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Puckin' Around With Spector

Teams on the Bubble.

It’s a brand new year, meaning the current NHL schedule is getting close to the mid-way point, the period when the true playoff contenders begin to separate from the pretenders in the standings.

Barring miraculous comebacks in the second half, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders have almost no chance of securing a playoff berth this season.

By month’s end, several clubs could be joining them among the “also-rans”.

In the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers are mired in another lengthy mid-season slump, similar to those which have scuttled their playoff hopes every year since 2007. Credit a lack of second-line scoring and quality blueline depth for their current woes. Another couple of weeks at their current pace, and the Oilers will be out of it.

Beyond the Oilers, it becomes tougher to determine which of the other Western Conference clubs currently sitting out the playoff picture could drop out entirely by month’s end.

As of January 4th, only ten points separated fourth overall Detroit Red Wings from the 12th overall Calgary Flames, who also sat only four points out of eighth overall, with the Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche between them and that coveted berth.

Third overall currently belongs to the Los Angeles Kings, who’ve shown some improvement under new head coach Darryl Sutter, holding a narrow lead over the Sharks, Stars and Coyotes in the Pacific Division.

The Flames and Avalanche could be the teams to fall out of this picture in the coming weeks. The Flames lack of offensive depth remains an issue, while the Avalanche’s maddening inconsistency could remain a factor over the rest of the season. Unless these teams make moves to bolster their respective lineups, they could be no match for the depth and experience of the Sharks and Coyotes.

Even the Stars aren’t a lock for a playoff berth. They’re a better team than they were a year ago, but injuries have dogged them, resulting in a 10-12-1 record since mid-November. More injuries, or failure to put together a winning record in January, could doom their post-season hopes.

In the Eastern Conference, the picture appears a little clearer.

The Montreal Canadiens suffered a serious meltdown in December, winning only four games, and appear on the verge of collapse.

Sub-par goaltending and an injury-depleted blueline have hampered the Tampa Bay Lightning. These issues could cost them a return engagement to the post-season if they are not addressed soon.

In Buffalo, the Sabres haven’t been the same since Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic went all but unchallenged for running over goaltender Ryan Miller in a mid-November game, giving rise to rumors struggling forwards Derek Roy and Drew Stafford could be shopped.

A combination of poor goaltending, lack of second line scoring and a crummy penalty kill have knocked the Toronto Maple Leafs out of playoff positioning for the first time this season.

The rebuilding Ottawa Senators have exceeded expectations, but they’ve given up the most goals of all teams, a trait which if unaddressed will eventually scuttle their playoff dreams.

As of January 4th, the Washington Capitals have climbed back into the playoff standings, tied for seventh with the New Jersey Devils , while the Winnipeg Jets were one point back, in ninth place.

The Capitals and Devils,however,have the talent and experience to enable them to lock down post-season berths, while the Jets are proving to be a better club than many observers gave them credit to begin the season. It wouldn’t be surprising if they hang onto a playoff spot.

Bear in mind, of course, nothing’s set in stone for these aforementioned teams. Healthier lineups, acquiring talent via trades, or improved consistency could result in any of these teams moving up into the standings to secure a playoff spot.

Indeed, those which are currently ahead of them could struggle with injuries and/or consistency, knocking them further down the standings and perhaps opening up space for those sitting on the outside looking in.

For those teams currently with either tenuous holds on playoff berths, or are in danger of falling out of the picture entirely,  January could become their “make-or-break”month.

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SYF's avatar

Sub-par goaltending and an injury-depleted blueline have hampered the Tampa Bay Lightning. These issues could cost them a return engagement to the post-season if they are not addressed soon.

I would not be surprised if they try to make a move for Nabokov from the Isles.  If the Bolts’ goaltending can shore up, even with a decimated defense corps, at least it buys them time a little bit of time for their defensemen to recover from their injuries.

Posted by SYF from impossible and oddly communally possessive sluts on 01/04/12 at 03:47 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.