Eastern Conference Report

03/15/2010 1:08 AM -  matt juba

Will Alex Ovechkin face a suspension?

Will Alex Ovechkin face a suspension?

Welcome to spring: post-Olympics, post-trade deadline, and everyone but the Edmonton Oilers is still mathematically alive for a playoff spot and a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Some players and teams are peaking at the right time, and other teams are coming back down to Earth. Let’s look at each team in depth and what their chances are of making some noise in the postseason or playing the role of spoiler.

Records and statistics are up to date as of March 14.

ATLANTA THRASHERS (28-29-11, 67 PTS) 11th in the Eastern Conference
No Ilya Kovalchuk and no Kari Lehtonen equals no problem. Atlanta jettisoned two faces of the franchise and still find themselves five points out of the final playoff spot in the East. Three goals in three games is not going to get things done after scoring 14 goals in the previous three. Evander Kane will miss the next three weeks with a broken bone in his foot, and Christoph Schubert has a torn muscle in his hip which will sideline him the rest of the season.

The interesting note on Schubert is that his injury opens the door for Chris Chelios to return to the NHL. Chelios is not fantasy worthy on any roster, but he should be able to speed up some development for Zach Bogosian. Atlanta has made itself an interesting team to watch next season, as they added Clarke MacArthur from Buffalo to build around with Kane, Bryan Little and Niclas Bergfors. Bergfors has won over fans in Atlanta quickly with eight points in his first 12 games with the team, including six goals.

Overall, Atlanta has a favorable schedule for the rest of March, playing Carolina and Toronto twice, along with games against struggling Philadelphia, New York, and Columbus.

BOSTON BRUINS (30-25-12, 72 PTS) 8th in the Eastern Conference
The Bruins are fighting for a playoff spot, and they need all the help they can get after Marc Savard got leveled with a concussion that will likely put him out for the rest of the year. With no Savard in the lineup, Boston needs to rely more heavily on Patrice Bergeron, who has six points since the Olympics and is providing a spark offensively to the league’s worst offense. Milan Lucic is another player that could be crucial to the playoff success of the Bruins. Lucic has become a face on milk cartons all throughout Boston, as his performance on the ice has been suspect at best. 17 goals and 136 PIM last season made Lucic a goal-scoring enforcer that Boston embraced; however, he has one goal since the break while leading the team in shooting percentage. You would think that they would give him more opportunities to put the puck in the net.

While I have your attention, let’s take a minute and discuss why Tuukka Rask should be getting your support for the Calder Trophy this season. He still is leading the NHL with a 2.14 GAA and is second with a .930 SV%. Not only is he deserving of the Calder Trophy, but if he plays the majority of games down the stretch, he will be deserving to be on the short list with Ryan Miller for the Vezina.

BUFFALO SABRES (36-21-10, 82 PTS) 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Buffalo is back atop the Northeast Division, only because Ryan Miller has kept the momentum he has had from the Olympics. The Sabres need to get consistency on the ice, especially on the power play. Currently the power play is in the bottom third of league and lately is two for 39 with the man advantage. This team needs better play in order to compete with New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Washington in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo has been able to compete atop the East because of the strong play of rookie blue-liner Tyler Myers. Myers is sixth on the team in scoring and has more points on the power play than Drew Stafford.

The good news is that the Sabres have six of their next eight games against the Southeast Division cellar-dwellers. These games should give Buffalo the opportunity to gain some needed momentum and create some space between them and second-place Ottawa.

CAROLINA HURRICANES (28-32-8, 64 PTS) 14th in the Eastern Conference
The best non-playoff you will see this season hails from Carolina. The Hurricanes are historically a second-half team and they are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Believe it or not, they are only eight points out of a playoff spot. The next four games are a true test for this team, facing Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and two games against Washington. Justin Peters has been someone who can take a big part of the credit for the recent success, giving some rest to Manny Legace while Cam Ward is still out with injury. Peters is 4-1-0 on the year with a GAA of 2.01, and his poise and ability to shut down opposing offenses is giving life to this young team.

Jussi Jokinen was the playoff hero last season for the Hurricanes, but lately he is a fantasy godsend. He scored a point every game in the month of February and has scored in 16 of his last 19 games. Jokinen has 54 points on the season and has become a quality number 2 LW on any fantasy roster. He had 54 career goals heading into this season and had only 27 points last season. Jokinen may be a late bloomer in terms of a hockey career, but this is undoubtedly a breakout campaign.

FLORIDA PANTHERS (28-29-10, 66 PTS) 12th in the Eastern Conference
Unlike their division foe in Carolina, Florida is slumping down the stretch and finds itself at the bottom of the Southeast Division. The Panthers are struggling offensively, with only Edmonton and Boston finding the back of the net fewer times. Florida has allowed the second most shorthanded goals in the league – only Minnesota has struggled more. This shows that the Panthers need to improve at both ends of the ice.

Michael Frolik leads the team in shots taken and he has returned from fantasy irrelevance with four goals in the last week. Prior to this week’s goal-scoring outburst, Frolik had gone 16 games without a goal. His development is crucial to the success of the Panthers.  Tomas Vokoun still remains in Florida after rumors of being moved to a contender did not pan out. The Czech goaltender is second in save percentage and tied for the league lead in shutouts with seven.

MONTREAL CANADIENS (35-29-6, 76 PTS) 7th in the Eastern Conference
The Canadiens are a playoff team in turmoil, as they have the fifth most goals scored in the Eastern Conference. They are showing opponents that they can score goals in bunches, yet Montreal’s goaltenders have faced the second-most shots allowed this season. Defensively, this team sorely missed Andrei Markov, but since his return the defense has still been suspect at best. Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik are more known for being offensive-minded defensemen.

Montreal also has a goaltending controversy continuing between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Price is the more highly touted goaltender, but Halak has been the more reliable goaltender of late. Halak’s 21-10-2 record with a .920 SV% has been spectacular and has given the Montreal organization some much-needed confidence between the pipes.

Tomas Plekanec is a player that Montreal needs to rely more on down the stretch. Plekanec has scored five goals in the team’s last ten games, including a four-game point streak. He has broken out this year and has become a dependable and reliable forward for a the Canadiens.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS (40-24-3, 83 PTS) 4th in the Eastern Conference
What should we make of these Devils? This is the same team that beats San Jose and gets by Pittsburgh, but loses to the Islanders and gets shut out by the Oilers. New Jersey is dominant at home (22-9-1), but they need to play more consistent hockey both offensively and defensively in order to be successful in the playoffs.

Ilya Kovalchuk has started to find his scoring touch, averaging a point a game since his arrival. However, the departed Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya have provided better numbers and have created holes in the Devils’ lineup created by the arrival of the towering winger. Fellow linemates and Olympians Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner are playing well together, but it may be more beneficial to spread out the offense of the Devils onto multiple lines by splitting the two apart.

Defensively, the unit as a whole has nine points in the team’s last three games. If New Jersey can get scoring from the blueline, they will find the consistency they need in order to succeed.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS (28-32-8, 65 PTS) 14th in the Eastern Conference
The Islanders are a difficult team to gauge, as they have three NHL caliber goaltenders. While they have other needs on the ice, such as veteran scoring and more defensemen help, there were no moves made to better the team past this season. G Rick DiPietro got hurt again, this time not even on the ice, as there is swelling in his surgically repaired knees. It would be no surprise to see him shut down for the season.

Offensively, this team is being decimated by injuries, as Doug Weight is having season-ending surgery, Rob Schremp has a torn meniscus in his left knee, and Trent Hunter has been out since the beginning of March with an upper-body injury. The Islanders are running out of healthy forwards to put out on the ice. The next couple of games are crucial for the Islanders, as they need to evaluate the talent on their roster and prepare for the off-season ahead.

NEW YORK RANGERS (31-29-9, 71 PTS) 9th in the Eastern Conference
The Rangers are on the outside looking in at the playoffs and part of the reason is because of the consistent goal scoring from other players besides Marian Gaborik. Gaborik has more than double the highest goal total on the Rangers, but he suffered a groin injury at the Olympics and scored his first goal since the break on Friday. If he is unable to produce, New York has no chance at getting anything accomplished.

Olli Jokinen is not the same goal scorer he once was; however, he has 9 points in 12 games since the trade and has filled the role of assist machine that Chris Drury and Scott Gomez once had. The Rangers will likely miss the postseason unless their offense can find a way to score some goals and pick up some much needed points in the standings and able to leapfrog Montreal, Philadelphia, or Boston.

OTTAWA SENATORS (37-27-5, 79 PTS) 5th in the Eastern Conference
The Senators are not doing themselves any favors when they play on the road, only managing 14 shots on goal against Vancouver on Saturday. Ottawa has by far the worst road record of anyone fighting for a playoff spot (14-18-1). This team has eight more road games, including stops in Washington and Buffalo.

Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson are leading this team offensively, while Alexei Kovalev has been scoreless in six games coming back from the Olympic break. Kovalev needs to pick things up or the Senators have very little chance in the playoffs. Luckily, Nick Foligno is planning on returning from a broken leg this week, and his team leading +13 rating should help Kovalev right the ship.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (36-28-4, 76 PTS) 6th in Eastern Conference
The Flyers must really love Michael Leighton, since they chose not to go after a goaltender at the trade deadline. Leighton has the same number of wins as Ray Emery in fewer games. Leighton’s 2.39 GAA and 16-4-0 record as a Flyer should be enough to give him a chance to succeed and start next fall for the Flyers. Leighton is one of the few reasons that Daniel Briere is still in town and that the Flyers are in the playoff hunt.

A concern that fantasy owners have been noticing of late is with Scott Hartnell. Hartnell is known to be one of the league’s toughest competitors and the type of player that fantasy owners are willing to drop gloves over. A solid contributor in most offensive categories, Hartnell has been in such a funk offensively. Even second year right wing Claude Giroux now has more points than him. A two-point effort against the Blackhawks on Saturday gives Hartnell his first goal since January 30. Hartnell’s fantasy stock has dropped to the point of being non-existent, and fantasy owners should note he is only as beneficial as far as penalty minutes go.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (41-23-5, 87 PTS) 2nd in the Eastern Conference
The Penguins are second in the Eastern Conference, but they are unable to beat the New Jersey Devils, losing all five matchups this season. Other than that, Pittsburgh is in excellent shape to make a long run in the playoffs for the third straight season. Sidney Crosby is on a mission and is having his best statistical season thus far. His 45 goals on the season lead the league. In fact, he and Evgeni Malkin have exchanged roles. Malkin carried the team into the postseason enroute to the Stanley Cup, so what will Crosby have in store for everyone?

Tyler Kennedy has hit a wall in his development with the addition of Alexei Ponikarovsky. Kennedy has found himself a healthy scratch for the last few games. Pittsburgh has some talented forwards up front, but there is little room for error on the top six with the playoffs looming.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (28-28-11, 68 PTS) 10th in the Eastern Conference
The Lightning will not make the postseason in part to the 2-7-1 record in their last ten games. As well, they have dealt with the suspect goaltending out of Mike Smith and the inability to hand the reigns over to Antero Niittymaki. Both goaltenders have faltered when given the number one goaltender role.

Offensively, there is a lot to like about this team and looking forward to next season. Obviously, Steven Stamkos is as good as advertised with 40+ goals in his second season. Steve Downie is playing like former Flyers’ teammate Scott Hartnell. Downie had nine career goals going into the season and right now has 17 goals, 40 points and 190 PIM. He has become a fantasy beast, going from undrafted in many leagues to a top six forward spot who will be more than ready to drop the gloves on the ice. Teddy Purcell came over at the trade deadline and he has four points in six games with the Lightning. He had gotten lost in the shuffle in Los Angeles and now has an opportunity to become the young scoring forward for the Lightning and grow alongside playmaker Stamkos.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (23-34-12, 58 PTS) 15th in the Eastern Conference
The Maple Leafs are completely different from opening night to now. The two leading point scorers on the team are Phil Kessel and Tomas Kaberle – not a major surprise. After all the trades, the Leafs’ third-leading scorer, Mikhail Grabovski, has 28 points in 45 games this season. Brian Burke said that this team would look very different and that is no joke.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere is 3-4-1 but his GAA is a decent 2.47. He is regaining some much-needed confidence and could surprise fantasy owners next season.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS (46-14-9, 101 PTS) 1st in the Eastern Conference
The Capitals are so dominant that if you look at the Yahoo rankings, they hold 4 of the 5 top spots. Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green are all that dominant. Tomas Fleischmann is an unknown commodity on this team, and his 20 goals on the year and points in four of his last five show how deep the Capitals are. The question for the Capitals entering the week is, will Ovechkin be suspended for his hit-from-behind on Brian Campbell on Sunday? At least Ovechkin had the decency to contribute 15 minutes in penalties to fantasy rosters before exiting.

Washington has scored 45 more goals than any other team in the NHL. If anything is going to slow down Washington this season, it will be the goaltending of Jose Thoedore and Seymon Varlamov. Washington has allowed more goals than Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Colorado.

Listen to Matt each week on the Weekly Slapshot Podcast, heard every week at 11 am Eastern time on the Fantasy Sports Channel on Blog Talk Radio.

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