The All-Star break is two weeks away, there is roughly 40-42 games left in the season and we have to start talking playoff hockey now. The Eastern Conference is not all that difficult to guess this season, aside from the Sabres, Canadiens and Islanders having surprisingly good seasons, the rest of the East is what we expected it to look like. The Atlantic and Metro are not going to change, aside from maybe the Penguins moving to the one spot and Bruins moving to the two spot, we essentially know six of the playoff teams in the East right now. The question is though what teams will have the wild card(s) spot? Let’s break it down.
A major surprise this year after going 29-40-13 finishing 6th in the Atlantic and 14th in the Conference the Canadiens have come into this year playing rather consistent hockey, and even so some of it has been without Shea Weber and Carey Price. The Canadiens are 22-14-5 with 49 points, 4th in the Atlantic and in the 2nd Wild Card spot right now behind Buffalo by one point.
The Canadiens score the 12th most goals in the league (128) but the 6th most goals among Eastern Conference teams. They allow 128 goals against as well (11th), they average 3.12 goals per game (12th) and allow 3.12 goals per game the 10th most among NHL teams. There power play is ranked 30th in the NHL at 13.1 percent while their penalty kill is at 77.4 percent coming in at 22nd in the NHL. Aside from special teams, they are near the top-15 in terms of scoring/defense and have the 3rd most shots on goal per game in the NHL.
Not to mention the Canadiens played 24 games without their captain Shea Weber, as well as 10 games without their number one goalie Carey Price. They have Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin over-achieving on many levels right now as well as the right role guys getting the job done. In a sense this Canadiens looks very similar to the New Jersey Devils from last year. Looking at the Canadiens production this year with three guys at 30+ points, five at 20+ points and two at 15+ points they are getting solid depth production. Tomas Tartar with 31 points, Jeff Petry with 29 points, Phillip Danault with 27 points, Andrew Shaw and Brendan Gallagher with 24 points the players the Canadiens needed the most to step up and rise to the occasion this year have so far and it is a major reason why they are a border line playoff team 40 games into the season. Realistically the Canadiens are over-achieving a little bit right now, but the race is so close and the Canadiens can get back a healthy Carey Price they can sneak into the playoffs. Truthfully, I see the Canadiens making it.
New York Islanders:
A pleasant surprise here, we all knew Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz would turn this team around after the departure of John Tavares but we did not think this fast. The Islanders were a bit of a disappointment last season finishing 11th in the East and 7th in the Metropolitan division they needed to get back to the drawing board. That board included letting Tavares walk but singing some much needed depth guys, a Stanley Cup winning coach and storied general manager.
Well, the Islanders are now one point out of a playoff spot, 22-13-4 with 48 points and two games in hand on Buffalo and Montreal. They score just 115 goals on the year (22nd) but also only allow 101 (the least among all NHL teams). They average 2.95 goals per game (17th) and allow 2.59 goals per game. Their power play comes in at 23rd in the NHL at 16.4 percent while their penalty kill is 25th at 77.0 percent. Again like the Canadiens their special teams do not click but the Islanders young blue line and dual goalie-tandem has proven they can stand the test this season.
The Islanders dealt with a little bit of dry spell per say from Matt Barzal where many fans and reporters where questioning the young forwards capability and consistency. Luckily the Islanders relied on veteran forwards like Anders Lee, Valtteri Filppula as well as Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner in net. With the recent spark of Barzal, the Islanders are starting to make their case for playoff hockey now. If they can get a little more CONSISTENT production out of forwards like Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson this team can be a sure playoff team.
Barzal leads all Islanders with 38 points in 39 games, along with 26 assists and third in goals. Anders Lee leads the Islanders with 14 goals, Nelson has 13 and Barzal with twelve. The Islanders have seen a huge upgrade on defense, not necessarily adding players but their current top-six defenseman have done a great job on the back end, as well the Islanders goaltending has been A LOT more consistent this season. The only doubt I have in this Islanders team is their goaltending, their offense will continue to produce at around 3-3.2 goals per game, therefore if their goaltending and back end can hold up, the Islanders could potentially be a playoff team. I believe the Islanders do crack the wild card this year, and make that final wild card spot.
I know we did not touch on the Buffalo Sabres in this article, as they are one point ahead of Montreal and two ahead of the Islanders, I did not touch on them because I believe the Sabres fall out. They have been super inconsistent, they do not have enough veteran leadership in that locker room, they have been way to streaky to get a true grip on them. Honestly, I believe when push comes to shove around the 62 game mark the Islanders and Canadiens are going to be better built for that tough stretch and edge out Buffalo.