Monday, December 27, 2010

Who is the Best Team in the East?

The East is a conference of haves and have-nots. There is a clear distinction between the teams currently in the playoffs and those that aren’t. Sure, the Senators are only six points out of eighth, but their goal differential is almost as bad as the hapless Maple Leafs. Sorry, you're not good; you’re not making the playoffs.

It seems likely that the teams currently in the top-8 in the East will be there come playoff time – barring any crazy winning streak by a team on the outside or a prolonged losing streak by one on the inside. The three-point game means that it’s too hard for teams to make up ground otherwise.

But among the eight current playoff teams there is not a lot of points separating each team. The Penguins lead the conference with 50 points, but the Flyers are right behind them and there are other teams with games at hand, meaning the distance between first and eighth could be a lot closer than it appears.

So who is the best team in the conference? The end of the year seems like a good time to evaluate everyone and see who is in the best position to meet in the Stanley Cup Final. I'll take a look at the West in a few days.

I’m immediately discounting the Rangers, Lightning, and Thrashers. I’m disrespecting them all at once.

The Lightning don’t have a goalie. Both Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have a save percentage under .890. They aren’t even capable of producing a .900 SV%, which is truly Toskalian. I don’t care if you have one of the top-three most dangerous forwards in the league; if you have goaltending that bad you can’t be the best team in the East. I don’t care that they’re currently second with 47 points. False team!

The Rangers do have a goalie, but aside from that they are underwhelming. Gaborik played 76 games last year, so obviously he’s been injured this year. That puts undue pressure on Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, both great two-way players, but not two players you want to count on for your offensive production. The Rangers will struggle even harder with Callahan out with a broken hand. Bubble team, not best team.

Now we come to the most surprising team in the East and possibly the league. The Thrashers currently sit in seventh with 44 points, which is only three points behind Southeast leading Tampa Bay (who have two games at hand). The Thrashers are playing this well largely on the strength of Dustin Byfuglien who has 37 points in 38 games as a defenceman and Ondrej Pavelec who has a GAA under 2.00 and a SV% over .935. I’m not certain these players can continue their lofty paces and, consequently, I don’t see the Thrashers keeping theirs. If there's a team to fall out of the playoffs I'd put my money on it being the Thrashers.

Now that those teams are out-of-the-way let’s look at some of the teams that do have a legitimate case for being considered the best team in the East (or those that could end up there by season’s end).

Boston Bruins

The Bruins are currently third in the East with 42 points – which is the same as Montreal – although they have played the fewest games in the East. They are eight points out of first in the conference, but have the third best +/- differential (next to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia).

Tim Thomas is playing even better than when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2009. He has an ungodly 1.67 GAA and .949 SV%. He’s so good it makes Tuukka Rask’s 2.57 GAA and .927 SV% look ugly. These two are the main reason the Bruins lead the league in goals against with a paltry 2.00 per game.

The Bruins have even improved upon their biggest flaw last year, which was scoring. They are now in the top half of the league in goals scored.

If the Bruins have any cause for concern it's that Marc Savard has only three points in ten games since returning from a concussion.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers are currently fourth in the East with 49 points, only one behind the Pens for top in both the division and conference, but they have two games at hand. They are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and recently ended the Penguins’ 12 game winning streak with a 3-2 win.

One of the reasons for the Flyers’ success is the fact that they are the deepest team in the league. They are capable of rolling multiple scoring lines and they solidified their third defence pairing, which gave them problems all last year. Now their third pairing boasts the league’s +/- leaders.

The Flyers are top-5 in both goals scored and goals against. They are tied for second in the league in short-handed goals – which is attributable to Mike Richards and Claude Giroux who are a terror on the penalty kill.

The only weakness the Flyers had heading into the season was in goal. Now the Flyers seem to have found a goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky and are receiving excellent ‘tending from Bob and backup Brian Boucher as well.

The next 4-6 weeks without Chris Pronger will hurt, but this is when the Flyers’ depth will shine through.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens are led by Sidney Crosby who is scoring at will this season. Steven Stamkos received a large share of attention for scoring at a blistering pace early in the season which seemed to motivate Crosby (hey guys, remember I won last year’s Rocket Richard Trophy, too). He leads the league with 30 goals (2 more than Stamkos) and 61 points (11 more than Stamkos). He looks unstoppable right now.

The Pens lead the league with 50 points and only recently had a 12 game winning streak snapped (they are 3-2 since that loss to the Flyers). They’re doing this under the scrutiny of HBO cameras and look much more poised and confident than do the Capitals.

The Pens are sixth in goals-per-game and fourth in goals against-per-game. They have the best penalty kill in the league and have as good a record at home as they do away.

The Penguins only look to get stronger since Malkin has fully recovered from an injury and they expect Jordan Staal back sometime in the New Year.

Montreal Canadiens

I really didn’t want the Habs to be a part of this discussion (grumble grumble). I had them pegged to struggle for most of the season and end up a bubble team – good enough to compete for the seventh or eighth playoff spot, but also capable of falling short at ninth or tenth. That was operating under the assumption that Carey Price would have a hard time re-capturing his game under the intense pressure of Montreal. Price has responded tremendously and would be considered the best goalie in the league if not for the Tim Thomas revival show.

The Habs are currently eighth in the East with 42 points, only six up on Ottawa, but this is actually tied with the Bruins, so their standing is not necessarily indicative of how good a team they are.

The Habs’ defence is older, which may be a concern as the season progresses, especially considering Andrei Markov is out for the rest of the season. There is also some concern that the Habs will burn out Carey Price since he’s played 33 games so far, which is tied for most in the league. Finding games for Alex Auld will be crucial to ensure Carey Price is ready for the playoffs.

They’ve scuttled recently – going 4-6 in their last ten games – and they are under .500 away from the Bell Centre, but the Habs should be good enough to compete for the Northeast division title… I’m now going to bash my head against the wall.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are a team in transition. After last year’s epic playoff collapse against Jaroslav Halak (er, the Canadiens) they’ve decided to change from a pure run-and-gun team to a team that can eek out the 2-1 or 3-2 games that will happen come spring. This is all happening under the watchful eyes of HBO.

The Capitals recently ended a surprising eight game losing streak which makes you wonder whether they thought they could coast during the regular season and turn it on come spring (good luck). Or maybe this really is a team learning to play playoff style hockey and they are working everything out now when they can afford to make mistakes.

Somehow everyone is talking about Alex Ovechkin’s down year, which is really a product of his success considering he has 41 points in 38 games. There is also the myth that Ovechkin is becoming more of a playmaker this season because he only has 13 goals, but that logic ignores that fact that Ovi still leads the league in shots. Despite the "slump" Ovechkin is still one of the league’s most dangerous players and could snap off a prolonged points streak that vaults him up the scoring list at any time.

The Capitals are the league’s most fragile superpower and could become known as the San Jose of the East if they face another meltdown come playoff time.


Ultimately, the best in the East comes down to the Penguins and the Flyers. In four games so far the Flyers are 3-1 against their divisional rivals. The Penguins are receiving a MVP season from Sid the Kid, but unless Malkin steps up to ease the burden of Crosby it will be hard for the Penguins to maintain such a high level of success. Of course this logic rest on the assumption that Crosby will eventually cool off… which might not actually happen. Regardless, the Flyers are too deep and should prevail as the best team in the East. Right now it looks like these two will duke it out for the Atlantic Division title, the Eastern Conference title, the President’s Trophy, and, eventually, the right to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Of course, if the Capitals figure it all out they have a legitimate chance to beat both teams come spring. But then again, their unofficial victory anthem is this.


Anonymous said...

I question the Flyers' depth in goal. Bob still doesn't have enough games under his belt to completely legitimize him, and Brian Boucher is still just Brian Boucher. Maybe Michael Leighton will storm back in, guns blazing, but right now I would give Pittsburgh, and Boston an edge in net.

Matt Horner said...

I agree. The goaltending is far from solidified, but I think if your team is as good as the Flyers are you can get away with it (think Chicago last year and Detroit of the last 10 years).

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