After looking at the extremely tight race in the Pacific Division where one out of five teams could win or miss the playoffs, the next race that is starting to intensify is the wild card of the Eastern Conference patch ,
Not long ago, the Buffalo Sabers and the Montreal Canadiens were there, but now they look locked in as a seller for the trading period. The Tampa Bay Lightning were at one point far from the picture and now seem to be a barrier not only for the playoffs, but probably even for the home advantage in the first round.
It looks like the glowing Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets are fighting for the last places in the east with Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. The Toronto Maple Leafs have cooled off after a hot start with the new coach Sheldon Keefe, but are still very much in the running for a wild card spot and for last place in the Atlantic Division against the Panthers.
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The fluctuations in the overall ranking are not as large as in the Pacific division, but which teams have been fully adequate for their place in the overall ranking? Which teams could get hot or fail?
Let us summarize how they all play in a controlled manner and with the same strength.
Unlike the Pacific Division, which looked like a couple of competitors and a lot of faulty teams, the race for the Eastern Conference wildcard spots is a bunch of very strong teams with relatively few major weaknesses in the bunch.
The Panthers are currently the team in the best position and are holding on to last place in the Atlantic division, which means that they would have to be kicked out by the Leafs in order to risk sniffing wildly , Florida leads by four points and three further regulatory victories. Lately, the Panthers have improved a lot compared to last season, under the direction of new head coach Joel Quennville, despite a terrible season from Sergei Bobrovsky.
Offensive, this may be the best the Panthers have ever played from the perspective of the underlying numbers, but defensively they are still highly exploitable, which is one reason why Bobrovsky was so bad.
The weakest area for the Panthers this season was the inner slot area, where they give up a lot of chances and don't get an overwhelming amount. But they make up for it by dominating the high slot and exploiting the opportunities, which enables them to at least climb back to the expected flat 50 percent targets through the measures of SPORTLOGiQ. It's not a particularly impressive brand, especially with suspected goalkeepers, but the Panthers are in a strong position to play down and hold out as soon as this hot period has subsided.
The group's biggest contender storms into Carolina. The hurricanes had returned to themselves this season and dominated the games on a consistent basis, but did not win nearly as often as one would expect. The goal was a superficial problem, Petr Mrazek underperformed last season, but James Reimer was a strong reinforcement and defense wasn't really the strength of the hurricanes anyway.
The Canes were the highest event team in the league this season. They gave up a lot of good chances, but generated significantly more. They lead the league with the same strength in almost every offensive category, have the ninth best power game and yet their goals scored are in 12th place. It's not a lack of talent, they were just unlucky in the goal area. Nothing is a guarantee, but if this luck turns for the better, the whole league should be more careful.
However, the hurricanes are not without weaknesses. They struggle to get a lot out of the rush, which means that they are actually played out in this area. And sometimes they can shoot too smug from a distance, but they also exercise extreme control over dangerous passes. I don't think any team in the east wants them in the first round. If you can only win your division against this bunch of idiots, you will likely complain about the playoff format.
The rumors about the end of the blue jackets after the departure of Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in the summer seem strongly exaggerated. Last week I pointed out how great Elvis Merzlikins has been lately, and that's definitely a big part of why Columbus destroyed everyone, but let's not ignore how great they were outside of their own fold.
The Blue Jackets have operated intelligent and effective hockey games throughout the season, avoiding the limit shots for controlling the inner and high slot. This has paid off lately. Like the hurricanes, the jackets will force you into the ground, but they are better off attacking in a hurry and more determined to get their shots close to the net.
The loss of Panarin, however, caused the jackets a big problem. They don't control passports nearly as effectively. This is an exploitable weakness for other teams. But Columbus, the team that had the biggest playoff problems since Washington Capitals left in the first round of 2010, don't look like they're going away.
The Philadelphia Flyers may have the toughest road of all here because they are a very good team, but their margins with which they play opponents are lower than those of the other teams with which they compete. There are more areas in which they are played, and only 18 of their 27 wins have been regulated, another six in extra time.
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The Flyers are very good at controlling the amount of chances, but the quality part is where things go against them. In particular, they are easily overplayed by the rush, the cycle and the control of slot passes. These are very important aspects of the game and it will be difficult to get past teams that control the amount of chances and shots as well as they control areas of higher quality.
The Toronto Maple Leafs face a major challenge. At this point in the season, they probably hadn't expected to fight for their playoff lives, but they are entering all-star break four, showing Carolina in second place and Florida in last place in the Atlantic Division ,
The Leafs completely changed their domains after a change of coach and are now mainly weak, but have sneaked into the black due to deep negative differences in the inner slot and from the rush. They are still not well on the defensive, and the loss of Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin didn't help at all, but they outdid the opponents because they were able to aggressively overpower them.
It doesn't matter if Frederik Andersen gets back in shape, but he's a guy who should benefit more than most from the All-Star break.
It's a little unfair that the West seems to have so many below average teams in playoff positions, while five excellent teams fight for three places in the East, but life is not fair and is not a professional sport.
The Leafs have the hardest climb of any of these teams, but they have the advantage that, unlike the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Flyers, they fight for all three places. As hot as the Panthers were, I don't think it would be surprising if the Leafs overtook them, and I expect this to happen by the end of the season.
In the last two places in the east, I just can't bring myself to bet against the hurricanes or blue jackets, which excludes the flyers and panthers. This is an unfortunate result for two very good teams, but it will be the result for the two teams that fail.