With the All-Star break over, players and teams are gearing up for one of the toughest parts of the regular season: The final two and a half months. Some teams will surge, and some shall falter. When the dust settles, only 16 teams will be left. With that being said, Crosschecked takes a look at who we think are most likely to move in the standings.
Tampa Bay Lightning
A huge wildcard. Goaltending will always be an issue unless they solve it by bringing someone in by the trade deadline. However, after a poor start to the season, they’ve built some momentum and recently won their last four games before the All-Star Break. In addition to the goal scoring machine that is Steven Stamkos, they have some key players returning from injury in the next couple of weeks (Malone, Bergeron, Hedman), so look for them to close the nine point gap from 8th-12th quickly.
Yes they’re 12 points out of a playoff spot. But with a completely healthy line-up, the Ducks had a record of 8-2-1 in the month of January, and in their next 20 games, they play a total of four teams who rank 6th or higher in either conference. The kicker to that fortuitous schedule? An eight game road trip in the middle of February that sees them traverse central and eastern America. Whether or not they have the mental toughness to keep their momentum going through that trip will likely determine if they are playoff bound.
Speaking of schedules, Wild fans likely would like to forget their last 20 games. Their winning record is rather deceptive, and not indicative of their play as of late, as Minnesota is currently on an abysmal 5-11-4 run. It doesn’t help either that former Sharks Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi are nowhere near their former goal-scoring selves. With Mikko Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse out for an extended period of time, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard out for the foreseeable future, the Wild will be hard pressed to keep their winning record, and subsequently their playoff spot, for much longer.
While it’s not uncommon for teams to make the playoffs without a player having a point per game, it is rare for teams to make the postseason with a negative goal differential. Since the ’06-07 season, only 6 teams have made the playoffs scoring less goals than they’ve allowed. While it’s perfectly possible for the Panthers to make the playoffs, they’re missing a crucial piece most of those teams had. The ’09-10 Canadiens had Halak. In ’08-09, the Rangers and Blue Jackets relied on Henrik Lundqvist and an in-form Steve Mason respectively to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers are stuck with Jose Theodore who has posted a GAA better than 2.50 just once in the last six seasons. Combine that with a relatively inexperienced defense who are without stalwart Ed Jovanovski for the next two months, and it is tough to see the Panthers improving their goal differential any time soon.
Toronto Maple Leafs
So if Florida drops out, who takes their place? If Tampa is unable to challenge for a spot, then the Leafs, who do sport a positive Goal Differential, have to seriously (I know right?) be looked at as a possibility. A lot hinges on whether or not Lupul and Kessel can continue their scoring pace, but with a number of trading chips (Aulie, Kadri, Schenn to name a few), the acquisition of a forward or two to help out with secondary scoring is not out of the question. If the play of their goalies improve, we may actually see the Leafs in the playoffs for the first time in eight years.