With just over half the season over, there are a few teams ready to jump back into the playoff race.
As we enter the second half of the NHL season, the playoff picture begins to take shape. Teams such as the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks have begun to cement their position atop of their respective conferences and already look like Stanley Cup favorites. Other teams like the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings head the long list of second-tier teams ready to make a deep playoff run.
With about 36 games left to be played for each team, the playoff races have been wilder than ever. There are five teams in the Eastern Conference within three points of the final playoff spot while the Atlantic division looks like it’s going to be a four-team race between the Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
There has been so much excitement in the East, but the Western Conference isn’t one to sleep on. The Central division holds three of the four top teams with the Blackhawks having a five point advantage over the Stars and St. Louis Blues. The two Wild Card teams seem to change weekly as well as the second and third spot in the Pacific division.
With so many teams just a point or two away from a playoff spot, the last few months of the season should be an exciting finish. Here are three teams every fan and team should keep an eye on:
1. San Jose Sharks
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The San Jose Sharks have been one of the biggest enigmas in the NHL over the last 14 seasons. Over this period, they have only missed the playoffs twice. But despite that success, the Sharks have yet to even play in a Stanley Cup.
Currently, the Sharks sit in the second spot in the Pacific division tied with the Arizona Coyotes. This division has underwhelmed so far, but not many analysts had the Sharks making the playoffs this year. To start the year, the Sharks surprised everyone and got off to a fast 3-0 start, scoring 12 goals while only allowing one. That fortune would soon fade.
During a practice, Logan Couture‘s skate got caught in a rut and he fractured his fibula. He would go on to miss 30 games. Couture is a 60-70 point player with the capability of scoring 30+ goals. During his absence, the Sharks went 14-15-1 and clearly missed his offensive as well as defensive presence.
With Couture this year, the Sharks are 9-3-2 with a goal differential of +18. They were at -12 without him. The impact Couture has on this team is very evident. The Sharks are eighth in the league in goals for with 127, but are not an offensively deep tonight. With him in the lineup, the Sharks are strong down the middle with Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau. They are able to role three solid lines that all have the capability of scoring. With Couture back, expect the Sharks to pull away in the division and lock up the second spot with a favorable matchup in the first round of the playoffs.
2. Colorado Avalanche
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Just like the Sharks, the Colorado Avalanche were not one of the pre-season playoff picks. They are a young team with a bright future, but that future was not seen as now. They are still a ways off from the top teams in the Western Conference, but they are not a team to be taken lightly for one reason and one reason only.
The Avalanche can score. They might be fourth-worst in goals allowed, but they are fourth-best in goals for with 133. They have a very balanced offensive attack led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon and anchored by Jarome Iginla. Any time you have a 500-goal scorer on your third line, your team is going to score quite a bit of goals.
On December 1, the Avalanche sat in last place in the Central division. Since then, they have gone 14-7-2 and currently hold the last Wild Card spot.
On a team with offensive talents such as Duchene, MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog, the role players can be easily overlooked. Carl Soderberg has been the team x-factor. Signed in the offseason to fill the void left by Ryan O’Reilly, Soderberg has been the catalyst for the Avalanche since December 1, leading the team with 18 points. His 12 power play points this year has been a big reason the Avalanche’s power play went from 28th last year all the way up to third this season.
Despite the poor defensive performance throughout the year, the Avalanche have been much better in their own end since December 1. They have only allowed 2.1 goals per game, which was at an unacceptable 2.9 before. With better defensive play and balanced scoring throughout the lineup, there is no reason to believe this team can’t hang on to the 8th spot in the Western Conference.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
After a 13-8-2 start, the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like they were heading towards a 10th straight playoff appearance. But after a putrid December and January that saw the team go 9-10-3, they fell to ninth in the Eastern Conference, where they sit with 51 points.
For a team to be so talented and sitting outside the playoffs, something big had to be wrong. That something big was Sidney Crosby. Over the course of his first 24 games, Crosby only had 15 points. During his 11 seasons, Crosby has scored 1.3 points per game so his total of 15 through 24 was unusually low.
Despite such a poor start, Crosby is one of the reasons I believe the Penguins can claim a Wild Card spot, if not a division position. Over his last 21 games, Crosby has netted 24 points, which translates to 1.1 per game, much closer to his career totals. Not only is he improving his production, but he’s making everyone around him better. Patric Hornqvist has 16 points during this time after starting the year with 8 while Chris Kunitz has 13 after starting with an abysmal three.
For Crosby to be successful, he has to get in front of the net. He doesn’t have a booming shot so he usually beats you with his quick hands and drive to the net. He lost that over the first quarter of the season, but has found it since. Below is a video of two goals he scored against the New York Islanders on January 2nd where he showcased those abilities.
Crosby is the heart and soul of this team and will continue to propel the Penguins, but the trade for Carl Hagelin will be a big reason the Penguins can jump into the playoff standings. The Penguins are a team that wins on speed, skill, and puck possession. What better way to add to that than to trade for arguably the fastest player in the league.
On January 16, the Penguins traded David Perron and Adam Clendening to the Anaheim Ducks for Carl Hagelin. Hagelin isn’t known for being the most prolific goal scorer, but with his speed, he can make plays happen all over the ice.
Upon joining the Penguins, he has been inserted on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. The three have fit in nicely together, scoring a combined eight points during the three games. Kessel and Malkin are different types of players, but both want the puck around the net. With Hagelin’s speed, he is able to create space on the ice that most players can’t, which in turn creates more scoring opportunities for the offensively gifted Malkin and Kessel. In the video below, you can see what the speed of Hagelin can create.
With the sudden reemergence of Crosby and the addition of Hagelin, the rest of the Eastern Conference better watch out. This is a team that’s been to the playoffs way too many times to falter now. The Penguins look like a team primed to take a playoff spot and not look back.
CORRECT!Your overall SQ:
Your NHL SQ:
WRONG!The answer was: Answer more NHL questions »