After a tremendous surge in December and early January, the Canes climbed to within 4-5 points of the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. That is still where they sit now. Using my math that adjusts for games played, the #8 team in the Eastern Conference right now is the Penguins who are +9 above .500. The Canes sit at +5 which puts them 4 points back if adjust for games played by making each worth a point.
But with the big cluster of teams all within a few points of each other in the middle of the standings, who really are the Canes chasing? Here are my subjective thoughts on each team.
I will not address the Capitals, Flyers and Panthers who are farther ahead and seem to be too far too reach. Past that, the current pecking order is:
New York Islanders +13: They have the biggest lead of the teams that I included, and their +8 over the Canes seems to big unless the Isles fall apart. The Isles do play 10 of their next 12 on the road mostly against strong competition, so I guess if they are going to sink, that would be the time. But the Isles are playing pretty well and seemingly too far away to catch.
Tampa Bay Lightning +12: I keep thinking that Tampa Bay is about to find a higher gear and push up into the upper part of the standings. I continue to think that will eventually be the case for a team that was elite last season and is deep. Anything is possible by my 2 cents does not mark the Lightning as a ‘catchable’ team.
Boston Bruins +11: The Bruins rank high in the current pecking order and are also coming off a solid win against the Penguins who are another team in the mix. The Bruins are also 7-4-1 in February. This could seemingly lump them with the Isles and Lightning who I wrote off as probably not within reach. But I actually have the Bruins as a team that could be a target for a few reasons. First, the Bruins have benefited from a favorable February schedule that saw 2 match ups each with Buffalo and Columbus plus another with Toronto. In those 5 games, the Bruins ground out 3 overtime wins to go with an overtime loss and another regulation loss. The team actually fared better against the tougher competition, but was very mixed with some ugly outings giving up 8 goals to Los Angeles and 6 to Detroit in losses. More significant than the past is the Bruins schedule going forward. The Bruins’ March schedule includes 2 tough sets of 4 games (Chi, Was, @Fla, @Tam and @SJ, @Ana, @LA, @NYR). The Bruins 3 remaining head-to-head games with the Canes also make for 3 chances to pick up 2 points quickly. As well as the Bruins are playing this season, I think if the Canes can navigate their own road-heavy March schedule that they could be caught.
Detroit +10: Detroit just makes the playoffs every year because that is what the team does. But is that written in stone for the 2015-16 season too? I do not think the Wings are a guaranteed playoff team, but it is hard not to like the core of their team that seems to know what it takes to get it done when within range entering March. And the Wings will of course be within range entering March.
Pittsburgh +9: Everyone keeps waiting for the Penguins to turn into the Penguins from years past and surge up the standings. The team has been better since its coaching change that seemed to spark Sidney Crosby and company and the trades for Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin also seem to have helped. But the team has not really been firing on all cylinders. The team’s 6-4-1 record is good not great. The Pens have games in hand which is generally a positive obviously, but also comes with 16 games including 4 sets of back-to-backs in March. Is it possible that the Penguins wear down, fade and become a surprising playoff omission? It is at least within the realm of possible.
To be clear, I am not discounting the New Jersey Devils who also sit between the Canes and the #8 spot. The Devils are similar to the Canes in that they are not supposed to be in this position per preseason projections. But for this exercise, I focused on the teams above and am optimistically hoping that a finish that catches 1 of them also passes the Devils.
The math majors have the Canes chances of pushing up to #8 at something like 20-30 percent. That sounds about right to me. The Canes are very much underdogs but not by such a wide margin that it requires a miracle. It basically takes 1 great month of hockey which is not too crazy since the canes have put forward multiple good months of hockey and are seemingly close.
If I had to pick 1 team to target, it would be Boston. There defense has been suspect at times even during a decent February that was also helped along by a heavy dose of easier match ups. And in the game of trying to hunt teams down, the remaining 3 games against the Bruins represent a do-or-die opportunity to make up points quickly. With a win Thursday in Toronto and then at home against Boston on Friday, the Canes would quickly make up 3 points against the Bruins (by adding 4 and using my funny math) and be within 3 of catching them.