Just a couple of points separate four teams in a ferocious bid to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. Unlike the scattered mediocrity which has encapsulated the West, a good team in the East will be watching the playoffs with a beer and a side of regret. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets are never more than one game away from falling out of the playoffs.
And the realization that each point counts has hit home for everyone.
Just as the Penguins realized they whiffed on points against Philadelphia in the Stadium Series game and against Buffalo Friday night, other teams are also kicking themselves for squandering leads or flatlining losses.
The Penguins present the most difficult to predict scenarios. Is there another team in the league which could survive without its top three defensemen? Yet the Penguins are 2-0-2 without Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta (we’re counting the Philadelphia game because the Penguins played about 45 minutes without them).
Not only are the Penguins gaining points, but they also squashed playoff rivals Columbus and Montreal on the just concluded three-game road trip. They are playing to their identity with or without front line defensemen.
Status: Their chances are looking appreciably better by the day. It’s hard to imagine the talented Penguins missing the playoffs, especially when riding on Sidney Crosby’s back. Crosby had four points against Montreal and his coach called his performance, “monstrous.”
Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline like they were a starving contestant on Super Market Sweep. Top center Matt Duchene? Check. Gritty 20-goal winger Ryan Dzingel? Check. Thumping, heavy-footed defenseman Adam McQuaid? If you insist.
Columbus tanked Saturday in a 4-0 loss to the lowly Edmonton Oilers. Columbus head coach John Tortorella who generally doesn’t hide his emotions so well, delivered a blunt 44-second postgame presser. That time includes entering and leaving the room.
Columbus has undergone months of drama with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Now they’ve shaken the Yahtzee cup and added more big talent. It takes time to gel on the ice and to find the locker room dynamics. Not every team has an all-time great player and well-established room like Pittsburgh (though the Derick Brassard example may loom large for GM Jarmo Kekalainen).
The Penguins took their lunch and served it to them in the first game after the trade deadline, too.
Goaltending can be an issue, as well as the weight of high expectations.
Status: Uh-oh. Columbus may be the most talented team in the group but they have a lot to figure out in a short amount of time. Bobrovsky may be called up to steal a game, or two until they become cohesive. Columbus is two points behind everyone, now. They’re 50/50 for the playoffs, which would be a catastrophic miss.
They shouldn’t be so hot. They shouldn’t be competing with Pittsburgh and Columbus. They have former sieve Petr Mrazek in net, they’ve struggled to score goals all season because they traded Elias Lindholm for yet another offensive defenseman (Dougie Hamilton), yet here they are.
The organization had GM-wannabees turn down the job and even turn down the interview. Yet here they are.
Here they are making social media waves with silly postgame celebrations and daring to have a good time. Their postgame shenanigans should be proof of the effect of a positive atmosphere.
Sebastian Aho has leaped from potential-star to star. Nino Niederreiter, who was acquired for low scoring Victor Rask, has been lighting the lamp and even Greg McKegg has chipped-in. Go figure.
Status: Cinderella without a time stamp. Their speed has given the Penguins fits and could do the same to Washington in the playoffs. They have the magic even if their roster doesn’t have the names. Odds they make the playoffs? 80%.
It seems their improbable run is coming to an end. Jordie Benn on their top defensive pairing isn’t drawing rave reviews and Shea Weber is also battling the puck in his own zone (and the glass in the offensive zone). Montreal has Carey Price in net, so they will be in most games, but their goal differential is ahead of only Columbus, among the contenders.
There is a lot to like about the Canadiens future. They have prospects on the way and Artturi Lehkonen in the show. Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher sidesaddle Philip Danault for a pesky and potent first line, too.
Status: If Columbus straightens out, Montreal is the odd-man out. If not, Montreal will make it by the skin of their teeth. Odds they make the playoffs? 33%.