December 21, 2009
The New Jersey Devils face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight for the third time this season, having won the previous two meetings by a combined score of 8-2. Of course, this should mean absolutely nothing for Devils fans, as regular-season dominance preceding postseason depression is pretty much the norm in New Jersey; like seeing "Bon Jovi" on the club marquee and finding out its Jon's second-cousin Anthony playing RATT covers.
That said, tonight's game is between two of the three teams absolutely dominating the Eastern Conference right now: The Devils (first overall with games in-hand, 51 points), the Penguins (second in the division and fourth seed, 51 points) and the Washington Capitals (second in the East, 50 points). They're not just dominating the conference in the standings; they're literally dominating the conference, with the three best intra-conference records in the NHL:
1. Devils: 23-6-0 against the East
2. Penguins: 20-6-0
3. Capitals: 17-6-5
Only the Nashville Predators (17-9-2) have at least 17 wins against their own conference.
With 45 points in 34 games, the Buffalo Sabres are right with the Top 3 in the standings, although their conference record (15-10-3) isn't as sterling. So if you place them a notch lower than the Devils, Penguins and Capitals ... well, then the Sabres are in a mix of 11 teams vying for five playoff spots. Or as we call them, "Everyone not named Carolina."
The final five are going to be determined by four factors, in descending order of importance: Injuries, goaltending, trades and Olympic fatigue.
If Marian Gaborik(notes) becomes Mr. Glass again, the New York Rangers are toast. If the Atlanta Thrashers' goaltending can't maintain its goals-against average (2.79) in case the fourth-best offense in the League (3.05 goals-for avg.) goes cold, they'll drop. Will the New York Islanders add significant pieces at the deadline with a ridiculous amount of cap space?
Two questions: Of the teams in the parity-filled group behind The Big Three, which ones do you sense will make the cut?
Also: Do you see either the Devils, Capitals or Penguins falling back to the pack if they dodge significant injuries? Will the Olympics affect them?
For that first question: The vibe right now is that the Atlantic Division isn't taking four to the playoffs again. The Northeast could, but more likely we'll see three from that division, three from the Atlantic and two from the Southeast.
For that second question: All three teams have played through injuries, and all three teams are playing with high levels of confidence and clutch play. Depending on how they react to the Olympic break and against the West, we could see further separation from the pack in 2010.