Put the All-Star Game to bed and we’re left with four weeks until the trading deadline and leaves just 10 weeks until the end of the regular season on April 7th. The next month is time to assess and fold your cards or ante up for a run.
From top (The Rangers) to bottom (The Hurricanes) only 21 points separate the Eastern Conference teams. Making the post season is most decidedly an option for all.
A good run of solid defense and goal-tending, quality scoring chances and yes a little bit of luck and even the Sabres, Islanders, Lightning and Hurricanes can find themselves back in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Just making the playoffs to be swept out by one of the top squads in the conference is hardly a cause for celebration, and trading the future to finish ninth or tenth in the conference and just miss the present makes the playoff sweep a preferable outcome. So this is the time to figure out if you’re going fishing this summer or you’re better served cutting bait.
Below the fold we’ll take a look at what the NHL’s Eastern Conference top eight teams need to do during the month of February. We’ll look at the bottom seven tomorrow morning.
New York Rangers – Buyers – The Rangers are a solid contender. Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron have been an exceptional tandem in net and the teams’ aggressive physical play rivals that of the defending Cup champ Bruins (more on them anon). Rangers coach John Tortorella has done an excellent job keeping his team’s energy up. The Rangers areas of concern are primarily depth related. Few teams could weather the loss of their starting goalie. Predicting injuries is a fool’s errand at best. Biron has played admirably spelling Lundqvist. Biron has been the guy before, most notably in Philly for the Flyers.
The second concern is scoring depth. Of Eastern Conference teams the Rangers rank eighth in goals scored. They are best in the league in goals allowed, but the addition of a scorer to go along with Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards and give Derek Stepan another option to feed on their power play would help immensely.
Boston Bruins – Holders – The B’s still hold the Cup. They have an insanely good goal-differential thanks to a league best 171 goals scored and a tie for the second fewest goals allowed in the game at 102. They have a goalie tandem nearly as good as the one in Manhattan. Claude Julien has overseen a team that was staggered in October, still hungover from the summer of celebration, and saw them turn the jets on since. Beginning on November 1st, the Bruins have been 28-7-2 and those two overtime losses have been at the hands of the Red Wings and Rangers – the two of three teams with a higher point total than Boston.
But all is not sunshine in Beantown. The Bruins have developed a reputation for dirty hits, like Brad Marchand’s clip on Sami Salo and Andrew Ference’s dangerous hit against the Rangers’ Callahan. The Bruins need to strike a balance between aggressive play and hits that cross the line or else they’ll find their players Shanabanned on a regular basis.
Then there is Tuuka Rask. The young netminder was/is the Bruins goalie of the future. Tim Thomas’ much written about decision to skip the team’s White House ceremony with President Obama has given the club headaches. While Thomas is the guy, how long he will be the guy remains to be seen. Boston would be well served to give Rask a few week’s to be the team’s primary net minder, ostensibly to keep Thomas fresh, but to sort out what they have in Rask and if they can afford to part company with Thomas when his contract is up.
It’s hard to point to a specific section of the Bruins roster requiring an upgrade. It could be on defense. Their depth up front and between the pipes suggest that they can defer upgrades there. But given how they have played since October ended, the need to tweak seems forced. And to the critics who suggest they risk of leaving it on the regular-season ice, there is a counter argument. Their major losses over the last three months at home have been to New York, Detroit and Vancouver: talented squads all. Each game has been close enough that Boston could have won. In some ways it feels as though they know the games matter most in April and May and June and that they are keeping that tank both full and primed.
Philadelphia Flyers – Buyers – No team had as much uncertainty about the coming season in October than the Flyers. They are very young and there were plenty of chemistry concerns. But they have come together well. Part of that due to the presence of eight rookies who regularly suit up and contribute. The biggest blow have been a hodgepodge of injuries to the club, most notably the one that has robbed them of Chris Pronger, who remains indefinitely out. At 63 points, they are three behind the Blue Shirts for the top spot in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
A good start to the year is nothing new for the Flyers. Last year’s team had 67 points at the break last year before fading down the stretch. To avoid that they need continued good play from their goalie tandem of Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky and restored health for Pronger. Their goal differential is not as strong as the Rangers or the Bruins, so they’ll also need to keep getting contributions up and down the roster. Getting a solid blue liner would help should Pronger not be able to return.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Buyers but possibly Holders – The Pens remain a potent scoring force in the East thanks to the deft scoring touch of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and the havoc-wreaking hits of Chris Kunitz. Marc-Andre Fleury is having a solid if unspectacular season. Kris Letang’s All-Star nod was well-earned as well. Center Jordan Staal is due back mid to late February. That’ll keep things rolling for the Pens. But one reality remains that threatens to derail Pittsburgh.
Sid the Kid is still hurting and may never return at the level he once played.
The reports of Sidney Crosby’s neck injury, despite the positive spin the club is putting on it further muddies the future of the franchise. The Penguins can compete, contend and perhaps even win the Cup without Crosby. But they need good health from the rest of their roster. Beyond that they need every contributor to excel down the stretch. They’ll make their run, but how deep they go depends on an acquisition whose timing they cannot control. Getting Crosby back is far more important than adding another skater.
The boss noted that the Pens may also look to bolster their third defensive pairing and targeted Canadien Hal Gill. “In their current set up, I doubt Matt Niskanen (5th D-man) & Deryk Engelland (6th D-man) will see significant ice time in the playoffs. If they can snag Gill from Montreal, it would be a huge help to their defensive core. Running a Niskanen-Gill pair will lower their tendency to run their top pair (Letang – Brooks Orpik) until the wheels fall off. Their 5th-6th defensive pair has been one of their weaknesses in the past two playoff runs (Loss against TBL, Loss against MTL). Apart from Gill there are no other cheap, cap friendly defensive rentals that jump out for the Pens.”
Ottawa Senators – Buyers – With the festivities this weekend shining a bright light on Ottawa, the Sens are feeling pretty good. Second in the Northeast Division, four points behind the Bruins and with the fifth best record in the conference the team recalls some of the very good teams of the reborn franchise’s history. The rejuvenation has Daniel Alfredsson talking about the potential of a return at age 40 next year.
But some of the Senators success has been the product of good fortune. They’ve let in more goals than they have scored which is never the kind of thing that promotes long term success. To maintain over the remaining 30 games the Sens could use a savvy defenseman to make life a little easier on Craig Anderson, Alex Auld and Robin Lehner who collectively have seen an average of 32.1 shots a game. Only Minnesota’s defensive corps has been more porous.
Additionally, they could use another scoring threat for their first or second line. A backup goalie considering Auld’s age wouldn’t hurt either.
But should they buy or sell? They have room under the cap, so buying is an option. With Alfredsson nearing the end, selling the future for another Cup run may be merited. But getting the Senators into the Finals or even close to the Finals will take some major additions, along the lines pondered by Dave Young of the Silver Seven who pondered Columbus’ Jeff Carter as a good fit for the right price for the club. That’s the key, if the price is right. The price is completely wrong if the Sens deal away Mika Zibanejad to make a run this year.
Washington Capitals – Buyers – Despite being the three seed, if the playoffs started this week, the Capitals would be pressed to avoid slipping out of the playoffs than either of the other division leaders. The Caps have the same 55 points that the Panthers, Devils and Maple Leafs have, with Toronto currently on the outside looking in.
Like the Senators, the Caps have been outscored by their opponents, but they went into the break with a 5-3 victory over the Bruins and showed that even without Alex Ovechkin, serving his own Shanaban, the Caps remain a dangerous team.
The challenges that Dale Hunter has faced with the club swirl around injuries to Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom. Additionally the continued spotty play of Alexander Semin has confounded the Caps. Getting that quartet playing to the best of their abilities will again position the Caps as a team that contenders have to take seriously.
Florida Panthers – Buyers – They get egregiously outscored (a negative 14 goal differential through their first 48 games played) but the Panthers remain in the playoff hunt. Part of it is up front with Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann each tallying solid scoring numbers. Some of the credit is due to Jose Theodore. The final dollop of praise is due to Brian Campbell whose 32 assists rank him among the top ten in the league and second among defensemen, trailing only Erik Karlsson of the Senators.
The big issue that the Panthers suffer from is fading late in games. With a .750 winning percentage when leading after two periods, the Panthers rank 27th in the NHL. Only the Islanders, Canadiens and Blue Jackets are worse. Those late game hiccups can be settled with better blue line play and continued offensive aggressiveness. A two-way defenseman, such rare commodities that they are, would go a long way to improving Florida’s odds of winning the Southeast Division.
As documented by my colleague Lawrence Dushenski, the job of putting this team together by Dale Tallon has been meritorious. Given the overall weakness of the Southeast, they can legitimately win the division and make a play for the Chalice. Fishing is a popular pastime off the coast of Florida, and it’s one activity that Tallon should consider this February to take a crack at the Cup. After the run the Lightning enjoyed last year, they’d be foolish to not put forth the effort.
New Jersey Devils – Buyers – At 39, Martin Brodeur endures. His talent still apparent though age blunts the brilliance with which it once shined. As goes Brodeur, so goes the Devils. Average scoring, average defensively, middle of the pack standings wise. The most remarkable facet of the team’s game is the penalty kill which shuts down opposing power plays at an 89.2% clip, second to the Canadiens in efficiency. They’ve tallied 11 shorthanded goals which is best in the league.
But on the power play that deft skill evaporates. Their 24 goals on the man advantage is nothing special and worse they have allowed 12 short handed goal against, the most of any team in the league. In effect negating the brilliance of their penalty kill. When coupled to their .840 even strength goals for/goals against ratio, the club is poised for mediocrity.
Their unsettled corps of defensemen earn much of the blame for the uneven play, but for the Devils the objective is one more taste of post season glory. Much like Brodeur and company focus on goal prevention on the kill, the club will pin their hopes on another brilliant Cup run from one of the best players in the game. Like most of the previous contenders, they want a blue liner who can run point on their power play and reduce the number of short handed chances they allow.
Up tomorrow morning the rest of the Eastern Conference, with the Western Conference due later in the day.