NHL at the Midway: East Is Least, West Is a Test
With the Winter Classic energizing 105,000-plus crazy, freezing, fans in Michigan today, it's the unofficial midway point of the 2013-2014 season.
These truisms are evident this season: the West is better than the East, and the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference is the weakest division to date in hockey.
Pittsburgh has the overall lead in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, but the drop-off after that to Washington is 45 points. The Penguins should easily win the division, but injuries have started to mount for them and it may have an effect in the playoffs. Right behind Washington in the division is Philadelphia, and the Flyers are just not that good.
With the top three teams from each division making the playoffs along with two wild cards, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Montréal have 54, 50, and 50 points respectively and would be in the playoffs in the Atlantic Division. Two more teams from the Atlantic, Detroit and Toronto, would be the wild cards, so if teams like the Rangers, Devils, and Hurricanes want to make the playoffs, they'll have to finish in the top three of their division.
The Western Conference is loaded, and it starts with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago and Anaheim are the points leaders with 63. The Blackhawks have played without star goalie Corey Crawford for weeks and still lead the Central Division by four points over up-and-coming St Louis. Colorado is third in the division with new coach Patrick Roy, who knew nothing but winning in his great career. Along with the Ducks, San José and Los Angeles would be in the playoffs with the wild cards being Vancouver and Phoenix.
In the NHL, it rarely matters where you finish, as long as you finish in the playoffs. They're a two-month marathon where goalies sparkle and injuries mount. Ask the Los Angeles Kings from two years ago. They finished eighth in the conference, made the finals, and beat the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils for the Stanley Cup.
It will no doubt be a crazy finish again this year, what with three weeks off for the Olympic break compressing the regular season schedule like it did last season. Teams are enduring patches like three games in four nights; that works in baseball, but it's a taxing gauntlet in hockey.
So, for all the teams, getting every point is essential, as just getting into the tournament can sometimes lead to a championship.