As we enter the second half of the NHL season, the Eastern Conference has yet to un-bunch itself.
At the moment, the third (Detroit) and 13th-place (Philly) teams are just eight points apart. Only Buffalo, Toronto and Columbus seem to have fallen totally out of the playoff picture while only Washington has really separated itself from the mushy middle. Florida is four points clear of third place, but is also on the heels of a 12-game win streak, so there’s a good chance the Cats won’t be pulling away too much further just yet.
The NHL is notoriously blessed/cursed with real and forced parity every year. But this year’s Eastern Conference goes beyond that. There’s the Capitals and then everyone else. If this were the NBA’s Eastern Conference, which is having a fairly-similar year, we’d all declare Washington the champions and focus on the West.
But the NHL is different. Great teams can go cold at the wrong time or run into a hot goalie and unthinkable upsets can occur. Presidents’ Trophy winners have failed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in seven of the past 10 seasons. Four of those teams lost in the first round, which I’m sure Washington fans will recall.
All this is to say, don’t sleep on the mushy middle making some noise come playoff time.
The trouble is figuring out which team could make said noise. Montreal looked like a Cup favorite in October, but slowed down in November and then totally fell apart when Carey Price got hurt. It’s difficult to have confidence in them until we’re sure Price is fully healthy.
The Rangers had a nice run early but have been weirdly-terrible possession-wise. Florida’s hot right now but it’s yet to be determined how “for real” they are. Detroit has been pretty good, but nothing about them blows you away. Same with Boston. The Senators are a disaster when Erik Karlsson isn’t on the ice. Tampa and Pittsburgh haven’t looked right all year and I mostly being nice when I included the Flyers, Hurricanes and Devils in the “not out of the playoff race” group earlier.
So my sleeper is the Islanders. They haven’t had any really big ups or downs; no streaks to speak of or many players that have stood out. But they’re solid.
The Isles are mostly healthy at the moment. They have 53 points in 44 games played. Considering how inconsistent the Rangers have been, the Islanders seem to have a pretty good chance at finishing second in the Metropolitan Division.
They have a balanced attack, currently ranking eighth in goals for, 11th in goals allowed and seventh in goal differential. The goaltending has been better than years past as Jaro Halak and Thomas Greiss have split time and both posted solid numbers. And speaking of upsetting loaded Capitals teams, Halak has some experience in that department.
The power play is middle of the pack at 18 percent while the penalty kill is second in the league at 87.3 percent.
The advanced stats are somewhat a concern for the Islanders as the corsi numbers have slipped from last year. New York ranks 17th in even-strength corsi and 14th at 50.1 percent when you adjust for score effects. Mediocre numbers like that don’t usually bode well for playoff success.
But I’m counting on sort of an ace in the hole: John Tavares. The former first overall pick had become a consistent point-per-game player over the past four seasons. This year he has just 15 goals and 31 points in 41 games. His possession numbers are down too. He hasn’t been the same guy. But there’s no reason he can’t be. He’s only 25 years old, he’s in the thick of his prime. There’s a chance he could totally turn his season around, start playing like the guy of the past four seasons and raise the Islanders ceiling substantially. It could happen.
Of course, this team isn’t perfect. The possession numbers are troubling. There’s no real elite skill on the blue line. The Travis Hamonic situation is hanging over the organization.
But the non-Washington portion of this conference is loaded with flaws. Right now it looks like the Islanders could be the least-flawed of the bunch.