March 01, 2012

Regular Season Standings Prediction

As the NHL officially enters the stretch drive, here is how I think the standings will stack up by the end of the regular season. Explanations below.

 Western Conference
  1. Detroit
  2. Vancouver
  3. San Jose
  4. St. Louis
  5. Nashville
  6. Phoenix
  7. Chicago
  8. Los Angeles
Eastern Conference
  1. New York Rangers
  2. Boston
  3. Washington
  4. Pittsburgh
  5. Philadelphia
  6. New Jersey
  7. Ottawa
  8. Florida
Beginning in the west, the most blaring pick in these standings is Detroit finishing on top. The vast majority of readers are Canucks fans, so projecting second place will understandably raise some eyebrows. Let's be reasonable. The comparison between the two juggernauts is oh-so-close; their last two meetings were separated by a lousy shootout goal each.

If you can get past all the drama of the streak-breaking victory at the Joe, Detroit came within 16 seconds of taking a four-point stranglehold on the conference, a lead that they would have probably kept and expanded on riding the momentum of a 3-2 victory. And they would have done this without the services of Pavel Datsyuk, arguably the best player in the game right now.

The Red Wings are very, very good. In fact, if the league did not hand out those God-forsaken loser points for overtime losses, the Canucks would still be four points back of the Wings. Not to say that Detroit would destroy Vancouver in a playoff match-up, or even that the Red Wings are the superior team. But with Datsyuk returning a month shy of season's end, they have the edge in what will be an exciting race to the finish.

President's Trophy race aside, the lone team that sneaks into the playoffs in this theoretical is the LA Kings, beating out the Stars for eighth place. It has been a rough season in Hollywood, and the team has been up and down since Darryl Sutter took over. 

The difference maker is Jeff Carter. The acquisition of Mike Richards former line-mate is beneficial, if nothing else, in the short-term for a team whose downfall has been a lack of scoring. The Dallas defence is too porous to be a playoff team. LA makes up the single point.

The ultra-safe predictions continue in the east; all eight teams in the playoff picture today stay there in mid-April. In other words, both the Capitals and Panthers qualify for the post-season, while the Maple Leafs do not.

Not to worry, this bold showing of cowardice is justified. The closest team to a spot is the Winnipeg Jets, a single point behind Washington, but with two fewer games left on their schedule. More on them later. The next in pursuit are the Toronto Maple Leafs, four points behind, followed by the Lighting and Sabres at five back. All are decent squads, all are held back by the same issue: goaltending. Such wide gaps cannot be made up without consistency from the netminder.

Consequently, the Winnipeg Jets are involved in a Southeast race for the last couple playoff spots. Here's the catch, one of those is the third seed thanks to the current division structure. Regardless, between the Panthers, Capitals, and Jets, two will win a ticket to the post-season.

A look at this prediction shows Washington in the third spot, which many may scoff at. However, despite their troubles, the Capitals are still a very talented team. A little adversity in the form of a playoff chase may be exactly what Ovie and the boys need to get their act together. They are still a good bet to take the Southeast Division.

That leaves a duel between Winnipeg and Florida for their playoff lives. As of today, March 1st, Florida has a dominant lead of four points with three games in hand. Interestingly, tonight's showdown between these two sides could see the Jets draw within a couple. Of course, the Panthers could just as easily make it a landslide. All things considered, Winnipeg does not have the talent to climb this mountain in such a limited amount of time; Florida should hold on to eighth place.

The rest of the Eastern Conference is just a matter of teams exchanging seeds, with the New York remaining on top. Not much to it: the Rangers are just too good to blow a five-plus point lead, even with the elite Penguins and Bruins on their heels.

Looking over the forecast, I would certainly hope these standings pan out. They would produce some very interesting playoff series'. The four vs. five in the east would be the historic battle of Pennsylvania, while in the same matchup in the west would see two of the most promising young franchises, the Predators and the Blues, duke it out in what would be a physical, nasty, epic series.

And finally, for all you Canucks homers, this scenario would also see Vancouver play the Chicago Blackhawks for the fourth consecutive year. Needless to say, that would be pretty intense.