For most teams in the NHL, this is the mid point of the season as all but 5 teams have played half the season. As it stands 6 of the 16 teams in playoff spots did not make the playoffs last season.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CURRENT PLAYOFF PICTURE
Atlantic Division Predictions
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
1. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs do not expect Carey Price back until early February according to recent reports. That gives Montreal 8 or 9 more games without their superstar goaltender. On the season they are 10-2 with Price, and 13-15-3 without Price. As long as he comes back when expected, and can stay healthy, Montreal is the best team in the division. Do not forget they were the best team in the NHL before Price was injured.
2. Florida Panthers
The red hot Panthers were riding a 12 game winning streak, and have control of Atlantic Division. They currently have a 6 point lead over Detroit, and a 8 point lead over Montreal. Florida is for real. They've been showing promise for two seasons now, which is why I picked them to make the playoffs last year and this year. They have phenomenal young talent led by Aaron Ekblad, Alexsander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Nick Bjugstad. Couple that with great play from their big three veterans in Jarmoir Jagr, Brian Campbell, and Roberto Luongo and you have a well balanced, and talented team.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have struggled mightily following their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season. A big problem has been their inability to score. Only Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are on pace to reach the 20 goal threshold this season. Losing two thirds of the triplets is not helping. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have a combined 33 missed games between the two. Even with the off the ice distractions of the Stamkos contract and the Jonathan Drouin trade request, Tampa has the most talent of any Atlantic team. They won't stay down for long.
Metropolitan Division Predictions
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1. Washington Capitals
This could be the year for the Caps. They have never been as complete a team as they have this season. Past Capitals teams that flamed out in the playoffs had holes on defense, goaltender, and having secondary scorers. They have all of that this season. Evgeny Kuznetov and T.J. Oshie have become great offensive threats behind Alexander Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom. Braden Holtby has developed into arguably the best goalie in the NHL, with help from his stable defensive core of Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and work horse John Carlson. In my opinion the Capitals are best team in the NHL. Their +49 goal differential An 16 point lead in the division will likely get even bigger.
2. New York Rangers
The Rangers have hit a slump over the past 10 games, getting just 4 wins. The lack of a superstar center is what is holding this team back. They have maybe the best defensive core in the league, one of the top goalies in the league, and some of the best wingers in the game. Derrick Brassard, Derek Stephan, J.T. Miller, and Dominic Moore are all good centers. None are true number ones. This is still a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference, but they are not as good as the Capitals currently.
3. New York Islanders
The Isles are not a great team. They are a good team, blessed to be in a struggling division. They currently sit 3rd in the Metropolitan, 2 points behind the Rangers for 2nd, and 2 points ahead of the Devils for the 3rd spot. Jaroslav Halak has had a solid season in goal with a .920 save percentage, but injuries have limited him to just 22 games played. Thomas Greiss has held the fort down with a .928 save percentage, and is a big reason why the Isles are still in a playoff spot. One thing the Isles need is John Tavares to get going. He's not having a bad season, but 29 points in 41 games isn't good enough from the franchise cornerstone. With only a 3 point gap separating the Islanders from the non-playoff teams, Tavares better step up.
Wild Card Predictions
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
1. Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin has exceeded all expectations from anyone this season. He has 14 goals and 15 assists in 42 games, helping lead the Red Wings into the 2nd spot in the Atlantic Division. Will that hold? I don't think so. While they have the 2nd most points in the division, they are 5th in goal differential, 6th in goals scored, and 6th in goals allowed. They are not one of the top three teams in the division, but they always find a way to make the playoffs. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have remained healthy for the most part, which is a huge boost to them. If Jeff Blashill was smart, he'd stop giving Jimmy Howards stars. Howard has started 18 games this season, and Petr Mrazek has started 24 games. Mrazek has a far superior .930 save percentage compared to Jimmy Howard's .909. Howard has been pulled in 4 games, while Mrazek has not been pulled this season. Mrazek should be playing far more then he is right now.
2. Ottawa Senators
Led by Norris Trophy front runner Erik Karlsson, the Sens are just 1 point out of the playoffs. They're talent level is similar to the other teams competing for a playoff spot. Mike Hoffman has developed into a top scorer in the league with 20 goals in 39 games. Production from Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, and Kyle Turris has kept Ottawa in the hunt and is good enough to squeak into the final spot. Two things Ottawa needs to do is get Chris Neil out of their lineup. He helps nothing. They also need to trade for another scorer that can help on their 2nd or 3rd line. The majority of Ottawa's scoring comes from their top line and Karlsson. No one else is on pace to reach 20 goals on the team.
Outside Looking In
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
The Bruins are currently in the 1st wild card spot, but only have a 1 point lead for the playoffs. They have a +14 goal differential. The issue I have with the Bruins is their age. Their top two scorers are over 30 years old and their number one defenseman is 38 years old. The Bruins young players have not performed, barring Ryan Spooner who has been decent. If Tuukka Rask can stand on his head, this team can make the playoffs. However, their talent up front isn't enough to get them in. Rask has to do better then his .916 save percentage.
New Jersey Devils
Why are the Devils in the playoffs? It's a mystery to many hockey fans looking at the standings. One reason is they're overachieving offensively. Even with that overachieving, they're tied for 2nd last in the Eastern Conference in goals with 97. Only the Flyers have less with 91. Mike Cammalleri is averaging almost a point a game with 35 points in 38 games. Kyle Palmieri, who was the trade steal of the offseason, has 17 goals in 43 games, and has become one of the good young players New Jersey has been looking for. Couple that with phenomenal goaltending by Cory Schneider and the Devils have a playoff contender on their hands. However, the team doesn't have enough talent to make it in the end. I would expect them to fall about 5 or 6 points from the playoffs.
The Hurricanes are not as bad as everyone thinks, but they're not very good either. The Hurricanes struggle to score and have poor goaltending with Cam Ward. Carolina may surprise you though, with how great their defense has been. In seemingly every analytical stat, the Hurricanes are top 5 in the league on defense. Eric Staal is a UFA at the end of the year, so don't be surprised if he's moved before the deadline.
With Sidney Crosby not having his usual elite season, and horrid depth at every position, the Penguins rely so heavily on their star players. Phil Kessel has been nothing short of an embarrassment for the what the Pens spent to get him. With little cap room it'll be tough to see them making any improvement.