Winter break NHL picks review: Eastern Conference

By Jon Roe

Predicted standings:

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Boston Bruins
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins
  4. Carolina Hurricanes
  5. Philadelphia Flyers
  6. New Jersey Devils
  7. Montreal Canadiens
  8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Actual standings:

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. Buffalo Sabres
  4. New Jersey Devils
  5. Atlanta Thrashers
  6. Boston Bruins
  7. Ottawa Senators
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Penguins and Capitals have clicked along as expected, despite injuries to stars Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, respectively, but my other projected division leader, the Boston Bruins, has lagged behind. They’re only one point behind a somewhat surprising Buffalo Sabres squad, though the Sabres have two games in hand. With Ryan Miller playing the way he has for the Sabres, I think we’re looking at what will be a two-horse race for the division lead the rest of the way. I wasn’t sure what to think of a Sabres squad that remained largely unchanged since the year before, but it’s been nothing but positives so far. As for the Bruins, once centre Marc Savard returns, their so-so offence should pick up. Both Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas have filled the net admirably throughout the season, so there’s no reason to count them out of the division lead at the end of the year.

What to say about the Carolina Hurricanes? They went from an underachieving squad to a severely injured underachieving squad in short order. It’s time to start moving some high-salaried, veteran bodies and look to next year.

In their place, sitting second in the Southeast Division so far, are the Atlanta Thrashers. Ilya Kovalchuk is playing like somebody who is either looking forward to the Olympics or getting the hell out of dodge at the end of the year, with 15 goals in 18 games so far. They’ve also gotten good goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec in place of the perpetually injured goalie of the future Kari Lehtonen, so it’s no wonder they’ve climbed up to where they are.

New Jersey Devils have easily stepped through the coaching change and with Zach Parise leading the way, they should be set to make the playoffs again this year.

At the bottom of the playoff picture, the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning are currently holding the fort down. But really, between fifth and 13th in the east right now, the only difference is a few game slide or a sudden surge. Though the Florida Panthers are dropping off the map a bit, expect the race for the bottom four playoff spots to be highly contested until the end of the year.

The Philadelphia Flyers and suspension-machine Chris Pronger currently sit out of the playoffs, but I doubt they’ll finish the year there with that roster. My other two choices for playoff spots, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, are out of the playoff picture and need to improve significantly to make their way back in. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy that the Maple Leafs are doing so poorly because it’s enjoyable to see the team and its fans suffer, or to be sad because my pick was so horribly off. I never really wanted to make the pick in the first place, but was apparently drinking the same Kool-Aid as the rest of the Toronto sports media. It is highly unlikely they’ll turn it around, and it looks like, amusingly, the Maple Leafs sent a lottery pick to Boston in that Phil Kessel deal. I was obviously tremendously wrong, but am fairly happy at the result.

As for the Canadiens, well, they’ve been bit by the injury bug, including right away on opening night when they lost key defenceman Andrei Markov. Carey Price, after a lull, has improved his play, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough scoring options on this team. They are 27th in scoring in the league, heading into Wednesday, and there isn’t much help on the horizon. I wouldn’t count them out, but they’re facing an uphill climb for the playoffs.

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