NHL

Playoff Chances for NHL Teams on the Bubble in 2013-14

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Playoff Chances for NHL Teams on the Bubble in 2013-14

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    With the Olympic break in the rearview mirror, NHL clubs are gearing up for the final stretch of the season.

    The top three in each division will automatically get a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the remaining Eastern Conference and Western Conference teams battling for one of two wild-card entries on each side.

    The standings are tight, and a handful or more in the East and West are jockeying for position. Some teams have more potent offenses; others have top goaltending.

    Click ahead for a look at some of the bubble teams in the race and where their strengths and weaknesses lie in ultimately making—or falling short of—the playoffs.

    All statistics are courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

Eastern Conference: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Current standing

    32-22-6, 70 points, fourth in Atlantic Division, top wild-card spot

     

    In their favor

    The Maple Leafs have two-thirds of the hottest line from the Olympic men's hockey tournament in Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Well, until Team USA's last two games, anyway.

    In goal, Jonathan Bernier won nine of his last 12 games before the Olympic break, and the Leafs went on a pretty nice run of 12-2-1 in the last 14 to get into that wild-card spot and into position to challenge for second or third in the division.

    Momentum might not count for anything after such a lengthy pause, but the Leafs certainly proved to be capable of putting together strong stretches of play.



    Potential downfall

    That defense is pretty suspect, making the goaltenders work too hard for wins all too often. The Leafs have allowed more goals against (182) than any other NHL team currently in a playoff position.



    Bottom line

    The Leafs have enough firepower offensively to win close games, especially over division rivals. If the team gets consistent goaltending from Bernier and backup James Reimer, it will be in the top eight at the end of the regular season.

Eastern Conference: Detroit Red Wings

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Current standing

    26-20-12, 64 points, fifth in Atlantic Division, second wild-card spot

     

    In their favor

    The coach is pretty decent. Mike Babcock led Team Canada to the gold medal in Sochi with a specific strategy that was the equivalent of a poker slow play.

    Instead of focusing on offense, his collection of superstars committed to defense and never trailed a single minute of the tournament as a result. A big part of that game was plucked from the Red Wings playbook, and that's to control the puck as much as possible.



    Potential downfall

    Injuries to the team's biggest stars might be too much to overcome.

    Henrik Zetterberg, the team's captain, is out for two months after having back surgery. Pavel Datsyuk is playing on a gimpy knee. Johan Franzen has only just been cleared to return from a concussion. Stephen Weiss, the prime candidate to pick up some offensive slack with Zetterberg out, hasn't played since undergoing sports hernia surgery in December.

    That's a lot of big names with even bigger question marks.



    Bottom line

    A move to the Eastern Conference was viewed as a massive benefit for the Red Wings, but their 22-year playoff streak is in serious jeopardy. There's a very good chance it will come to an end.

Eastern Conference: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Current standing

    29-24-5, 63 points, fourth in Metropolitan Division

     

    In their favor

    Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky earned the Vezina Trophy last season for his stellar second half of the lockout-shortened season. Once again, he's come alive after a rocky start this year that saw him suffer a groin injury and miss significant time. By the end of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Bobrovsky was the best Russian goaltender. He won 12 of his last 16 games for the Blue Jackets before the break.



    Potential downfall

    A lack of depth on defense could create problems as fatigue becomes a factor down the stretch.

    A top tandem of Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski isn't among the most discouraging to opponents, with veteran Fedor Tyutin shelved with an ankle injury. Behind them, there is the young and promising Ryan Murray—who has a bright future ahead of him, but little in the way of experience—while David Savard has played a grand total of 81 NHL games in three seasons.

     

    Bottom line

    They'll hang in there and push the ailing Detroit Red Wings for the last wild-card spot, but fall just short of a franchise playoff berth for the second straight year after losing a tiebreaker to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference race last season.

Eastern Conference: Ottawa Senators

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Current standing

    26-22-11, 63 points, sixth in Atlantic Division

     

    In their favor

    The Senators have plenty of offensive firepower. Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris, Jason Spezza and defenseman Erik Karlsson are capable of being difference-makers in any contest. So far this season, the Sens rank ninth in average goals per game with 2.81. That puts them up there with top dogs Chicago, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Boston.



    Potential downfall

    The goaltending has been atrocious. Craig Anderson's save percentage of .908 and 3.09 goals-against average are his worst since an abysmal season with the Colorado Avalanche back in 2010-11 when injuries spoiled his rise to NHL starting status.

    Backup Robin Lehner has been marginally better and is earning about one-third of the starts, but the team needs Anderson to return to form to have any shot at making the playoffs.



    Bottom line

    Ottawa probably can't afford to lose more than a third of its remaining games in regulation. Barring a blockbuster trade that includes a proven netminder, it will be tough for the Senators to overtake anyone.

Eastern Conference: Washington Capitals

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Current standing

    27-23-9, 63 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division

     

    In their favor

    The offensive firepower is there, with Olympians Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom the team's key players.



    Potential downfall

    This team has been terrible on the road, and more than half (13) of Washington's remaining 23 games are away from the Verizon Center. At home the Capitals are a respectable 17-10-4, but on the road they're 10-13-5. 

    The ultimate backbreaker is the regulation-wins tiebreaker. With just 19 of their 59 games won in regulation or overtime, the Caps can't just keep pace with their opponents in the playoff race—they have to leapfrog them in the standings to guarantee a berth.

     

    Bottom line

    The Capitals don't have the kind of leadership necessary to overcome adversity. Ovechkin faltered in the spotlight in Sochi and hasn't proven to be a difference-maker in the playoffs during the team's six-year streak. There's no reason to believe he'll carry the team to the postseason now.

Western Conference: Minnesota Wild

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Current standing

    31-21-7, 69 points, fourth in Central Division, top wild-card spot

     

    In their favor

    A five-point lead with less than a quarter of the season to play is a decent buffer that gives them an advantage down the stretch.

    Young players like Mikael Granlund (one of the best for Team Finland at the Sochi Games), Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine have found ways to contribute while veteran Mikko Koivu nurses a broken ankle.

    Despite goaltender Josh Harding's health struggles, Darcy Kuemper has been solid, winning eight of his 13 decisions and taking two of the five losses to overtime first.



    Potential downfall

    Kuemper's play could dip, and veteran Niklas Backstrom has not been very good this season, posting a 5-11-2 record with a .899 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against average.



    Bottom line

    Head coach Mike Yeo's team works hard, plays a fairly rigid defensive system and has a decent lead in the wild-card race. The Wild should cling to it and make the playoffs.

Western Conference: Dallas Stars

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Current standing

    27-21-10, 64 points, fourth in Central Division, second wild-card spot

     

    In their favor

    If captain Jamie Benn was flying under the radar before the Olympics, he's not any longer. Benn proved he was a big-game player, scoring the only goal of the semifinal game to lead Canada over the U.S. and into the gold-medal game. Alongside the young and spectacularly talented Tyler Seguin, these two can be unstoppable at times.

    A renewed sense of confidence could propel Benn into the elite category of leaders by example.



    Potential downfall

    Defense and special teams are too inconsistent. The Stars are the 23rd-ranked team on the power play, 20th on the penalty kill and 19th in goals against per game. Out with a broken leg, top defenseman Stephane Robidas is hoping to play in mid-March, but the Stars could use him right now.

     

    Bottom line

    It seems like this spot could come down to a battle between the Stars and Phoenix Coyotes, both of whom have strong coaching. Give the edge to the Stars based on goaltender Kari Lehtonen and the higher-end stars up front.

Western Conference: Phoenix Coyotes

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    Marianne Helm/Getty Images

    Current standing

    27-21-10, 64 points, fourth in Pacific Division

     

    In their favor

    Phoenix is one of the most opportunistic teams in the league, connecting on 20.4 percent of its power-play chances this season—tying it with the Nashville Predators for sixth in the league.

    The Coyotes play a strong system and are guided by one of the league's best coaches in Dave Tippett, which is necessary because of a real lack of star power. Every win takes a team effort.



    Potential downfall

    Goaltender Mike Smith is having a down season. His goals-against average is 2.77, the worst of his three years as a starter in the NHL. The penalty kill is among the lowest ranked in the league, and the Coyotes need Smith to be the difference the rest of the way.

     

    Bottom line

    It's going to be tight, but the Coyotes will find themselves just short of the playoffs for a second straight season because of inconsistent netminding and an inability to score.

Western Conference: Vancouver Canucks

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Current standing

    27-24-9, 63 points, fifth in Pacific Division

     

    In their favor

    Henrik Sedin appears ready to play again after resting his rib injury, and with twin brother Daniel on his flank, he can be a dangerous offensive weapon once again. The twins have been at or near the point-per-game mark every year since the 2004 lockout.

    The Canucks are also just a few seasons removed from a Stanley Cup playoff appearance and still have the core group intact, so they know what it takes to win.



    Potential downfall

    Head coach John Tortorella's system doesn't seem to suit the top-end talent the Canucks have. The Sedins have never been the type to get in front of too many pucks, and their offensive output is lower than it has been since their rookie seasons.


    Bottom line

    If you asked me before the season whether or not the Canucks would be in the playoffs, I would have said yes. Now they're a dark horse at best.

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