The Washington Capitals are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference this year. Many savvy onlookers picked them before the season began, and they’ve done nothing to dispel their supporters’ faith through the first 50 games. After being toppled by the rival New York Rangers in the second round last May, they find themselves firmly entrenched as the frontrunners for the Presidents’ trophy, with 74 points through 47 games. In short, they’re an improved club with an extremely talented roster that seems hungrier than ever to finally make that elusive deep run through the playoffs.
Problem is, their reputation precedes them. They haven’t advanced past the second round since 1998, despite boasting some pretty daunting lineups in that time. And while they feature some new emerging dynamics that make them appear better than ever this time around (an additional breakout star in Evgeny Kuznetsov and the frontrunner for the Vezina in Braden Holtby), nothing is guaranteed.
So while fans in D.C. hold their collective breath for April (and beyond), let’s take a look at some of the clubs that have the upside to catch fire when the games matter most. You know, just in case Washington slips up at all…
Tampa Bay Lightning (27-18-4)
Last year’s Eastern Conference representatives got off to a horrendous start to the 2015-16 campaign. Tyler Johnson was unproductive, then hurt, as was linemate Ondrej Palat. Quite frankly, production was down pretty much across the board — with the exception of netminder Ben Bishop. On top of that, the organization has had to deal with the idea that Jonathan Drouin — their No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft — isn’t happy and would prefer a trade. Good times.
The Lightning have started winning anyway, though. A lot. Over their last ten contests, they’re 8-2.
And they’ve rediscovered that offense that made them so dangerous a year ago. After leading the NHL in goals per game (3.16) in 2014-15, they found themselves hovering near the very bottom of the league for the first couple months of this season. They’ve taken off lately though, potting 29 in their last ten outings. Suddenly, they’re up to 11th in the league in goals per game (2.61). Think of them as the Anaheim Ducks… except, you know, they’re actually scoring.
That makes things interesting in the East. Following last year’s impressive run that culminated in a hotly contested Game 6 defeat at the hands of Chicago in the Cup Final, it seemed pretty feasible that we could see a Stanley Cup rematch in 2015-16. The Blackhawks are playing well enough to potentially hold up their end of the bargain. Is Tampa back on track as well?
New York Rangers (27-17-5)
When you have a hot goaltender, you can do almost anything in the postseason. New York tends to have that luxury on an annual basis with Lundqvist in net. Especially in Game 7 situations, where he’s virtually unbeatable.
On top of that, the Rangers are battle-tested, having reached at least the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the past two seasons. This is an experienced locker room that knows how to win games with the season on the line.
Problem is, this might also be a fatigued team because of that very same experience. Over the last five years, they’ve participated in 14 playoff series. That’s a pretty big number. And many of those have gone the full seven games.
Granted, this isn’t the exact same roster that played all those games. But that’s an undeniably large amount of extra hockey, and the NHL postseason can take quite the physical — and mental — toll on a lineup. Even the Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs last year after hoisting the Cup twice in the three previous seasons. That’s not to say New York won’t be there, and be a tough out for whoever faces them, when April rolls around. It’s just something to keep in the back of your mind if they happen to stumble. Well, that and the fact that their possession numbers are way down.
New York Islanders (25-16-6)
Are the Islanders going all the way to the Stanley Cup this year? Probably not. That’s the sort of accomplishment that tends to require a couple seasons of varying playoff success first. The Isles haven’t won a best-of-seven since 1993, so they haven’t really met their quota.
Still, it’s at least worth noting that this group looks good when they’re on their game. Really good, in fact. Plus they have a perennial Hart Trophy candidate in John Tavares around to lead the way — not to mention a goalie in Jaroslav Halak that has already dragged a team (Montreal, in 2010) through the postseason once before. Whether they’re ready to make a run or not, they’re at least capable of ruining someone else’s season and shaking up the whole playoff bracket.
Pittsburgh Penguins (24-17-7)
Is this one a bit of a stretch? Yeah, maybe. They’ve delivered their fair share of playoff implosions recently, started this season in quicksand, and are only just now scratching and clawing their way back into a wild card spot. Oh yeah, they’re also extremely thin along the blue line.
Then again, they have actually won a Cup in the last decade, unlike any of the other clubs on this list, and they can put two of the top players in the world out on the ice at any time. It’s not crazy to think they might be able to pull off a trade to strengthen the defense in the next month either and, for whatever reason, they always seem to oust the Caps when playoff time rolls around.
So yeah, in terms of teams with the raw upside to go far if they catch a couple breaks, the Pens are on the short list of Eastern Conference contenders capable of doing some damage.
Others to Keep An Eye On: Detroit, Boston, Florida and Montreal (only if Carey Price comes back soon though. Very, very soon…)