Playoff Picture Becoming Clearer, Habs Control Fate

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By Jacob Saltiel, Special to All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — Having dealt the Bruins 33 percent of their regulation losses to this point of the season, the Canadiens almost certainly won’t meet them in the first round. The rest of the regular season for the Canadiens and Bruins is about a critical battle for seeding in the playoffs. If the Penguins keep struggling with injuries, it’s conceivable that either the Bruins or the Canadiens jump into first in the conference. The implications can be huge. The top seed of the Northeast division will play the first round against one of the assorted teams struggling into seventh or eighth, including the Rangers, Islanders, Jets, Devils, and Flyers. The fourth seed will likely get stuck with Ottawa or Toronto. How the Canadiens finish the season will determine whether they face a playoff speed bump or a baffling opponent who can surprise a higher seed.

2012-2013 Conference Standings Standings - NHL.com - StandingsOf the teams at the cutoff for the playoffs in the East, only the re-arranged Rangers pose a threat on paper. Like the Kings a season ago, the Rangers team that took the ice after the trade deadline was vastly different from the squad that had played the previous 30-plus games. For the Kings, that difference was as much about the return from injury of key players (Mike Richards) and timely call-ups (Jordan Nolan, Dwight King) as it was about the trade deadline (Jeff Carter). This year, the Rangers are lurking for similar reasons. On trades alone, Glen Sather added depth to their lineup with Derick Brassard, John Moore, Derek Dorsett,* and Ryan Clowe. Meanwhile, their best defender, Marc Staal, has been out with that gruesome eye injury. The reward for top spot in the Northeast could very well be a first round showdown with a strong defensive team that hits and has Henrik Lundqvist in nets. For Habs fans, it’s best to hope that Pittsburgh somehow draws the Rangers, and that’s before considering the inevitably wrathful press conferences.

Since it’ll take some sort of suspension of the laws of physics or, barring that, a goaltender going off the deep end for the Islanders, Jets, Devils, or Flyers to advance, let’s look at the battle in the middle of the conference. There are just enough games left over for Toronto or Ottawa to take a long walk off a short pier and stumble into the mess at the bottom. Assuming that doesn’t happen, that four spot- almost a certainty to go to Boston or Montreal- will face off against one of them. Both are curious teams.

To begin with Ottawa, it’s unclear who still plays for them after their hideous spree of injuries, but it doesn’t seem to matter. That mustachioed coaching fiend Paul MacLean is the MacGyver of the NHL. With a pencil sharpener, 17 loose staples, a grapefruit, and a Methuselaen Daniel Alfredsson, he’s somehow kept the Senators in the playoff race. Until Craig Anderson returned to the lineup, they had more than $22M of their cap spent on injured players. This is entering slow clap territory. Because no one seems to understand what evil lurks behind that mustache or how this works, it’s as possible that they pancake in the playoffs and get swept as it is that they pull off some pseudo-inspirational victory. The residents of Ottawa might even pretend they don’t cheer for the Canadiens or Leafs for six days.

Speaking of the Buds, they’re a curious study too. Some advanced stats commentators think they’re due for a huge regression to the mean. In English, this means that they’re ready to start sucking at any moment. Until that happens, they seem to  be able to score plenty of goals, lead by Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, and James Van Riemsdyk. They also have strong goaltending no matter how many old men their GM tries to acquire. If James Reimer thinks he’s being trolled, he’s justified. Where the Leafs seem to be obviously bad is their heavy, slow, and potentially fictional defence. It’s unclear who it looks worse for that Mike Komisarek can’t make the top-6 of this defence. It’s a mystery how they’ll survive in the playoffs with three forward lines, since the invigorating Frazer MacLaren / Colton Orr tandem on the fourth line is a punchline in the playoffs. Wait. Actually, they aren’t even a punchline since there’s minimal fighting after game 48 of the regular season. If nothing else, they, like Ottawa, are a physical team that’ll wear down whoever they meet.

Three points up on the Bruins, the Canadiens will determine who they play in the first round. If they dominate the last 20 percent of the season, they could finish atop the East booking their 2nd round opponent via a pit stop in Long Island/Winnipeg/etc… If they struggle following Alexei Emelin’s loss, they could find themselves staring down the wrong end of Paul MacLean’s mustache or trying to play a hockey game against the comically feisty Maple Leafs. Let’s hope Boston earns the right to figure out just how good or bad the Leafs or Senators are.  If that happens, then it means that Flambeau Field will be home to the top team in the Northeast and might see a few rounds of playoffs.

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* Just once it’d be great to see the Rangers get stuck with one of their cap-busting contracts, but no. It’s unclear why anyone would praise the Blue Jackets for picking up approximately 100 games of Marion Gaborik. True, they don’t care about the cap implications because most of their players seem to be paid in rupees, but they also gave up a former first round pick and developing defender, John Moore, who is 22 and still has several years of control. Could he be another Ryan McDonagh? Despite Allan Walsh’s begging his case, Brassard might be at best a 2nd-line centre, is 25 and unlikely to develop much more, and has a raggedy injury history. Dorsett is a solid third or fourth liner who can’t match Gaborik skill-wise, but he’s a useful piece nonetheless. If one of Brassard or Moore turn into anything, Sather will look like a genius. Again.

As for Tickle Me Jarmo Kekelainen, his Blue Jackets are stuck in the roulette wheel at the bottom of the Western conference’s playoff picture (11th, at the moment). It’s a matter of bounces whether they even make the playoffs, and if they do, they’ll certainly almost be facing the dreaded Blackhawks or Ducks. So, uh, good luck with that mainly symbolic playoff appearance, Ohio- if it happens.

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