First, let me take the time to welcome anyone who happens to click on this post and give me a chance to entertain you through my blog. Although the Rangers are my favorite team and I make no attempt to hide that, my aspirations are to be an objective journalist, not a cheerleader, and I hope my writing will reflect that. Any criticism, constructive or otherwise, is both welcomed and appreciated. With that said, allow me to tackle my first-ever blog subject: with all the recent surprises, just who the heck IS going to come out of the East, anyway?
Let's face it, everyone and their grandmother said Ottawa all year long, and who can blame them with an 18-2 start? But I think after losing to LA, the culmination of a long downward spiral that has been written about to death both here and elsewhere, we can officially write them off, at least for now. The other team I've heard a lot of recently is Pittsburgh, but they look so human all of a sudden, especially in net. Conklin & Fleury have no excuses for letting in a combined five goals against the Florida Panthers and I thought all along that the moment Fleury came back, Conklin would crack under the pressure. Fleury staying out for the rest of the season and through the playoffs would have been the best thing that could happen to the Penguins; now they're just the Senators with a second scoring line. And even that's assuming that Hossa actually contributes in the playoffs- his 1 assist in the Thrashers-Rangers series last year and something like 11 goals in 32 career playoff games dampens those chances, let me tell you.
So with that out of the way, if I had to pick three teams who I think have the biggest shot to come out of the East and get promptly destroyed in 5 games by the Stars or the Ducks, here's how I'd go (in order of smallest to biggest chance):
3. Montreal Canadians
-This really depends on how Carey Price plays, if Price is the same guy he was in the AHL playoffs and the world juniors then I think you could easily send the Habs to 2nd or even 1st on this list instead. But he's never played an NHL playoff game and neither has his very capable back-up Halak (who probably won't see any play time at all in the playoffs unless Price has a MASSIVE breakdown anyway). We know their Power Play is the best in the league and that's important in the playoffs, and over the past few months they've found their scoring touch in five-on-five play too. The biggest shocker to me is that the Habs have quietly become a pretty good DEFENSIVE team, too, and we all know defense is what wins you a playoff series. Komisarek is a BEAST on the blue-line and I think he will shut down some of the East's best scorers in the post-season. Overall this is the team with perhaps the biggest upside of the three I'm picking here, but it's all just going to rest on their goaltending. If Price plays REALLY well, they're pretty much a lock to win the East. If Price plays OK or slightly above-average, they've still got a good shot, and I'm betting that's how he'll play and that's why I'm ranking them below my next two teams. But if Price cracks under the pressure and plays badly, obviously you're not going anywhere in the playoffs with bad goaltending. The aforementioned Sens & Pens (I love how that rhymes!) will prove that soon enough. So in the end you're left with a huge question mark on the biggest surprise story of the 07-08 season, and no real way to know how this storybook tale will come to a close until we get there. Only one thing is for sure: no matter what the ultimate outcome is, it's going to be a roller coaster of a ride for any Habs fan.
2. New York Rangers
-The exact opposite of the Habs, in that almost everyone expected the Rangers to be amazing and lock-up the Atlantic Division, if not the Eastern Conference, FAR sooner than this. Instead they're in sixth due to a very slow start to their offense, caused more than likely by a complete lack of team chemistry early in the season. But suddenly the Rangers are arguably the hottest team in the league: 8-0-3 in their last 11 games, that's an 11-game point streak in which they took home 19 of an available 22 points. They're 13-3-3 since they got drubbed by the Bruins in a home-and-home series, in hindsight probably the low of the team. Lundqvist has looked human at times over this stretch, but at the same time one can argue he's gotten a lot of bad bounces and the offense is playing so well (10-game streak of 3 goals or more they're riding right now) that they've been able to cover for him; a nice gesture considering how well he covered for THEIR total lack of offense at the start of the season! He's showing signs that he's going to be back near that form down the stretch and into the playoffs, and of course you need great goaltending to get you a conference title. But all that offense certainly doesn't hurt, either, and when you can roll out 3 lines that could each be a top line on a LOT of other marginal playoff teams (Drury-Straka-Callahan is your THIRD LINE. that would be a first line on the Bruins, at least a strong second line on any other team in the Eastern playoff hunt) you know you're good. Of course, very few teams win their conference from the sixth seed (although it's certainly happened, your chances of actually winning the Cup are just very low), but the fact is they're riding an 11-game point streak and still have 14 games left to play. With the East being as tight as it is, it's very conceivable that the longer this point streak continues, the closer they get to a legitimate slot at winning the Atlantic and finishing 1st or 2nd in the conference. Even a more realistic goal of a 4th or 5th finish makes that conference title look slightly more achievable. The fact is, this is either a team that is peaking at EXACTLY the right time, as Sean Avery himself put it recently, or it's a team that's peaking just a little bit too early. Even the most hard-nosed of "Rags"-haters would be hard-pressed to argue with those raw numbers- you can't argue whether or not they're on a roll right now, because they clearly are, but you CAN argue whether or not they will continue rolling down the stretch or roll right off a cliff before the playoffs even begin. How they finish over their next 14 games will ultimately tell that tale, but as of now, with the way they are playing and more importantly the way the rest of the East ISN'T playing, you simply have to consider them a major contender.
1. New Jersey Devils
-In the end, though, you have to give a nod to the guys....or really, the GUY, who has done it time and time again. As I'm writing this, the Devils sit at the top of the Eastern Conference. From a pure stats standpoint they are the favorites, and of course stats don't always tell the entire tale, but in this case you have to go with the top team as the favorite to take the East. Now, I'm hardly calling them a runaway favorite, don't get me wrong. In a lot of their recent games they can't seem to buy a goal, and ultimately you can have the best goaltending and the best defensive system in the world, but you're still gonna get beat by the first team who walks in with a COMPARABLE goalie and a COMPARABLE defensive system who can actually score goals. Ask Vancouver or Dallas, or better yet any of their fans who actually bothered to sit through their seven-game first-round series which featured a game that went into OT at 0-0. There's a reason why Dallas has gone from "great defensive team" to "possible Cup favorites" since the trade deadline, and that's because offense still matters in this league, even in the playoffs. But anyway, that's the Devils' downside- they don't score a lot of goals. Compared to the possible downsides of the previous teams I've mentioned, even if things go completely bad and they're only getting 1 or 2 goals consistently, the fact is that with Brodeur in net they can still win games like that. Not every single game, but enough games to get by and eek out a series. The question then becomes, does their enormous upside, that great defensive system and the best goaltender to ever play hockey, make up for that downside enough to at least make them the favorites to come out of the laughably weak Eastern Conference? The answer to that question is yes.
Now, a more interesting question would be if that also makes them the team in the East with the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, and the answer to that question is no! I can see what you're about to say- "but Xias, how can the favorite to win the East not also be the favorite to hoist Lord Stanley?". Hear me out for a second. The Devils are not going to blossom into an offensive powerhouse overnight, that much is certain about them. I rank them as the favorite to win the East because their upside is more certain than the previous teams' upsides, and their downside is less of a possible Achilles heel than the other teams' downsides. If the Habs have no goaltending, they're out in the first round. If the Rangers skaters' revert to their early season selves and Lundqvist doesn't, they're out in the first round. But if the Devils still get no scoring, their most possible downside, Brodeur is so amazing and their D so solid that it can carry them at least into the second round, if not even the ECF, without it. The problem is, their scoring is not going to catch fire, so their road to the Stanley Cup Finals will be FAR more difficult than a road traveled by either of the aforementioned teams, should they reach into their own considerable upsides. If the Habs get stellar goaltending from Price backing up a team that can turn a penalty into a goal faster than Jesus could turn water into wine, they could have an easy waltz through the weak East and into the Stanley Cup Finals. On the same notion, if the Rangers keep playing the way they've been playing over this run and Lundqvist continues to make strides back towards his early-season form, it could be an even easier trip to the SCF for them.
Whichever of the two that pulls it off, that gives them a FAR better shot at actually being able to beat the Western powerhouse that finally emerges from what is sure to be a long and arduous journey. I would not be surprised at all to see whoever comes out of the West be taken to 7 games twice along the way. Heck, at this point all three times, though highly unlikely, can't be ruled out of the question! This gives the Eastern winner their only chance to win the Stanley Cup; take advantage of a tired Western Conference championship team and wrap it up in 5 before they get a second wind. Of course, for that to work you yourself couldn't have had a difficult journey to the Stanley Cup Finals too! The Devils, if they do abide by my prediction and take the East, will have undoubtfully done it the long and painful way. Their victory in the East, as a team that has great goaltending, great D, and very little scoring so far down the stretch, rests not on their own limited ability to improve that facet of their game but on the other Eastern favorites' INABILITY to improve their own deficiencies. Any trip to a Stanley Cup Finals based not on dominating strength but by being the least mediocre is going to be a taxing trip filled with more than one long, tolling playoff series. This would leave them, in the end, unable to capitalize on the gunslinging, all-out brawl nature of the Western playoffs as teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay have in the past, and will ultimately leave them with even less of a chance than Ottawa had last year to bring home the Cup.
So I hope that explains why I think the Devils are simultaneously the favorites to win the East, and among the least favored from the East to actually win the Stanley Cup. I look forward to hearing your feedback and own opinions, which you can of course leave as a comment here on this wonderful site. Thanks for reading!