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Premium Article Driving To The Net (03/16)

March 16, 2011
Driving To The Net
Final Push in the Eastern Conference

by Timo Seppa

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Very early on in New Jersey's turnaround, I was on record saying that Jacques Lemaire's Devils would make things very, very interesting, but that they would ultimately fall just short—that Lou Lamoriello's moves to bring back Lemaire and to ship out problematic captain Jamie Langenbrunner had come too little, too late. You can check out my earlier analysis here, here, here, and here, as well as in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11. But I have to say…I'm having second thoughts.

Yes, New Jersey's chances still show up at less than 5% for most sites calculating the odds, but as I've said before, that's mixing the pathetic MacLean-and-Langenbrunner Devils of the first half of the season with a team akin to the early season Devils of 2009-10 (they were a .757 team before Christmas 2009). It's as severely underestimating New Jersey's chances as the bandwagon jumpers have been overestimating their chances.

So what are New Jersey's true chances of making the postseason? Already significantly better than the Hurricanes, and starting to get within a whisker of the rival Rangers, though that might not be apparent at a glance. First, let's take a look at the standings at the end of play last night, to get a conventional view:

Eastern Conference standings (current)
				
Seed	Team		GP	W	Pts	P%
1	Philadelphia	69	43	93	.674
2	Washington	71	41	92	.648
3	Pittsburgh	71	41	90	.634
4	Boston		69	39	87	.630
5	Tampa Bay	70	39	87	.621
6	Montreal	70	38	83	.593
7	NY Rangers	71	37	78	.549
8	Buffalo		70	34	76	.543
9	Carolina	70	32	74	.529
10	New Jersey	69	33	70	.507
11	Toronto		70	30	70	.500
12	Atlanta		70	29	70	.500
13	Florida		70	28	65	.464
14	NY Islanders	71	27	65	.458
15	Ottawa		70	25	59	.421

We can do much better than that, though. Taking into account each team's remaining number of games as well as their level of play over the last few months and their upcoming opposition's expected level of play, here's how I currently see things finishing up:

Eastern Conference standings (projected)
					
Rank	Team		Pts	GR	Team P%		Opponent P%	Projected Pts
1	Philadelphia	93	13	0.647		0.548		110.2
2	Washington	92	11	0.694		0.561		107.3
3	Boston		87	13	0.632		0.569		103.2
4	Pittsburgh	90	11	0.583		0.576		102.5
5	Tampa Bay	87	12	0.600		0.533		102.1
6	Montreal	83	12	0.586		0.575		96.7
7	Buffalo		76	12	0.629		0.570		90.9
8	NY Rangers	78	11	0.514		0.564		89.2
9	New Jersey	70	13	0.735		0.580		88.5
10	Carolina	74	12	0.543		0.565		86.9
11	Toronto		70	12	0.571		0.564		83.6
12	Atlanta		70	12	0.386		0.583		78.9
13	NY Islanders	65	11	0.542		0.570		76.7
14	Florida		65	12	0.443		0.582		75.2
15	Ottawa		59	12	0.386		0.579		68.0

Pts: Current points
GR: Games Remaining
Team P%: Recent level of play, point percentage
Opponent P%: Opponents' recent level of play, point percentage
Projected points: Points projection at the end of the season

What do we get? A race that's almost too close to call between the rival Rangers and Devils, possibly even coming down to those crazy new tiebreakers the NHL instituted regarding shootout wins and non-shootout wins. The real question may come down to Tortorella's Blue Shirts, as opposed to Lemaire's Devils. I'd be willing to bet that New Jersey can keep up a .700-plus clip going for the next dozen games, but can the Rangers improve their faltering play since Christmas? New York has been the coolest of the playoff hopefuls in the East, even moreso than Carolina.

Is there a chance that Buffalo might be the team that ends up on the outside of the postseason picture, or that Carolina finds a way in? Sure, but the smart money is on New York and New Jersey fighting for that last spot. And, uh-oh. Take a look at the last game on the Rangers' schedule…

Remaining schedules

Buffalo Sabres: ATL, NSH*, @MTL, FLA, NJD*, @TOR, NYR*, @WSH, @CAR*, TBL, PHI, @CBJ*

New York Rangers: MTL, @PIT, FLA, OTT, @BOS, @BUF, @NYI*, @PHI, BOS*, ATL, NJD

New Jersey Devils: @OTT, WSH*, @CBJ, @BOS, @PIT, @BUF*, NYI, PHI, MTL*, @PIT, TOR*, @NYR, BOS*

Carolina Hurricanes: TOR*, NYI, OTT, @TBL, TBL*, @WSH, MTL*, @NYI, BUF*, DET, @ATL, TBL*

*Second game of a back-to-back

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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