will likely have to play the Devils or Pittsburgh in the first round, 2 matchups HockeySureShot does not like for them.
7.The Philadelphia Flyers have had an interesting year. After getting off to a slow start, Head Coach John Stevens was fired and replaced by Stanley Cup winning coach Peter Laviollette. Laviollette has had success in his previous 2 stops and won the Cup with Carolina. The Flyers are a gritty, tough and talented group but always lack something heading into the playoffs and this year is no exception.
Strengths: Toughness, the Flyers always play physical with players like Daniel Carcillo. However some of their top forwards aren't afraid to rough it up either. The Flyers also have 7 players with at least 13 goals which make them very hard to defend. The Flyers have given up the 4th fewest amount of goals in the Conference and play a lot of low scoring games.
Weaknesses: Goaltending. Once again the Flyers have refused to address that issue. The Flyers elected not to re-sign Marty Biron in the offseason and brought in often troubled Ray Emery. Emery quickly got hurt and is now battling a career threatening injury. Micheal Leighton had played well enough but the Flyers have lost him to injury leaving them to third string goalie Brian Boucher who is 4-12 on the season with a below average .899 save percentage. The Flyers refused to pay up at the trade deadline for a goalie and that issue will haunt them another season.
Prediction: The Flyers will make the playoffs in the 7th or 8th seed and be out very quick. They have the worst goaltending in the league right now and that will hurt them again.
8.The Boston Bruins sit tenuously in the 8th and final playoff spot currently in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins haven't met expectations after a successful season in 2008-2009. The Bruins have failed to score goals and are hanging on by a thread to keep their playoff hopes alive. Their best offensive weapon Marc Savard was taken out on a questionable hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last weekend to hurt their offense even more. However, there is hope.
Strengths: Defense and goaltending. Tuukka Rask has emerged as a solid goaltender and is competing for the #1 job as he leads the NHL in GAA at 2.09 and 2nd in Sv PCT at .928. The Bruins as a team are lead by Zdeno Chara and are 3rd in the East in Goals Against. Solid defense can take them a long way.
Weaknesses: Offense. The Bruins have scored an NHL low 174 goals. With Savard out, that makes their ability to score even less. Frankly, the Bruins don't have enough firepower to win in the playoffs and have lived on their defense.
Prediction: The Bruins will fight to the last day to keep themselves in the playoffs. However HockeySureShot thinks they might fall short unless the teams behind them stay cold as well. The Bruins will probably be the 8th seed.
9.The New York Rangers have had a very inconsistent season seeing them win 7 in a row at one point early in the year and not being able to find themselves since. John Tortorella's act is wearing thin in New York and if the Rangers fail to make the playoffs, fans will wonder if Glen Sather will sack the head coach or if the Dolan's will finally make a change at the GM spot. Very important stretch for the Rangers.
Strengths: Henrik Lundqvist and Marion Gaborik have been the star players they are paid to be. Without these 2 players, the Rangers would be among the bottom in the East. John Tortorella's attitude is questioned but he is a good coach. The Rangers are better off with him.
Weaknesses: Depth, besides Gaborik and Lundqvist, the Rangers are a very thin team. Vinny Prospal has had a very good season but you'll find the 3rd leading scorer is Ryan Callahan. Callahan is a hard working winger but his -11 is glaring on a team that needs him to be better all around. The Rangers defense is average at best. Marc Staal has had a nice season and he continues to develop into a solid defensemen.
Prediction: The Rangers will fall short of the playoffs. The Rangers did not have a good effort in what was a very important game for them home against Montreal Tuesday night. Big decisions with the front office will have to be made as this team continues to overspend in free agency with little results.
10.The Atlanta Thrashers continue to fall on hard times. Ilya Kovalchuk left GM Don Waddell no choice but to trade the talented Russian winger to the highest bidder. Waddell is in a tough spot but has some talent. Evander Kane has had a solid rookie season, Zach Bogosian, Rich Peverley and Tobias Enstrom have continued to develop. If the Thrashers can land a high profile free agent, the team may be able to take another stride forward next season.
Strengths: Balanced scoring and blue line production. Off season pickups Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov have played very well this season and made for a scary trio when Kovalchuck was here. Young players mentioned above will help this team improve.
Weaknesses: Team defense. Atlanta has given up 224 goals this season, 2nd worst in the Eastnern Conference. Johan Hedberg has been solid but the Thrashers give up 33.2 shots a game which is 2nd worst in the NHL.
Prediction: The Thrashers will fall short of the playoffs once again. Don Waddell might have seen his time run out in Atlanta as this offseason will be the most important in the teams history
11.The Tampa Bay Lightning have improved from their 2nd worst finish in 2009 large in part to the emergence of Steven Stamkos. The 2nd year player can now be considered one of the games best with 42 goals and 38 assists. The Lightning have talent with Marty St.Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. The addition of rookie Victor Hedman, selected 2nd overall in the NHL draft, will have this team improving over the next few seasons.
Strengths: Offense. Tampa Bay has 3 top notch point producers mentioned above. Add gritty forward Ryan Malone, and the Lightning top line can play against anyone in the league.
Weaknesses: Depth, after those 4 forwards, the Lightning lack any real secondary scoring. Alex Tanguay was brought in during the offseason to address the issue and has only 9 goals and 34 points on the season. Tampa's total goal output is 12th in the East. Tampa has given up 28 more goals then they have scored.
Prediction: Tampa has faltered lately going 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and will miss the playoffs again.
12.The New York Islanders still have an outside shot to make the playoffs as they are getting hot again at the right time. Islander fans can either view that as a positive or negative. Most fans would hate to see the Isles come in 9th, just miss the playoffs and miss out on another top 5 pick. The young Islanders have several impressive wins this season including a recent 5-2 smacking of the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver. The Isles are loaded with young talent on their forward lines and that group propelled them to a 10-3-2 run in January. The Islanders did a complete 180 until their recent 4 game point streak.
Strengths: The Isles outwork most opponents on most nights. They have a group of young forwards that can all produce. The Islanders have 8 players with 10 or more goals, not bad for a rebuilding team. Matt Moulson leads the way with 26 goals, while John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and others give their fans something to look forward to for a long time. Dwayne Roloson has had a very good season; solidifying a position that the Isles haven't had solidified in a long time.
Weaknesses: Defense wasn't a strength to begin with and injuries and trades have depleted it even more. Andy Sutton was traded to Ottawa and Brenden Witt is down at Bridgeport, allowing a defense filled with inexperience and lack of size rule the blue line at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders have given up the 3rd most goals in the Eastern Conference. Rookies Dylan Reese and Dustin Kohn have done a decent job at filling in and giving Roloson a chance to see the puck.
Prediction: It might be too little to late for the Islanders. However with several impressive victories this season and the start of a 2nd winning streak, the Isles have a lot to look forward for in the future. The Rick Dipietro situation needs to come to an end sooner than later. The Islanders players and fans can't go into another season where Dipietro's health is in question. If the Isles can add 2 defensemen during the offseason, they will be a playoff team next year.
Carolina, Florida and Toronto are all at least 8 points out of a playoff spot and it will be a tough challenge to make the playoffs at the very least.