The NHL season is right around the one-third mark as every team in the league have reached 30 games played on the season. There are a few teams that have logged as many as 33 games at this point in time and it’s starting to become clear which teams are starting to create a little separation between themselves and the rest of the pack. Racking up wins and points is important at this point in time as the top three teams in the divisions are guaranteed playoff spots; everyone else has to battle for the two wild card spots.
That makes every point in the standings extremely important: ask the Kings from last season. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in the 2013-14 season but got off to a slow start last season. They rallied to finish the year 40-27-15 for 95 points but finished fourth in the Pacific Division, two points behind the third place Flames. They were unable to secure a wild card spot as the Wild (100 points) and Jets (99) each had more points than even Calgary did; that left the defending champs with a long offseason to sulk and lament about missed opportunities.
At this point of the season, who are the frontrunners to emerge as the Eastern Conference champions that will try to bring the Stanley Cup back to the conference for the first time since the Boston Bruins won it during the 2010-11 season? We’ll take a look at a couple of the potential candidates that could end up with the Prince of Wales Trophy when the regular season comes to an end.
Sooner or later, the Washington Capitals will be able to transition their regular season success to the playoffs and make a deep run. They have tremendous depth and great talent in their top six forwards. The team boasts an elite sniper in Alex Ovechkin, who has six 50 goal seasons and five Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal scorer in an era where goals are harder to come by. T.J. Oshie was a tremendous get for the Capitals to slot in on the second line and when you can have a former Conn Smythe winner in Justin Williams as a third line guy, you know you have depth.
Nicklas Backstrom is a solid pivot and sets up Ovechkin to put the biscuit in the basket. His presence has helped younger guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson not have to press too much to be instant contributors on the offensive end of the ice. Ideally, the Capitals would like to pick up a solid left wing to add to their mix as Jason Chimera is not really on par with the likes of Backstrom, Ovechkin, Williams and Oshie to say the least.
Washington has a great group on the blue line that is led by John Carlson, who has scored six goals and added 18 assists for 24 points so far this year. Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen are the type of defensively responsible blue liners that the Capitals have lacked in recent years. There was too much of the Mike Green type of defenseman in Washington and that led to too many odd man rushes and breakaways for the opposition. With the Capitals playing a more well-rounded concept now, it’s made life easier for Washington to win close, low scoring games. If Brooks Orpik can come back from his lower body injury and throw himself around with reckless abandon to be a physical presence, the Capitals are in good shape there.
Braden Holtby has been almost unbeatable in net this season: he’s 20-4-1 with a 1.83 GAA and a .935 save percentage plus one shutout. He’s been credited as being 13.33 goals above average, which is similar to the wins above replacement stat you see in basketball and baseball. Throw in the fact that he had nine shutouts in the regular season a year ago and led the league with a 1.71 GAA and a .944 save percentage in the postseason and it’s safe to say that Holtby can steal a few games in the playoffs for Washington.
New York Rangers
The toughest part for the Capitals is the fact that one of the toughest teams other than them in the Eastern Conference is right in their division. The Rangers enter Friday’s action sitting just four points behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan standings. New York has racked up a 19-10-4 record on the year so Washington does have three games in hand. The Rangers have stumbled a bit of late, going 3-5-2 in their last ten games and they are a .500 team on the road but there is a lot of talent for the Blueshirts.
The Rangers are 6th in the league in scoring with 2.9 goals per game and 4th in goals against as they allow 2.3 per contest. The special teams are excellent as the Rangers are 6th in the league in both power play percentage (21.6 percent) and in penalty killing (84 percent) so far this year. Eleven players have put up double digit point totals for the Rangers so far this season with four posting double digit goal totals. Mats Zuccarello has potted a team high 14 goals and also leads the team with 27 points so far this season. The Rangers will only get stronger as three key components of their lineup are missing at the moment: Derek Stepan is out with broken ribs, while defensemen Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi are out with an oblique and a knee injury, respectively.
With Stepan out, the Rangers have gotten nice production from Oscar Lindberg, who has 10 goals and seven assists in what is his rookie season. Rick Nash continues to be a reliable contributor though I’m sure the Rangers would love more than 10 goals based on the fact that they’re paying him $7.9 million this season. Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, 39 year old Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle are doing a great job on the blue line. Yandle has one goal and 16 assists on the season; he was well worth the price the Rangers had to pay to acquire him. That package included Anthony Duclair, John Moore, a 2nd round pick in 2015 and a 1st round selection next year.
When it comes to stopping the puck as the last line of defense, the Rangers have one of the best goaltenders in the league as Henrik Lundqvist is still at the top of his game at the age of 33. Lundqvist has gone 15-6-3 with a 2.14 GAA, a .933 save percentage and two shutouts in 25 games this season. He has rated 13.34 goals above average this season and has been credited with 6.4 goalie point shares, meaning that he has been worth 6.4 points in the standings over an average goalie. That number is tops in the league so far this season and continues to show Lundqvist’s ability in net to influence the final result. He’s battle tested with 111 playoff appearances under his belt as well.
Cream of the Crop?
The Capitals and Rangers are clearly the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. Montreal is a good team but they’ve been without Carey Price most of the season with a series of injuries. One has to wonder if he’ll be sharp when he eventually returns to the ice. The Islanders have started strong but seem to lack the depth, especially up front, to deal with the Rangers and Capitals. Detroit is aging and Boston is still trying to figure out which pieces go where after changing things up in the offseason.
If one had to make a call as to who would be the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Finals, serious consideration would have to go to the Rangers or Capitals provided that those teams stay healthy and avoid crippling injuries to their key personnel.