By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
For teams like the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, this is the most desperate part of the season.
Those three teams will fight it out for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with the survivor will likely serving as cannon fodder for the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens when the playoffs get underway.
For the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, this is a time when patience will be tested. The season has reached the final quarter and the postseason is just around the corner.
Alain Vigneault and Jack Capuano have to do their best long-range coaching at this point in the season. Yes, it’s important to win games down the stretch and not take anything for granted, but the most important thing to do is to make sure each of these teams is in peak form when the games that really matter get underway in mid-April.
That’s because both of these teams have a legitimate chance to go a long way.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Rangers want the whole ball of wax this time around, and losing in the championship round would be twice as frustrating.
The Islanders are no worse than the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. They have handled No. 2 (the Rangers) quite well this season and have no fear of the Habs, either.
Still, getting to the conference finals or the Stanley Cup Final and then losing would be an acceptable result for the Islanders. It’s been a long time since they have been an elite team and they figure to be even better next season. It would be great to to see them get to the Stanley Cup Final and give a good accounting, but it is not essential as long as the team stays on track and does not flame out in the first round.
But the Rangers have a team that is capable of winning the whole thing, and the pressure will be on the second the second season starts. It will be difficult, but they beat the Habs in last season’s conference finals, and appear to be a better and more consistent team than they were a year ago.
The Canadiens could be much more formidable than they were a year ago if goaltender Carey Price remains healthy. Remember, Price got hurt early during the series against the Rangers, and while backup Dustin Tokarski was quite competitive, he is not Price.
The Rangers probably have more speed than the Canadiens and the big difference between this season’s team and last season’s is quite obvious: Rick Nash is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate after going along as a passenger in 2013-14. Nash is in better shape and far more aggressive than he was a year ago, and he has sustained his excellence throughout the season.
If the Eastern Conference finals comes down to the Canadiens and the Rangers again, this time the winner should have a much better chance of bringing home the Stanley Cup.
The Western Conference is still strong, but the top teams are not as formidable as they have been in the past. The Los Angeles Kings have struggled for most of the season and while they have often played indifferent regular season hockey only to turn it on in the postseason, they don’t have the same kind of personnel they had last season.
They appear particularly vulnerable on the blue line, and that has been the case since Slava Voynov was suspended early in the season following an alleged domestic violence incident that resulted in him being charged with a felony.
Voynov’s absence has taken away the balance that the Kings had on defense, and that’s one of the reasons why they are vulnerable.
So are the Chicago Blackhawks. The most obvious reason is the broken clavicle suffered by Patrick Kane on Tuesday night that will keep him out about 12 weeks. If the Blackhawks can survive their first two rounds of the playoffs, Kane could possibly return for the Western Conference finals.
That’s very unlikely because Kane has been the team’s magic man in the postseason. He specializes in clutch goals and his signature is scoring overtime winners. Even though Kane was enjoying his best season, the Blackhawks weren’t. After a strong December, they have been quite ordinary in January and February as goals have been hard to come by for this once-formidable offensive team.
Nashville, St. Louis and Anaheim are all nice teams, but they would likely feel plenty of pressure if they got to the Stanley Cup Final.
The East is a three-team dogfight between the Rangers, Islanders and Habs. Look for the survivor to bring the Stanley Cup back to the Eastern Conference for the first time in four years.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy