Just as the long layoff was starting, I wrote a Daily Cup of Joe entitled, “What does it take?” The short version is that the Hurricanes are not completely out of the playoff hunt, but they are not really in it right now either. The Hurricanes stellar 8-3-1 mark in January is a sign of hope, but the realization that they will need to play at that same pace for 32 more games presents a big challenge.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe addresses the same theme with an outward focus on the teams that the Canes are chasing.
A pack at the cut line
A look at the Eastern Conference standings shows three teams at least slightly ahead of the pack. The Lightning, Maple Leafs and Islanders (rechecks notes…Yes, the Islanders) are currently the top three teams in the Eastern Conference and have built at least a small gap.
After that, it is literally a dead heat for the remaining five playoff spots. Using a games above .500 methodology, the remaining five playoff teams are all tied at ten games above .500. That group includes the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets from the Metropolitan Division and the Bruins and Canadiens from the Atlantic Division.
So the bad news for the Hurricanes is that the gap right now (again using a games above .500 methodology) is six points to catch the group tied for the last playoff spots. But the good news is that the Hurricanes only need to catch one of these teams (in addition to passing the Sabres who are up two points on the Hurricanes.
Handicapping the teams
Until proven otherwise
Some day the Penguins will miss the playoffs. And it will likely be because the star-filled core of the the finally ages. And with the up and down 2018-19 campaign thus far, certainly it is possible that this is the year. But until Crosby and company officially fall, the benefit of the doubt goes to the Penguins making their regular playoff appearance. The team seems get better late. The veterans know what it takes. The Pens are generally buyers at the trade deadline. So until the Pens miss, I am counting them among the teams very likely to make the playoffs.
The story is similar for the Capitals. Especially coming off of a Stanley Cup victory, the Capitals seem nearly certain to figure things out enough to at least push into the playoffs. The Caps do have a seven-game losing streak right now which suggests that nothing is guaranteed. But just with the Penguins, I think the best bet is to count the Capitals among the playoff teams until they officially miss.
The Bruins playoff run that dates back only a couple years is not as illustrious as the Pens and Capitals runs, but I am still inclined to put the Bruins at least roughly in this same category. The team entered the season as an expected playoff team. It has top-end talent that has the potential to carry the team when push comes to shove. And the Bruins could also be buyers at the trade deadline. Though maybe less certain than the Penguins and Capitals, I still put the Bruins roughly in the group very likely to make the playoffs.
The potentially vulnerable
The Canadiens are arguably the most interesting story in the Eastern Conference. Like the Hurricanes the Canadiens missed the 2017-18 playoffs. And when the team dealt captain Max Pacioretty, Montreal looked like a team that was rebuilding. But the Habs started fast and have been reasonably steady since then. And the strong first two-thirds of the season has come with Cary Price being decent but not so much a driving force. The question is whether this team is for real. For lack of much better options, I view the Canadiens as one of the teams that could be vulnerable.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Out of the gate the Blue Jackets figured to be a playoff team. Through 49 games the team has played at a playoff pace. But despite the winning there is turmoil in Columbus with leading scoring forward Artemi Panarin and Vezina-quality goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Could the turmoil be enough to cause the Blue Jackets to fade and miss the playoffs. One can hope.
The obstacle on the path
The only team ahead of the Hurricanes but not in a playoff spot is the Buffalo Sabres who are now only two points ahead of the Hurricanes. Early in the season, the Sabres were one of the best stories going in the NHL. Jack Eichel was finally surrounded by enough talent for him to be a difference-maker. Jeff Skinner was acquired from the Hurricanes and had a scorching first half of the season that put him among the leaders in goal scoring. But having come back to Earth after a fast start, the team has faded a bit to the point where it is on the outside looking in and going in the wrong direction. The group is also light on experience playing through playoff stretch runs.
My quick two cents
As I laid it out above, I think the two most vulnerable teams are the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets. And if I had to predict final standings, I would currently put the Canadiens in the eighth and final playoff spot. That leaves the Hurricanes pushing to make up six points with 32 games to go.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of the five teams at the bottom of the playoff group right now, which do you see as most vulnerable in terms of being bumped out of the 2018-19 playoffs.
2) Am I wrong to put the Capitals and Penguins in the near certain category based on their past histories?
3) Who believes it is possible? What does it take to make that a reality?