The pros and cons of the East's last eight contenders
Posted: Wednesday March 15, 2006 1:37PM; Updated: Wednesday March 15, 2006 2:39PM
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur has been shaky, getting pulled in his last two starts, but he's usually money when it matters.
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There's no X beside their names in the official NHL standings to signify the clinching of a postseason berth, but Carolina, Ottawa, Buffalo, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers have all but locked up their spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And with just Pittsburgh and Washington certain to be watching the games on TV, that leaves eight teams in contention -- at least mathematically -- for the final three slots.
Arguments can be made for the fates of each of these contenders, no matter which way you want to roll. Let's sort 'em out.
New Jersey Devils
Why They'll Make It: The superlative netminding of Martin Brodeur was good enough to get Canada's gang that couldn't shoot straight into the Olympic medal round. It should be good enough to get the Devils into the NHL's version of the Sweet 16.
New Jersey won nine in a row after Lou Lamoriello took over as coach in January, so they're capable of running off a nice streak in the final month. They've been a sub-.500 team (8-9) of late, but they've beaten the Flyers and Rangers recently by playing traditional Devils hockey, eking out 2-1 wins on the road. If they can recapture with some consistency what makes them the Devils, they'll have their spot.
Why They Won't: No Scott Stevens. No Scott Niedermayer. The absence of those two bulwarks has troubled the team all season, but their leadership is missed more sorely now than ever.
The Devils play nine of their final 17 games against teams ahead of them in the standings, and just eight at home. It's a fair schedule, but not friendly, making it difficult to pick up ground. Giving up 12 goals in their last two games -- against the Isles and the Pens -- has to be a major concern.
In or Out: They're the Devils. They'll manage to find a way in.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Why They'll Make It: The defending champs are loaded with players who know how to band together to pick up critical wins. Superstars like Vinnie Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards are exactly the type of guys you want to go into battle with.
The Lightning play 11 of their final 16 at the St. Pete Times Forum. Although it's hard to call them "friendly confines," it beats having to go on the road. They get the Thrashers -- one of the teams they're battling for a spot -- three times, all at home. They also face the Panthers four times, Washington twice and Pittsburgh once. In total, they Lightning play just five games against teams ahead of them in the standings. If they can't pick up the easy points, they don't deserve to be there.
Why They Won't: When the season comes to an end, GM Jay Feaster will be roasted for not addressing the team's goaltending woes, the weakest link in the Lightning lineup at the trade deadline. But his real mistake was waiting that long when it was evident early on that Sean Burke and John Grahame were too inconsistent to carry this team as far as was hoped.
They're also a team rumbling downhill and picking up steam. Since the Olympic break, Tampa's lost six of eight by a combined score of 44-20. Giving up 5½ goals a night won't cut it.
Last season, they won games by sheer force of will. Now this is a team that looks like its confidence is shot. Tuesday night's last-second loss to Ottawa is evidence of that.
In or Out: You gotta knock out the champs. They're still standing, but it's only going to take two or three more blows before it's lights out.