East Rat Race

How things can take unexpected sharp turns.I watched that movie not too long ago, the Rat Race. Good classic comedy movie.

Anyway, a lot of people have been right about the EC standings in that they will go to the very end of the last couple of games or so. So, who is still in it, out of it, and what can happen?

7. New York Islanders

Losing Rick DiPietro is a huge loss for this team. We don’t know the seriousness of his apparent concussion, but missing him for just three games can be crucial to the team. Even for one game as two points are worth as much as gold nowadays. Still, the New York Islanders play such a solid game that they will exceed their level of capabilities and manage to get by with Mike Dunham, who has been a solid goaltender. The key games for the Islanders are against the Rangers. So far, they only managed to get one point in shootouts after DiPietro faced 57 shots. Yes, goaltending is THAT important for this team. This means that Ryan Smyth has to step up, Alexei Yashin has to have a monster performance in a few games, and the defense cannot afford to make any mistakes. I think the Isle’s will manage, they are a strong character team, full of experience, and having players like Smyth, Blake, and Sillinger makes the team tougher as they will stand up to play harder for the team since DiPietro is sidelined. I still think the Smyth trade was great, gutsy, and if Smyth starts putting up the needed points, and plays effective, without DiPietro’s presence, he will get this team into the playoffs and Garth Snow will deserve a lot of credit.

8. Carolina Hurricanes

Losing Cam Ward such a big deal? Not really. The guy gives more potential wins, but looking at his numbers compared to John Grahame’s, they are almost equal. What is the upside by playing Grahame in Ward’s absence? The guy has experience. He had the Bulin Wall in front of him in Tampa Bay, and he managed to carry the load many times. He can do that in Carolina. Still, I wouldn’t be counting on this team yet. Inconsistency best describes the Hurricanes this season; the shootout loss against the Rangers was a huge lost point as they should have put the game away with a lucky given powerplay in OT. What is Carolina’s advantage? The Canes have six divisional games left against the Capitals, Panthers, and Lightning; and they are good playing against their division rivals. Should this team be able to make it? Yes. It’s pretty much an easy road to finish the season. Do I expect them to finish 8th? Yes. Am I betting on it? No. I cannot trust this team, too many surprising losses.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs

Two big wins in a row prove this team’s character. Injury is no longer an issue now, with Tucker and Wellwood back, so where does this team stand being just two points away from 7th seed? They have a good chance if Carolina manages to screw things up along the way, or if the Islanders start falling. The schedule is quite tough, yet the Leafs know how to win big games and have proven that thus far. This builds confidence and I am expecting streaky goaltender Raycroft to go on a hot streak. If that happens, then it should almost be a sure shot that the Leafs make it. Yet, they have to hope that either the Hurricanes or the Islanders lose too many important games.

10. New York Rangers

I have to give some credit to this team. They’ve been playing very good hockey and the players are really stepping up to give it their best. Jaromir Jagr is not even close to being 100% as he can’t shoot the puck. Martin Straka said that if this was midway through the season, he wouldn’t be playing with his injury. The hot Marcel Hossa is sidelined. Key defenseman Fedor Tyutin is still a couple of weeks away. Paul Mara is playing through an upper body injury. Brednan Shanahan is still out without any timetable. Karel Rachunek was playing his best hockey of the year and he is sidelined now. Talk about untimely injuries, but you cannot blame the injuries and certainly cannot play the injury card, unlike other teams have. So, I have good news and bad news; which one should I give out first to Rangers fans? Ok, bad news first. This team will not make the playoffs. The offense comes up short despite the very good defense, which has been the best defense in the NHL since early January. Also, not enough bodies to play. By bodies I mean NHL players that have the experience to play big in key games and know how to take advantage of other teams. This is when a Bredan Shanahan comes in, blocks a heavy slapshot from the point during a penalty kill, and on the next shift he scores a big goal. The Rangers do not have that anymore. They had a great 2-0 lead against the Senators, they outplayed them for most of the game, yet the defense didn’t have the experience to play against top Senators talent in the third period when Rachunek was missing. So, on to the good news. I know this may sound odd as I just said the team didn’t have enough bodies, but I said experienced bodies (no, not experienced bodies in a way like Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton…etc). This team has DEPTH. Look at Marcel Hossa. Shanahan is out and the guy steps up to become a hot goal scorer in the NHL. Look at Daniel Girardi and Tomas Pock, they still keep a tight defense. Look at the recent Brandon Dubinsky. He had his best game against the Senators. I am still not sure of his NHL potential as far as offense, but he looks good, he is big, skates very well and is definitely NHL ready. Petr Prucha, sure he may not have scored as much, but he never takes a shift off. The guy hits in the corners and plays. Matt Cullen, stepped up his game. Sean Avery, stepping up his game. Next season, the Rangers are looking at: Marcel Hossa, Brandon Dubinsky, Tomas Pock, Daniel Girardi, Jaarko Immonen, and possibly Nigel Dawes. Not to mention that David Liffiton will get the call up to replace Rachunek. The prospects are starting to get NHL ready and the Rangers are looking at depth next season with skill. When was the last time the Rangers had that? So, that’s the good news. At least we’re looking at young Rangers who should be able to make the NHL next season or two. The playoffs hopes for the Rangers lie in the two games against the Philadelphia Flyers, and the must wins against the New York Islanders.

11. Montreal Canadiens

These guys are in a similar situation as the Rangers, as far as injuries, but I have no faith in this team. Why? The morale may be low. Yes, two solid wins as of late, but Sergei Samsonov claiming that it was a mistake signing in Montreal is not helpful. Players may still be scratching their heads at Craig Rivet’s departure and no help added since that. Alex Kovalev is not 100%. This team will be depending on its depth and young players, much like the Rangers. The only difference is that defense wins games for the Rangers. Montreal’s defense? Not too good, at all. It ranks 23rd in the league. Cristobal Huet may soon come back and that may be a plus, although the Frenchman’s numbers since late December have not been too good either. Questionable morale, weak defense; doesn’t sound like good news to me. Still, I am a huge Saku Koivu fan and he is the only one I have a lot of faith in to get the team to pull itself together and win. Montreal’s schedule is not that easy, every game against the East, pretty much, and they are only one game above .500 against Eastern Conference teams.

12. Boston Bruins

This team goes on useless winning streaks. Why are they useless? Because they later go on winless streaks. Goaltending is an issue. Defense is second worst in the NHL. Offense is 19th in the NHL. The schedule ahead is extremely tough as the only sure shot win would be their next game against the Washington Capitals. Who do they face later? They have twelve games against the likes of NYR, MTL, PIT, OTT, ATL, NJD, BUF. ……………….. Ouch. They have to beat Montreal three of three games if they want any hope, but I just see it as unlikely. This team can easily go on a winless streak with the kind of hockey that they play. They are seven points behind, not a chance.

13. Florida Panthers

Once again this team goes hot on a late run, similar to last year’s 13 game winning streak. I don’t get it, why now and not before? Obviously losing most of your offense is not going to help, the defense is decent, but not that great, and goaltending didn’t get great up until this past month or so. They are seven points out, not a chance unless the teams ahead of them start losing games in a row. I like how Stephen Weiss has stepped up, and Nathan Horton is starting to hit the back of the net. I like this team and with improvements in the summer, it has a much better shot next season. The schedule ahead does not seem too hard either, although they HAD to win against the Hurricanes and they missed that opportunity, despite getting shafted by the refs. The Cats have seven games against division rivals. Those are must wins as they play excellent against the Lightning, Washington should be easy to beat, and Carolina must be beaten. Those are 14 precious points. They should be able to beat the Flyers, so make it 16 points, and against Northeast teams, they actually have a good record against the NE Division (10-5-3), so they may try and steal a point or two against either Ottawa or Buffalo. So, with 17 or so points, they should be able to finish the season with 86-88 points. Considering that both the Islanders and the Hurricanes are just five games away from getting 88 points, the Panthers have no chance. But, they have something to prove and that is finishing above .500 for a second straight season, without Roberto Luongo. It’s a good team and sometimes I sit back and think what it would have been like had Bertuzzi played 75 games or so. This team is ready to make the playoffs soon, and next season should be quite interesting.

Anyway, thanks for reading as always and comments are much appreciated as I’d like your thoughts as well.

Micki Peroni