The Eastern Conference has been viewed, rightly, as a barren wasteland with a meek populace lorded over by a very small number of actual good teams. We know for sure, for example, that Boston, Pittsburgh, and probably Detroit are going to make the playoffs. You might as well not even play the rest of the season as far as they’re concerned. They’re in, unequivocally.
For everyone else, though, things are a little more dicey. Tampa is sub-.500 in its last 10 games because they’re not very good away from home (where six of those 10 have been played), they’re cooling off after a hot start, and of course, they’re missing Steven Stamkos. Yet they entered last night sitting top three in the Flortheast because of Montreal’s slow start and Toronto’s quick decline.
But that’s the thing, right? Even if you finish outside the top three in your division, any crummy team in the East has at least a decent chance of sneaking into the playoffs because of how hard Toronto is dropping off (and will continue to do so because their December schedule is murder).
The Leafs will, rather definitively, not be playing after the regular season ends, and a number of potential suitors awaits, with varying degrees of credibility behind their claims to the conference’s final playoff spot.
The fact of the matter is that we’re now already one-third of the way through the season, and so it’s time to look for some replacements.
Will it be it be the Lightning?
You might say that they have the most credible case of all, sitting as they do two points ahead of the Leafs, and with a game in hand. They are indisputably a better team so far, and while they’re certainly going through a rough patch right now, they at least have the personnel to pull themselves out of any ruts; their corsi close is 49.9 percent. That may only be 15th in the league, but it’s also seventh in the East.
I don’t know, though, if you can just say Tampa’s going to knock off the Leafs since they’re ahead of them now, and likely will be all year. It’s perhaps more apt to say that Montreal looks for all the world to be the team that’s going to knock the Lightning out of the top three in the division.
Will it be the Rangers?
As with Tampa, the Rangers are, for the NHL’s purposes, ahead of the Leafs, though the reason why is stupid: They’re third in the PatrickPlus with 28 points to Toronto’s 31. It is theoretically possible, therefore, that they are overtaken by a team within their division and all of a sudden find themselves going from a favorable spot to having to climb into the playoffs.
The Rangers are a very strong team that will probably only get better as the season goes along, and I think the Rangers do end up making the playoffs. Their team shooting percentage right now is just 5.6, and thus can reasonably be expected to rise. More goals will mean more wins, as long as Henrik Lundqvist can keep it together.
Will it be New Jersey?
Of all the teams on the outside of the playoff picture looking in right now, this certainly seems like the most credible option. That’s not just because they entered last night ninth in the conference with 27 points, four back of Toronto, but more because the stats have been screaming for some time now that they necessarily should be a playoff team. Their corsi close last season — shortened though it was — was sixth in the entire league (55.3 percent), and they missed the playoffs by a mile. This time around, it’s eighth at 52.6 percent, placing them second in the East behind only Pittsburgh.
Obviously, Toronto is seen as the ultimate bellwether of corsi being a thing that matters, but it’s pretty easy to argue that this is the case for New Jersey as well. If Toronto no longer being able to outperform its awful possession numbers proves corsi is not, in fact, “wrong,” then New Jersey being able to catch up with it (or not) will do the same. The question is where the goals come from, obviously, but they’re not shooting much better than the Rangers. Their team PDO is currently 29th in the league, and with Cory Schneider in net, that can’t last much longer.
Will it be Philadelphia?
This is the new and hot pick because the Flyers have gotten points from eight of their last 10 games. They finally started scoring goals and Steve Mason has been spectacular all season long.
But even if the goalscoring keeps up, and it probably will, the fact that any team at all is relying on Steve Mason of all people should tell you everything you need to know. Before last night, he had played 26 games for the Flyers and posted a save percentage of .936 in those. That’s 29 points above his career average, which is the difference between a league-average save percentage (about .915) and being Joey MacDonald.
There was one notable stretch, though, in which Mason also started his time with a team with a .936 save percentage. That was of course his first 26 games (the same number, you see) in Columbus. The season he won rookie of the year, his save percentage after that first 26 games was .900 (833 saves on 926). That’s not to say that the Mason of five years ago is exactly as good as the one today — we can only assume he improved from that time — but regression is a hell of a thing and goalies generally do not outperform their career norms by that much when we have this significant of a sample.
In short: Steve Mason will soon revert to being Steve Mason, and the Flyers’ efforts to get into the playoffs will probably fall short.
Will it be Ottawa?
Haha just kidding. Of course it won’t.