This is a difficult time of the year for many hockey fans.  It’s cold and dark outside.  The luster of the new season is long gone.  Injuries and slumps begin to suck the life out of your team.  The trade deadline is still a few weeks away and the playoffs are even further in the distance.  However, this time of year is even tougher on fans of teams that don’t have much hope for a successful season.  For teams that probably won’t make the playoffs, the last few months of the season are nothing but a sad countdown to the bitter end, filled with only the desperate hope of a unlikely winning streak and checking out scouting profiles  for the upcoming draft.

Are you in that position right now?  Is your team destined to watch the playoffs at home instead of from the bench?

In the Western Conference only one team can really say for sure that they won’t be in the playoffs this year.  Sure, no one has been mathematically eliminated yet, but the Edmonton Oilers 38 points put them 13 behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for 14th place in the conference.  Sorry Oiler fans, the dream of Taylor Hall hoisting the Cup in his rookie season are long dead.  But you already knew that.  One of the nice things about being a fan of a last (or second last) place team is that the playoff dream dies sometime in November, so you can spend the rest of the season realistically assessing your team rather than hopelessly praying that they’ll somehow crack the top eight.

Despite the West being incredibly tight, you have to assume that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues will be sitting at home all spring as well.  While both teams are seven points out of eighth place, there are four teams ahead of them so it’s unlikely that either the Blues or Blue Jackets will be able to make the jump.  Somehow, the Calgary Flames are only two points out of the playoffs, an idea that seemed ludicrous not that long ago.

In the East, the playoff picture is a bit clearer.  Sitting at the bottom of the conference (and the league) is everyone’s favourite fall from grace story, the New Jersey Devils.  Their 37 points are the lowest in the NHL and even though they’ve won seven of their last 10 games, the playoffs won’t be happening for them.  This will be the first time since 1996 that the Devils will miss the playoffs.

Just ahead of New Jersey sits the perennial bottom-feeding New York Islanders.  No one really expects anything from the Islanders anymore, do they?

The Ottawa Senators sit three points ahead of the New York Islanders.  Much like the New Jersey Devils, no one expected Ottawa to be this bad this season.  Sure, they’re far from a Stanley Cup contender, but the playoffs seemed like a possibility back in July when they signed Sergei Gonchar to a three-year contract.  Ottawa’s biggest rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs are just three points in front of them in the standings.

Like the Oilers and the Islanders, no one really expected a return to the playoffs for Toronto this year.  The Leafs are already on the longest playoff drought in team history and it will be six years without postseason action for Toronto if they don’t crack the top eight this year.  The Leafs and Oilers both missing the playoffs will ruin the predictions we made during the first week of the season.

The Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers sit in 10th and 11th place in the Eastern Conference, with 51 and 50 points respectively.  While playoff berths are entirely possible for both teams, they’re not likely.  The Eastern Conference playoff picture looks relatively locked up right now, with only ninth place Carolina an option to supplant one of the top eight.  The Hurricanes are only one point behind the eighth place Thrashers right now.

So, in the East, it looks like only nine teams are really in contention right now.  In the West, there are 12.  This should make for an interesting trade deadline…