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The Eastern Conference playoff field is already set. Is that too strong a statement? Let’s poke at it.
Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski will soon be packing for the NHL All-Star Game, to be held Feb. 5 in Las Vegas. This year’s gathering of stars gets an artificial injection of extra hype: Since the league pulled its players out of the Winter Olympics, the neon lights of Vegas are that much brighter.
The All-Star Game has long been the symbolic, if not the actual, midway point of the season. In this season of pandemic-shredded schedules across the continent, “midseason” is a more relative term. As of Monday morning, the Anaheim Ducks had played 44 games and the New York Islanders had played 34.
That’s crazy. So is this: The Ducks, rebuilding with some wonderful, young talent, are currently in playoff position in the West, and the Islanders — a polished team under the steady hand of Barry Trotz — are not.
Heading into their game against Philadelphia Tuesday night, the Islanders were 14-14-6 for 34 points and averaging one point per game. This pace left them in sixth place in the wild card race, 21 points behind the team holding the second wild card spot, the Boston Bruins.
Is it possible the Islanders in their last 48 games can make up all that ground? Sure it is. The Isles have been ravaged by coronavirus. They still have more than half their season remaining. With a little luck ...
But, man, the Islanders can play like it was 1982 and they’re still going to need some help from the Bruins. Think about that. The Islanders, who’ve made it to the semifinals of the Stanley Cup tournament in each of the previous two years, might be toast right now.
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There is an upper class and a lower class but no middle class in the Eastern Conference. There are seven legitimate Cup contenders: the New York Rangers (.698 points percentage entering Tuesday), Pittsburgh Penguins (.695), Carolina Hurricanes (.737) and Washington Capitals (.640) of the Metro, and the Florida Panthers (.726), Tampa Bay Lightning (.709) and Toronto Maple Leafs (.697) of the Atlantic.
Even Boston (.641 and eight points ahead of ninth-place Detroit with games in hand) looks like a playoff lock.
John Buccigross, the verbally dexterous ESPN play-by-play man, described the Eastern upper class as the disco demolishers of the lower class:
“Like New Jersey pigeons outside Studio 54 hoping their Jordache jeans and English Leather would gain them entrance to the Stanley Cup Playoff of parties, all they can do is gawk as the confident and famous and beautifully talented packs sauntered into the club, flicking their cigarette ashes on the minions’ shoes to remind them of their fate ... hopeless.”
The Western Conference is more wide-open, like Gilley's.
Where the East had three teams with 60 or more points coming out of the weekend, the West had one: the Colorado Avalanche with 61. The Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights (52) are the two Cup contenders out that way, it says here. The St. Louis Blues (55) and maybe the Minnesota Wild (53 in just 38 games) look somewhat aspirational. But that’s about it.
Right now, 13 teams are in the running for the eight playoff spots in the wild West.
“The West was the last (part of the country) to be settled back in the late 1800s,” said Daryl Reaugh, the stellar color analyst for the Dallas Stars. “Mayhap, a Homestead Act of 2022 will do the trick now.”
You know, like, for settlement.
“Five of the top seven home records in the league are in the West,” Reaugh said. “Five of the top seven road teams are in the East. Stats!”
And how about them Blue Jackets? Put it this way: They have the 13th best road record (7-12-0) in the East.
The Jackets have a lower points percentage and a worse goal differential than the Islanders, and Columbus doesn't have any games in hand on the Bruins.
No news flash here, but the Jackets playoff hopes are about on par with Buffalo’s. There is no shame in that if the Jackets, unlike Buffalo, builds a team that eventually goes clubbin’ with Buccigross.
That’s the fun of it now, to watch young players like Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov; and, for the hardcore standings-watchers, to wonder whether the Jackets can slide from 23rd in the league and into a better lottery position. To that end, all that can be said right now is Montreal and Arizona look unbeatable, and never count out Ottawa.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Blue Jackets: No chance of NHL playoffs in Eastern Conference