by Mike Chen on 12/29/09 at 03:14 PM ET
With the turn of the calendar year nearly upon us, it’s time to look at the standings. I’ve always maintained that the first unofficial throw-in-the-towel marker is the end of December; basically, by my logic if you’re not hovering around .500 by this time, then it’s time to start looking at the draft lottery. Which is, of course, appropriate since the World Junior Championships are going on right now. Convenient, right?
So with that said, it’s good bye Columbus, see you later Edmonton, best wishes Carolina, nice hustle Islanders, and good try Toronto. I know, not exactly earth-shattering proclamations. Still, many hockey fans would probably still give Columbus and maybe even the Islanders and Leafs an outside chance.
How can we cross them off the list when they’re within a handful of points of a playoff spot? Here’s my reasoning.
First off, you have to look at games played. The Islanders, Blue Jackets, and Leafs have played more games than the teams ahead of them. Three games in hand may not seem like much in December but you can bet that it means a hell of a lot come March.
After that, it’s all about practicality. The teams that compete for the lower half of playoff seedings tend to linger around .500. One team might go on a strong five-game winning streak, but it’ll lose three in a row shortly after. You’re not going to get too many miracle runs like the Washington Capitals two years ago, and at the same time, you’re not going to get total self-implosion like the Phoenix Coyotes (5th place at the All-Star break) last year.
It’s not just about making up points, it’s also about vaulting past teams. With a second-half focus on conference play, everything becomes amplified. If you’re scrapping for points, chances are your opponent is too, and that happens on a night-in, night-out basis. Because of this, you wind up with a big group of teams advancing as a pack as they win some and lose some.
The trick, then, is for any team to go on a strong surge, a light-sout ten-game run where they rack up wins and points. But the problem with those runs is that they’re usually followed by a letdown. If a team can take that leap forward and then maintain .500 play for the rest of the season, they’ll rise above the pack.
You also have to look at each team’s individual deficiencies and see if they’ve got enough to overcome it to put together a .650 or so winning percentage over the next 40 games. That’ll be awfully rough, and the only team that might have a chance of pulling it off is Columbus, and that’s if Steve Mason goes on a lights-out tear.
That’s why I don’t see much hope for the teams mentioned above. Sure, Columbus may put together a strong winning streak to claw above .500 again, but what are the chances that they won’t hit another bump in the road? In today’s NHL, it’s terribly difficult to make up lost ground, and while you may theoretically have a chance to win every night, bad tendencies have transformed into bad habits come January.
However, the teams between 5th and 13th in the conference, it’s an interesting and exciting time. Parity has its pros and cons, but for games to have playoff implications at the turn of the calendar year makes it infinitely more interesting to watch when you’re selecting your evening’s Center Ice menu. Let the next stage begin.
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