The new year is quickly approaching which inches us slightly closer to the best playoff grind in sports: the NHL playoffs.
Of course they won’t begin until April, but that doesn’t stop fans from looking ahead to the playoffs. Even more so since the Penguins are almost guaranteed a playoff spot. Or are they?
The Penguins are playing at a high level right now and don’t look to be hitting ground level anytime soon. The problem is, so is over half of their division.
My plan is to breakdown each team separately and give reasons as to why they can and can’t compete with the Penguins.
New York Rangers (47 PTS)
The Penguins took down the Rangers Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena and in convincing 7-2 fashion.
A team that had the Penguins number come playoff time for two straight seasons seems to now be another victim of the Pens relentless attack offensively. They chased Henrik Lundqvist in the playoff series on three different occasions last season and he has not faced the team in their last two meetings this regular season.
POSITIVES: The Rangers went out this offseason and added speed into their lineup with guys such as wingers Michael Grabner and coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey. With speedsters such as Mats Zucarello and Chris Kreider already a part of their team, the Rangers tried to get a few guys who could play the role guys like Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin do for the Penguins.
NEGATIVES: Their downfall is their play against the Penguins. Since taking over as head coach, Mike Sullivan has a 9-3 record against the New York Rangers which includes last season’s playoffs. Their head to head stats haven’t been good and they’ve come out on the losing side of 2 out of the teams’ three meetings thus far. If you’re the Rangers, you don’t want a fourth straight first round matchup against the Penguins.
Columbus Blue Jackets (46 PTS)
That damn cannon. The Blue Jackets own the league’s highest current winning streak which is ten games. They will oppose the Penguins on Thursday night.
One of the league’s laughing stocks just a season ago, the Blue Jackets are the hottest team in the NHL and proving their case as to why they’re going to be in conversation as a legitimate team.
POSITIVES: The hottest team in hockey currently has three games in hand on the Penguins and will over take first place in the division with a victory Thursday night. Head coach John Tortorella has popularly uninstalled the morning skate from his team and it has continued to pay its dividends as they have the least amount of regulation losses in the entire NHL (5). They’re currently tied for first with the Penguins at 3.34 goals/game. Their power play ranks first in the NHL at 27.7%.
NEGATIVES: Only four of the ten teams they have played during this ten game winning streak hold records above .500. I’m not discrediting their team, just pushing factual information. This is still the same team that endured a pretty hard 2015-16′ campaign so this could just be a fly-high-for-the-time-being winning streak. There isn’t many negatives for this team right now. But that’s also right now. Anything can happen over the course of the 82 game regular season.
Philadelphia Flyers (42 PTS)
It pains me to report to you that the Flyers are yet again looking like a playoff team.
After taking the Washington Capitals to six games last season with no mind made up on whether Michael Neuvirth or Steve Mason was their starting goaltender, the Flyers are back and looking even stronger on all sides of the puck this season.
POSITIVES: They’re winning games and they’ve got production coming from their big money guys like Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Claude Giroux. Those guys are all in the top ten in scoring currently and that’s going to be key if they want to continue to make a run. They’re in the top six in categories such as goals/game, SOG/game, and power play percentage.
NEGATIVES: Goaltending. This team’s problem will forever be goaltending until they decide to go out and find themselves a real goalie. Steve Mason is playing like his average self but Michael Neuvirth was falling out of touch before his injury landed him on injured reserve. They’ve allowed the seventh most goals/game in the NHL and it won’t be getting any better anytime soon. They’re without center Sean Couturier, winger Matt Read, and defenseman Matt Streit currently. The injury bug hasn’t hit vital players like it has the Penguins, but it’s bitten them.
Washington Capitals (41 PTS)
Washington is a great hockey team. Their Winning of the regular season Eastern Confrence championship last season proved that. This year, they’re hungry again.
POSITIVES: They too have a clean bill of health currently as every player on their active NHL roster is free of injuries. They’re getting stellar goaltending. Braden Holtby is his usual self and backup Philip Grubauer may be among the league’s best in his role. Their penalty kill ranks sixth in the league (84%) and their SOG allowed/game (28.1) is good for seventh best.
NEGATIVES: They’re getting a lot of underproduction out of their forwards. Alexander Ovechkin, possibly the league’s most prolific scorer, has been held to only 14 goals in 30 games. Evgeni Kuznetzov has been disappointing after his pretty nice year last season as well. Their goals/game, SOG/game, PP%, and shooting % are currently ranked only in the top 15 with none being higher than 11th.
Scariest Team: Columbus.
I truthfully believe the Blue Jackets to be the biggest threat to the Pens right now. Thursday night will be a great test for both teams as Columbus will look to stretch their win streak to a record 11 games.
They had the roster in my mind last season to have a great campaign but started off horribly going winless in their first 11 games.
This year, things are clicking and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is back to Vezina form.
Any team with a ten game win streak comes across as threatening but it’s more than that. This John Tortorella coached team is finally meshing. Any cohesive team (see Penguins Stanley Cup run) will be a team no one wants to play. The Blue Jackets right now are no different.
Anything can happen in the course of the next four months, but I think Columbus scares me more than any of the other aforementioned teams do.