It might still feel like winter, but with the Olympics nearing their end, the final six weeks of the NHL 2009-2010 season and the most stressful time of year is just around the corner: spring hockey.
In the Eastern Conference, no team will enter their final month-and-a-half without plenty of drama on their own. Although the Capitals lead the conference by a whopping 13 points, they're still going to be fighting hard for the best record in the league and the Presidents' Cup.
Below them, four teams separated by just a mere two points are battling for division titles on the line, with the Sens and Sabres battling for the Northeast and the Devils and Pens going after the Atlantic crown.
Then we come to the huge mix of teams vying for a the last three playoff spots, with six teams within five points (Philadelphia with 67 to Atlanta with 62) fighting for the last postseason berths. After a four point drop-off below them, the slumping Panthers and Isles and red-hot Hurricanes are trying to pull themselves up within reach of the eighth seed, and they are then finally followed by last-place Toronto.
However, these groups of teams are not set in stone, and everyone still has 20 or more matches left to play in their attempt to find their way into [insert ambition here], whether that be the regular season title, a division championship, or just a ticket to play games past Apr. 10.
However, right now, it's the playoffs that really matter. In this article, will analyze and assess a percentage for each team in the Eastern Conference regarding their chances to find their way into the top eight and, hopefully, into post-April.
Note: Teams are ordered by their current place in the standings, not my projected playoff seed for them.
1. Washington Capitals (90 pts)
The Capitals are in the playoffs, period. With only 20 games left to go and a 26-point cushion on the playoffs, all the Caps have to do is win just a few more games and they've secured a spot. What's bigger in the minds of Washington is not only a conference title but the regular season champion award, the Presidents Cup.
Playoff Likelihood: 98%
Projected Seed: First
2. New Jersey Devils (77 pts)
Despite trailing the Caps by 13 points and sporting a mere one point lead on the top spot in the division, the Devils have a well-balanced team that shouldn't have to worry much about missing the postseason. They probably will only have to win about eight of their remaining 21 games to stumble in.
Playoff Likelihood: 86%
Projected Seed: Fourth
3. Ottawa Senators (76 pts)
Like the Penguins, the Senators are in a tight race for the division crown but looking pretty safe in terms of the playoffs at the moment. They have only four games remaining against top-seven teams in the Eastern Conference, and have already built themselves up with a 12-point gap between them and the current cut-off line.
Playoff Likelihood: 82%
Projected Seed: Third
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (76 pts)
The Penguins are fairly safe in terms of making the postseason. They have a 12-point lead on eighth place and have plenty of pressure experience to increase that. The only competitor for Pittsburgh right now is the New Jersey Devils in their race for the division title.
Playoff Likelihood: 87%
Projected Seed: Second
5. Buffalo Sabres (75 pts)
The Sabres were off their game heading into the Olympic Break, having won just three of their last 13 games, but, for the moment, Buffalo is definitely more focused on a top-three seed than a playoff berth. They have a packed schedule upcoming in March (16 games on the agenda), but should be safe to make it past Apr. 11.
Playoff Likelihood: 77%
Projected Seed: Fifth
6. Philadelphia Flyers (67 pts)
The Flyers are in the sixth seed for now. But are not even close to securing a playoff berth yet, despite their recent four-game streak.
With an eight-point difference between them and fifth-place Buffalo, the Flyers can't forget simply making the postseason like all five of the teams ahead of them. Philadelphia will start the spring on several interesting notes, with a three-game road trip followed by a four-game homestand followed by a four-game away stretch, but they will definitely have to win at least 10 or 11 of their last 21 games to limp past the end of the regular season.
On a higher note, however, it seems likely with their set of players that the postseason is looking more and more like a reality this season.
Playoff Likelihood: 59%
Projected Seed: Sixth
7. Boston Bruins (65 pts)
In nearly the same situation as the Flyers above, the Bruins remain in the playoff picture for now but are only a win ahead of teams not in the Conference's top eight.
The Bruins will start back in March with 22 games remaining on the schedule, and with four division games and a five-game road streak looming in their first two weeks following the NHL's return from the Olympic Break. However, even though most of us know inside that the 2010 Boston Bruins are not the same team as last year, I still can't see them missing out on the first round.
Playoff Likelihood: 57%
Projected Seed: Seventh
8. Montreal Canadiens (64 pts)
The Canadiens are in the upper half looking down for the moment, but they've been so inconsistent, it's hard to tell where Montreal's going to be next. While goaltender Jaroslav Halak's success with Slovakia at the Olympics may give the team a lighter atmosphere upon his return, the Habs are far from securing a playoff spot after missing it last year.
The Canadiens will also get a harsh return, as their four-game road trip starts off with a division battle with Boston before heading to the Pacific Division for three brutal games. While the Canadiens are still in decent shape on the standings, someone other than Plekanec, Cammaleri, and Gomez (their only players above 40 points) needs to step up and lead this team into the playoffs like they deserve it.
Playoff Likelihood: 43%
Projected Finish: 10th
9. Tampa Bay Lightning (63 pts)
The Lightning have several players to fill in the soon-to-be-open top line spots that currently belong to Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, but with Alex Tanguay and Ryan Malone also aging, Tampa's a tale of two extremes. It's uncertain how that will play into this spring's results, however.
The Bolts still have multiple games remaining in March against some of the East's top teams, with three more against Washington and two apiece with Buffalo and Pittsburgh. They're in a tie for the final playoff spot at the moment, but their play heading down the stretch is not only unpredictable but very important.
Playoff Likelihood: 49%
Projected Finish: Eighth
10. New York Rangers (63 pts)
One thing is certain right now in New York; the Rangers first five games back will give them a good taste of where they are right now in the conference, with matches against Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Washington, Buffalo, and New Jersey all starting off March for the Blueshirts.
Also, with Marian Gaborik looking shaken in the Olympics, the team might have to rely on newcomer Olli Jokinen, who played well for Finland, to take hold of the Rangers' attack. With Lundqvist in net, miracles can always happen, but the odds seem to be starting to be slightly stacked against the Rangers.
Playoff Likelihood: 46%
Projected Finish: Ninth
11. Atlanta Thrashers (62 pts)
While I and many others are likely pronouncing Atlanta "dead" after they dealt Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils for a large group of picks, prospects, and players that make it seem like the Thrashers are looking towards the future, there are a few things going for Atlanta.
First of all, they'll return to the ice with nine of their first 11 games this spring at home. Secondly, they'll only play two teams that are in the Eastern Conference top five in March. However, they probably will want to have a cushion on the playoff cut-off line going into April, with all five of their regular season games in this month against either Washington, New Jersey, or Pittsburgh.
It's also an issue with your top scorer in Nic Antropov. While he does have 50 points and there are 12 Thrashers with at least 20 points, Atlanta should begin looking for at least a decent group to replace the scoring of Kovalchuk alone if they want to make a run for it this season.
Playoff Likelihood: 40%
Projected Finish: 12th
12. Florida Panthers (58 pts)
The Panthers are in a tough spot. They have four teams still in-between them and eighth place and a six-point deficit to overcome, but the Panthers also don't want to give up this early. They have a tight but not overly-challenging schedule heading into March, but this team doesn't quite seem poised to make a postseason push in 2010.
Playoff Likelihood: 33%
Projected Finish: 13th
13. New York Islanders (58 pts)
With just 20 games to overcome a deficit that's growing deeper and deeper (partially because of a 2-8 slump for the Isles before the Olympic break), New York is probably not where they want to be. They're also going to be up against the cream of the crop from the West this March, with games versus Chicago, St. Louis, Vancouver, Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Calgary looming.
Also, their young core centered on Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, and John Travares doesn't seem ready for any more pressure than they already have, and a shaky situation at goaltender just adds to the Isles risks of challenging for a playoff berth.
Playoff Likelihood: 30%
Projected Finish: 14th
14. Carolina Hurricanes (55 pts)
The Hurricanes are going to have to have a miraculous spring, but the playoffs are still possible. They have experience in this situation and a roster that's very similar to the one that went to the Conference Finals in 2009, but, still, most of the odds are stacked against them.
For a [much] longer summary of the Canes' situation in terms of making the playoffs, follow this link .
Playoff Likelihood: 24%
Projected Finish: 11th
15. Toronto Maple Leafs (49 pts)
Mathematically, the Leafs aren't dead. However, there's a key word there: "mathematically." Even if Toronto wins every game from now on, they will still only end up with 91 points. See what I mean?
Playoff Likelihood: 4%
Projected Finish: 15th
Early Playoff Predictions
(1) Washington over (8) Tampa Bay in four games
(2) Pittsburgh over (7) Boston in six games
(6) Philadelphia over (3) Ottawa in seven games
(4) New Jersey over (5) Buffalo in six games
(1) Washington over (6) Philadelphia in five games
(2) Pittsburgh over (4) New Jersey in seven games
(1) Washington over (2) Pittsburgh in six games
Washington Capitals win Eastern Conference
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the Carolina Hurricanes. In his 19 months so far with the site, he has written over 160 articles and received over 110,000 total reads.
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