The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 11 (Final Edition)

It’s official world, we have hockey this year!

How do I feel? The same as Evgeni Malkin does…

 

 

And we don’t have to wait until October.

Yes, the ghastly and unforgivable NHL lockout has ended and not a second too soon. Gary Bettman has apologized to fans and I’ll respond to him for the collective NHL fan base: Apology not accepted, go get your shine box, Gary.

Before I start ranting, I’ll get to the intended point of this post. This will be the final part of What We’re All Missing. Since we get to see Sid and Geno and Ovi and Pavel and Zdeno, etc. on just about a nightly basis from January 19th on, NHL fans won’t fully miss out on just how their team brings them joy.

But this piece was written and spaced out over time based on the very real fear that we would have a repeat of 2004-05 and be forced to watch the NBA, so consider this final part the “What We Would Be Missing if the NHL Season was Cancelled But Thank God it Isn’t Edition.” It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but they can’t all be winners now, can they?

I’d like to thank the Sportz Broz/Editor-in-Chief Adam Maher as always for posting my content.

So without further ado, here is the final installment of WWAM featuring the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

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2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round One Review and Round Two Predictions

Before I break down the second round and make my picks, I need to own up to my first round failures and collect a little cred for my successes. In the first round I went 3-5. We’ll start with my not so solid picks…

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: Vancouver in 5

Reality: Los Angeles in 5

This was obviously my biggest blunder of the first round. It was a 1/8 matchup and there wasn’t much in the cards that told me the Kings would pull off a massive upset (they had the opportunity to sweep Vancouver). I picked Vancouver because I just assumed they would score more goals than Los Angeles. The Kings just couldn’t put the puck in the net in the regular season and I figured they might fall off even more when the pressure came. But it was the opposite. Not only were the Kings able to score goals, they were able to score big, opportune goals. I have to give credit to Kings Captain Dustin Brown. Not only did he score a team-high four goals, two of them came shorthanded. Shorthanded goals not only change games, they can change a series. And I can’t fail to mention Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. He held the Western Conference’s highest scoring team to just eight goals in five games. He was cool under pressure, managed to hang onto rebounds and he looked every bit a Vezina candidate.

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

My pick: Chicago in 7

Reality: Phoenix in 6

There couldn’t have been more tension in this series. Five of the six games went to over time and it seemed like the Blackhawks relished the chance to tie games at the last minute. Because of their offensive abilities, I believed the Hawks would outscore the Coyotes. But this series came down to the goaltending matchups. Corey Crawford just wasn’t very good. He allowed soft goals on numerous occasions and there were times at which the media wondered if Ray Emery would start the next game. But Chicago coach Joel Quenneville stayed with his No. 1 guy and paid for it. At the other end of the ice, Phoenix reaped the rewards of amazing goalie play. Mike Smith was unbeatable at times. He probably didn’t receive as much attention as he deserved during the regular season, but trust me now that no one is going to over look Smith moving on in the post season. He is scary good right now.

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Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Redwings

My pick: Detroit in 6

Reality: Nashville in 5

This series proved to me that it’s not the same NHL as in recent years. I just had trouble imagining a second round without the Wings. I stand humbly corrected. The Redwings’ age started to show in this series and the stellar defense of Nashville proved it could shut down the hot hands of the Detroit club. Detroit averaged only 1.80 goals per game in five games, which was second to last ahead of a tie between Vancouver and San Jose. Nashville seemed comfortable on the road, which is tough considering how good Detroit has been at home this year. Winning tough road games proves a team can win a Cup and I believe Nashville has a legitimate shot now that they’ve taken down the gold standard of the NHL in five games.

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Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

My pick: Boston in 5

Reality: Washington in 7

“I can’t picture a scenario in which Washington could win this series.”

I guess I couldn’t picture a rookie goaltender outplaying a Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, but that’s exactly what happened. Tim Thomas played a solid series, but Braden Holtby was outstanding. He didn’t turn any heads in the regular season, but he stepped up his game precisely when it mattered. I’m not going to say he was the sole reason Washington is advancing, but he was the main reason. I was unsure if the Caps could match the physicality of the defending champion Bruins, but they did to a tee. If there’s a single picture that illustrates this point, it’s this one:

Every time Alexander Ovechkin was on the ice, Zdeno Chara was there to lay a hit on him. But Ovi once again proved that he is a PHYSICAL scorer. He knocked down Chara numerous times and he never seemed intimidated by the biggest man to ever play in the NHL. The Caps battled every second they were on the ice and they played tight, defensive hockey, which is normally the hallmark of the Bruins. I didn’t give much credit to the Capitals before this series started but now I believe they have the ability to play the type of hockey that can get you deep into the playoffs.

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

My pick: Pittsburgh in 6

Reality: Philadelphia in 6

I have to make sure I don’t go off on a rant for this one. I can’t explain enough how much this rivalry means to Penguins fans and Flyers fans alike. Bragging rights are a big deal in Pennsylvania when it comes to hockey and now Pittsburgh will have a very sour taste in its mouth for at least six months until next season begins. Although the series ended 4-2 in favor of Philly, it might as well have been 4-0. The Flyers outplayed the Pens for the vast majority of the series and although their goalie Ilya Bryzgalov played poorly in just about every game, he was still better than Marc- Andre Fleury. Fleury was as bad as I’ve seen during his career in this post season. He had no puck control and he looked nervous. That’s pretty bad considering he’s won a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup Final on the road. But you can’t peg it all on him. The Pens defense (the blueliners and forwards alike) was shotty at best and Philadelphia’s bright stars Claude Giroux and Danny Briere were able to capitalize on numerous Pens’ mistakes. All the credit goes to Philly in this series and if they can figure out what the heck is going on between the pipes, they can be a Stanley Cup Champion this year.

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Now for the fun part…

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

My pick: St. Louis in 6

Reality: St. Louis in 5

Even though Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago, he didn’t posses that same ability for the Sharks in this series. St. Louis has some great young talent that played solid offensively and even better in the defensive zone. The Blues have a deep team and the second line of of Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald combined for eight goals, including a pair of game-winners. McDonald scored four goals in five games and he notched the game-winning goal in Game 4. And backing up the team was the best goalie duo in the NHL. Even though Jaroslav Halak went down early with an injury, Brian Elliott stepped right in and played outstanding hockey. He was second to only Cory Schneider in goals against average and fourth in the playoffs in save percentage. It’s uncanny to have a pair of such good goaltenders and if St. Louis wants, they can still play both of these guys (assuming Halak is healthy) moving forward. The Blues are my Western Conference pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

My pick: New York in 7

Reality: New York in 7

This was a matchup of an offensive power versus defensive fortitude and in the playoffs, defense wins out. There were some moments in this series when I truly thought the Sens might upset the Blue Shirts. Ottawa played a fast-paced game and their speed nearly won out. But as the regular season illustrated, New York blocked a ton of shots and the best shot blocker was Henrik Lundqvist. And you have to give credit to New York in handling the probable Norris Trophy winner of Erik Karlsson. He was the leading scoring defenseman in the regular season, but he managed only one point (a goal) in seven games. On the blue line, the shutdown pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi did a solid job handling Jason Spezza and company (and Girardi even scored the game-winning goal in Game 7). It will be interesting to see how the Rangers handle the Capitals since they can be high flying like the Sens, but with a better overall defense (at least at this point). And by the way, the Rangers are my pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

My pick: New Jersey in 6

Reality: New Jersey in 7

This series could have went either way. Sure, Florida was a No. 3 seed, but they were in a horrible division that seemed up for grabs at many points during the season. New Jersey had very little consistency during the regular season as well. So how did the Devils manage to capture this series?

Overall team consistency.

Rookie Adam Henrique had two goals (including the double overtime game winner in Game 7), Captain Zach Parise and Patrik Elias had two goals each and even fourth-liners Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta had a pair a piece. And you can’t dismiss the experience factor that Marty Brodeur brings to the playoffs. His team trusts him behind them and when you trust your goalie, you play with more confidence and aggression up the ice.

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Now on to Round Two

I’m going to keep this short and sweet…

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: St. Louis in 7

Why: Halak/Elliott and the Blue’s penalty kill

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Nashville Predators (4)

My pick: Nashville in 6

Why: Pred’s D and slightly better goal tending

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New York Rangers  (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

My pick: New York in 6

Why: Defense Defense Defense (and King Henrik)

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Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

My pick: New Jersey in 7

Why: Devils’ ability to play tight, playoff-style hockey

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round One

Diligent NHL followers have waited for six months in anticipation of tonight. The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us and that means it’s prediction time. So let’s take a look at each matchup and time will tell how successful I’ll be.

Starting in the West…

Vancouver Canucks (1 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-22-9 (111 points)

VS.

Los Angeles Kings (8 seed)

Regular Season Record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

This season, the Kings have taken 3 of 4 against the Canucks with one of those wins coming in overtime. The regular season series may have been dominated by LA, but their scoring woes are going to come back to bite them. The Kings averaged only 2.29 goals per game this season, pegging them 29th in the league in the category. Outstanding goaltender Jonathan Quick was the savior of the team, registering 35 wins with a save percentage of.929 and a GAA of 1.95. However, the Canucks are a high scoring team with a talented pair of goaltenders of their own. They ranked 5th in goals for and 4th in goals against in the league this year. I believe that fire power will help them past the low-scoring Kings.

My prediction: Vancouver in 5.

Season Series Record: LA won 3 of 4

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St. Louis Blues (2 seed)

Regular Season Record: 49-22-11 (109 points)

VS.

San Jose Sharks (7 seed)

Regular Season Record: 43-29-10 (96 points)

So often, playoff games come down to goal tending. That is what makes this an interesting matchup. On paper, it looks like the Blues have the obvious advantage. Both Halak and Elliott have had outstanding seasons, making them the most formidable goalie duo in the NHL. But don’t forget that the Sharks have a Cup winner in net with Antti Niemi. He hasn’t had the greatest season, but he has scorers in front of him that had the second best power play in the league. But ultimately, I believe defense will win out in this series and defense is the game St. Louis loves to play.

My prediction: St. Louis in 6

Season Series Record: St. Louis won all 4

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Phoenix Coyotes (3 seed)

Regular Season Record: 42-27-13 (97 points)

VS.

Chicago Blackhawks (6 seed)

Regular Season Record: 45-26-11 (101 points)

The Coyotes have won their division for the first time in team history. The confidence level in Phoenix is at an all-time high because of its stellar goaltender Mike Smith. No one could have predicted the season he had this year. Coming off of waivers to a top-ten ranking in goalie wins, save percentage and goals against average. And don’t forget about the rest of the Coyotes defense; they rank 5th in goals against and 8th in the penalty kill. The Coyotes should be a formidable matchup for the Blackhawks. The Hawks are 6th in the league in scoring and they have Stanley Cup winners throughout the locker room. When all is said and done, I think that Chicago’s postseason experience is going to ultimately win out.

My prediction: Chicago in 7

Season Series Record: Phoenix won 3 of 4

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Nashville Predators (4 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-26-8 (104 points)

VS.

Detroit Redwings (5 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

I think this is the most intriguing first round matchup outside of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia series. This series pits the seasoned veterans of the Wings against the younger and defensively sound Preds. The Predators are getting a ton of picks in this series because most people have their doubts about the longevity of the Redwings. But don’t forget that Detroit has one of best goalies in the NHL (who is nearly as talented as the Pred’s Pekka Rinne), a perennial Norris Trophy winner in Lidstrom and the Wings also have some younger players like Darren Helm with quick legs and playoff experience. I don’t want to sell Nashville short, however. They had the best trade deadline moves in the NHL and their defense is as solid as there is in the league with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring the blue line. Despite taking the popular pick of the Preds, I can’t imagine the Redwings falling out quickly.

My prediction: Detroit in 6

Season Series Record: Both teams won 3

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Now we’ll move onto the East…

New York Rangers (1 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-24-7 (109)

VS.

Ottawa Senators (8 seed)

Regular Season Record: 41-31-10 (92 points)

The Rangers rolled through the regular season, never looking in the least that they might stumble at some point. But everyone knows the regular season is not the playoffs. Case in point: Despite being the best team in the league this season, the Rangers won only one game out of four against the Sens this year. They have been owned by the high scoring offense of Ottawa. But as I mentioned before, the regular season might not mean anything in this series. Defense is the name of the game in New York and Ottawa is far more focused on the aggressive offense they have been used to playing. Usually, defense wins out in these matchups, but don’t expect Ottawa to get swept or anything of the sort.

My prediction: Rangers in 7

Senators won 3 of 4

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Boston Bruins (2 seed)

Regular Season Record: 49-29-4 (102 points)

VS.

Washington Capitals (7 seed)

Regular Season Record: 42-32-8 (92 points)

I feel like this might be the biggest mismatch in the entire first round. Washington had a relatively bad year, but they still made the playoffs because they play in a horrible division. Although the Caps have been coming on as of late (with a ton of help from Ovechkin) they still seem like a team in general disarray. The Bruins are better than Washington in almost every category and ultimately, I think the Caps will fail because of their shaky goaltending and swiss-cheese defense. The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they are starting to look like that team once more. With an MVP playoff goalie in Tim Thomas and a host of other players that play physical with a high intensity, I can’t picture a scenario in which Washington could win this series.

My prediction: Boston in 5

Washington won 3 of 4

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Florida Panthers (3 seed)

Regular Season Record: 38-26-18

VS.

New Jersey Devils (6 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-28-6 (102)

This is probably the first round game that I have the least interest in. I don’t think either of these teams could win more than one series, but I won’t sell either of them short. Florida hasn’t been to the playoffs in more than a decade and they only made it to the playoffs because they played in the worst division in hockey. Jose Theodore will be in net for this series and he hasn’t had a ton of success this year. The injury bug bit him and the net in Florida had a built-in revolving door. I believe that inconsistency will hurt the Panthers in the end. On the other side, the Devils have the best goalie in the modern game. They have good scorers in Parise and Kovalchuk, but the team only averages 2.63 goals per game, which notches them in 15th in the NHL. Either way, this series could be a crapshoot. So I’ll go with the veteran goalie and the dynamic scorers in New Jersey.

My prediction: New Jersey in 6

Season Series Record: Both teams won 2

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Pittsburgh Penguins (4 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-25-6 (108 points)

VS.

Philadelphia Flyers (5 seed)

Regular Season Record: 47-26-9

This is hands down the most intriguing matchup of the first round. It’s obvious that these teams have a fierce rivalry, but it only got heated more in the last week of the season. The teams are very similar in their stats, ranking 1 and 2 in goal scoring (Pittsburgh being 1), 15 and 20 in goals against (Pittsburgh being 15) and the teams are also 5 and 6 on the powerplay (Pittsburgh being 5). The goalies matchup in Pittsburgh’s favor, as Bryzgalov only recently became a shutdown goalie this season. Marc-Andre Fleury already has a cup and he knows what it takes to win it. Philadelphia is relatively clueless when it comes to their goaltender each year, but they’re hoping that changes in the first round. Look for these games to be relatively high scoring and hard checking. Since the Pens lead in every category against the Flyers, I’ll take them 10/10 times.

My prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.

Season Series Record: Flyers won 4 of 6

Game 14 of Remaining 29: Florida at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins: 40-21-5 (85 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

Florida Panthers: 31-23-12 (74 points)

3rd in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

Pittsburgh is going for an eight-straight win while the Panthers are clinging to a two-point lead in the Southeastern Conference. Expect the Cats to put up a fight in this game, but I don’t expect Florida to knock off the red-hot Penguins. My prediction: Pens WIN.

My final 29 prediction record: 5-8

Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

There is still more than a month left before the Stanley Cup playoffs, but this season has already given us plenty of excitement and surprise. So I thought it’d be fun to visit 10 of the biggest surprises this season has offered up so far. So without further ado…

10. The Detroit Red Wings record setting 23-straight wins at home.

Why is this surprising?

I know at first, it isn’t that hard to believe. There is a strong tradition of winning in Detroit and fan support there is always amongst the top in the league. But consider how long this record lasted before this season. The last team to hold the record was the Boston Bruins (22 straight) during 1929-30 and ’30-31. In those days, professional hockey was a much different game. Stars played entire careers with one team and dynasties were more frequent. The current game is ripe with parity and regardless of who you play, there’s always a chance of suffering a loss.

You also have to consider that during the streak, Detroit didn’t have their No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard for a number of games during the final stretch. Howard’s fill-in – Joey MacDonald – won six straight to help break the record. For a backup to achieve a streak like that in pressure situations is pretty admirable.

9. The Buffalo Sabres are out of playoff contention.

Why is this surprising?

After last season, owner Terry Pegula vowed to spend heaps of money to turn Buffalo into a Stanley Cup contender. To sure up the blue line, he signed Christian Ehrhoff through 2021 at a cap hit of $4 million. He also brought on Robyn Regehr for about the same price through 2013. If that wasn’t enough, Pegula snapped up Ville Leino from Philadelphia to increase goal scoring at the hefty price of $4.5 million through 2017. It seemed that Buffalo was going to be a real contender in the 2011-2012 season. But so far, they have been a disappointment. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. The stars Pegula brought in are having down years and their best player, goaltender Ryan Miller, just hasn’t looked himself for much of the season. He has had some injury problems and the backup Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been able to help during Miller’s absences. The Sabres still have a shot at making the postseason, but the team really needs to turn up the intensity in its remaining 17 games.

8. Concussions are increasing at a high rate.

Why is this surprising?

The expansion of Rule 48, plain and simple. After losing the face of the league (Sidney Crosby) and a number of others to concussions last season, NHL officials met in the offseason and expanded rule 48 to eliminate the dangerous hits to the head that were causing many of the concussions in the NHL. Check out this quote from an article written by Dan Rosen of NHL.com last year:

“There were hits this year that we want eliminated from the game and we need to make sure we don’t end up back in this situation again next year,” said former NHL veteran Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “Without getting real specific, players and managers, and as my thinking would be, the Board of Governors and our Board, want to keep the physical play in and want to put some onus on guys being aware on the ice, but at the same time there are hits that we want to rid ourselves of. By expanding Rule 48, we’re hoping to be able to do that.”

That didn’t happen.

This is just a sample set of the players who suffered concussions this season so far: Sidney Crosby Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Michael Sauer, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Kris Letang, Chris Pronger,  Zbynek Michalek, Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Beagle, Milan Michalek, Brayden Schenn, Radek Martinek, Marek Zidlicky, Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Toews.

Brendan Shanahan, the director of player discipline, has handed out his fair share of suspensions stemming from concussion-causing hits this season, but obviously the suspensions and the rule expansion haven’t done enough to take head-shots out of the game.

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are the highest scoring team in the NHL.

Why is this surprising?

This past offseason, the Flyers gutted the scoring of their team. They sent their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. From 2007-2011, he averaged 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points per season. The Flyers also sent center Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets. From 2007-2011, he averaged 36 goals, 30 assists and 66 points per season. And not to go unnoticed, Philadelphia also lost Ville Leino to Buffalo. Last season, he scored 19 goals, 34 assists and 53 points.

It seemed that the Flyers were losing a ton of firepower to free up cap room to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But despite those players and their juicy numbers going elsewhere, the Flyers have still averaged 3.25 goals per game. They have scored 208 goals this season, six more than second ranked Boston. The Flyers have managed to climb to the top of the scoring list by getting help from a number of different players. Scott Hartnell leads the team with 31 goals, followed by Claude Giroux’s 23 and 22 from Wayne Simmonds. Currently, the Flyers have 10 players with 10 or more goals.

6. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Why is this surprising?

Last year, the Lightning was the team to beat in the postseason. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay surged to win three straight to win the series. Then they easily swept Washington in the second round. And in the Eastern Conference finals, it took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins seven games to finish off the Lightning. Steven Stamkos was coming into his own (and is currently the league leader in goals (47) and points (80)) and the veteran leadership of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is still there. So what is so different between this year’s team and last year’s?

Goaltending.

Somehow, Dwayne Roloson was outstanding last season with the Bolts, especially in the playoffs. Everyone predicted that the 41-year-old net minder was too old to carry the team, but that’s exactly what he did. Now, it seems that his age has finally caught up to him. Add in the fact that the Tampa Bay blueliners are relatively poor and haven’t provided their goalies with much help all season long. But even though the situation for Tampa has looked dismal for most of this season, they remain only two points out of a playoff spot and six points back of the Southeast Division lead.

5. The Florida Panthers may win the Southeast Division.

Why is this surprising?

The Panthers haven’t made the postseason in 10 years. It is the longest drought in all of hockey.  Although the Southeast Division is shaky at best, the winner will reap the benefits of a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers have led the division for the majority of the season. Over the past few weeks, the position has wavered, allowing both the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals to claim the top spot for a few games. But the fact remains that the Panthers have been the best team in that division for the majority of the season and they probably deserve to win the Southeast.

Florida has been led by the stellar scoring line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Collectively, the three have scored 58 goals, 83 assists and 141 points. And even though the goaltending staff had to mix and match because of injuries (starter Jose Theodore has started only 37 games) it has managed to win 30 games between Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom to post a solid .915 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.64. Those numbers may just be good enough for a division win come April.

4. The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Why is this surprising?

For starters, Vegas gave the Caps 7/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup before the season. The only other team given the same odds was the Vancouver Canucks, which came within a game of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware last season. The Caps were favorites for a win because of their scoring depth, with guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. They also had a solid defense with outstanding blue liner Mike Green and experienced veterans Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. Goaltending seemed like it could be an issue, but Washington management was confident that sending their previous starter Semyon Varlamov to Colorado wouldn’t hinder the 2011-2012 season because of the young talent of Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and acquired veteran Tomas Vokoun.

But unfortunately for Washington, this season has been sub-par at best. They are ranked 21 in goals against per game and they rank 13th in goal scoring. After an 8-0 start, Washington has won more than two games in a row only three times this season. But because the Capitals are in the weak Southeast Division, they still stand a chance at making the playoffs and are currently only one point out of the playoff picture.

3. The Flyers goaltending woes continue.

Why is this surprising?

They Flyers haven’t had a dependable goaltender for close to a decade. After last season, the Flyers organization decided it had enough and on June 23, 2011, Philadelphia signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The length of the contract was unprecedented for goalies in the NHL, but the Flyers had good reason to think it was a good move. Bryzgalov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and a top-5 finalist for the Hart Trophy in the 2009–10 NHL season. His career goals-against average was an admirable 2.39 and his career save percentage was .915. He had also won more than 150 games in less than 10 seasons in the NHL. When the Flyers signed him, he was easily in the top-10 of goalies in the NHL and perhaps even the top five.

But this season has not been kind to Bryzgalov.

Although he has 23 wins this season, his save percentage is a paltry .898 (the worst of his career) and his goals-against average is 2.79, the second worst of his career. Bryz hasn’t looked comfortable between the pipes in Philly this season. And in the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette elected to start last year’s No. 1 goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was clearly upset with the decision and it was a clear sign that the team’s confidence in him has wavered. Philly still has a solid team with the most scoring in the league, but if Bryzgalov cannot find his mojo before the playoffs, the Flyers Stanley Cup hopes just may fade away this season.

2. St. Louis is only two points back of the overall lead in the NHL

Why is this surprising?

St. Louis has been a perennial bust. They have not won a playoff game since 2003-2004 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001-2002. The team also has not qualified for the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But this season, after a 6-7 start that left St. Louis in 14th place in the Western Conference, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne in favor of Ken Hitchcock, a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience and the 4th Blues head coach since 2006.

The move paid off.

Currently St. Louis is in second in the Western Conference and only one point back from first place Vancouver. The Blues have one of the best defenses in all of the NHL and are the league leaders in goals allowed per game (1.89), have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (125) and are fourth in the NHL in plus/minus (plus-41). But best aspect of this team is between the pipes. Which leads us to…

1. Brian Elliott’s phenomenal year.

Why is this surprising?

No one could have predicted the year that goaltender Brian Elliott is having. His save percentage of .937 is second in the NHL and his goals-against average of 1.63 is tops in the league. The 26-year-old goalie also ranks third in shutouts with six. These stats are drastically better than his career numbers. In Elliott’s first four seasons – the majority of which were with the Ottawa Senators – his average save percentage was .912 and his goals-against average was 2.67. Elliott has only 20 wins this season, but that is only because he is effectively splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, who is having a tremendous season of his own. With these backstops holding the fort in St. Louis, who knows what the Blues will be capable of in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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