Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Scrapping for Points

As we head into the stretch run obviously thoughts turn to the playoffs - what could happen, what will definitely happen, and what no one knows will happen. Today's poll on poses an interesting question: Which East team currently out of a playoff spot has the best chance to earn a postseason berth?

It's a good question but it's one that is hard to answer because of just how quickly things can chance. Around here we're well aware of the turnaround that has taken place since Thanksgiving, a Caps team that was dead last in the East now right back in the mix and challenging for not only a playoff spot but a division title. But what about the rest of the league? There have been some stunning turnarounds in that period, some bigger than others, some for better, some for worse. And it all feeds into the fact that no one really knows anything until the final horn sounds.

In the East, this is where the standings were November 23:

Division leaders Ottawa, Carolina and the Rangers were all holding court atop the standings, and for once their point totals justified them being there. At the bottom sat the Caps, down and out, while the rest of the Southeast Division sat either in the top 8 or within spitting distance (which for our purposes will be a point).

Now less than a month later things are looking very different. Carolina and Ottawa maintain their grips on their respective division titles but the Canes' hold is a bit more tenuous - and if the Senators continue to slide they could find themselves unseated by a Habs team that continues to put up points. The Atlantic Division race has gotten much tighter but now it's not the Rangers holding the crown; a threeway race between the Devils, Flyers and Penguins has developed and the lead seems to change daily. Given the Devils dominance of the Flyers in recent days and the Penguins' inability to beat their own division, things are looking to be in New Jersey's favor. For the moment.

As for the Southeast...well, there's a reason we're referred to jokingly as the SouthLeast. It's a close battle for the division lead, with the Caps, Thrashers, Panthers and Canes all within a handful of points of each other (and Tampa deciding to play hockey again). But since the division leader would currently be in 8th were it not for the way standings are configured, it's hard not to agree with the pundits who say only one team from the SE will be in the postseason this year.

Turnarounds? Quite a few. The Devils and Penguins both suffered through mediocre to horrible starts to their respective seasons but have rebounded quite nicely, helped by a couple of lengthy, well-timed winning streaks and an equally well-timed nosedive by the Rangers. Florida and Tampa have both taken major drops, while the Capitals have been reinvigorated and are now in 10th, four points out of 8th and only three points out of the division lead.

Onto the West - here's how things looked through a post-Thanksgiving turkey haze:

Detroit once again got off to a blazing start, establishing themselves as The team to beat early on, as they always seem to do. Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, Calgary, Anaheim - all struggling teams to kick off the season, with the biggest surprise (or maybe not) being the Ducks in their Cup hangover phase. Then there was the surprise story of the Blackhawks. Revitalized by a couple of teenage phenoms and key free agent pickups, the Hawks sat on the verge of greatness. St. Louis also appeared to have rebounded quite nicely from a disappointing few years.

The picture hasn't changed all that much, but a few notable shifts have shaken up the West just enough to make life interesting. The Wings continue to be the unbeatable force of the league with only ten regulation losses to their credit. Dallas hangs on to the Pacific title for now, but Anaheim has woken up from their stupor (aided no doubt by the return of Scott Niedermayer) and the two teams are battling it out nightly. And Calgary has reemerged at the top of the incrediby competitive Northwest Division, a division that has four of its five teams sitting in playoff contention.

And then there are the teams in freefall. The Hawks fell all the way to 13th after starting off so strong, with crippling injuries playing a big role but also the burnout of a team that was maybe overachieving to start the year. St. Louis and Nashville have also fallen out of the top eight, while Edmonton and LA have yet to crack 13th place and continue to struggle.

With all of the freefalls and meteoric rises in such a short time, it's interesting to note how close everything still is. There are one, maybe two teams out of the playoff picture - everyone else is very much alive, in both conferences. In the West a mere 6 points separates 14th from the coveted 8th spot; in the East 8 points are between 15th and 8th. Three division leaders are separated from the second place team by one point.

In fact the only team whose division title is not in doubt is Detroit, with a twenty point lead on the next Central Division team (Nashville, in 9th place). Everyone else is up for grabs. And because of that this year, more than ever, every single point is huge and will continue to be huge until the very last game. We're in for an interesting ride...

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