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Well, here we are, roughly 6 weeks away from the end of the NHL regular season, and of course, there are many questions to be answered.  There’s the trade deadline in the 2nd week of March, but that’s not what we’re looking at this week.  Instead, it’s time to take a closer look at the standings, in particular, the Eastern Conference ones.  To be more precise, we will be looking at inter-conference records for the 15 teams in the East.

At this point in the season, seldomly does a team face a team out of its conference; this is even more the case this year with teams playing their division “rivals” 6 times each instead of 5 in years past.  Thus, teams play roughly 70% of their games versus conference opponents, with many coming in the final 2 months of the regular season.  So, what teams are the best against Eastern Conference opponents, and thus, are more likely to be in the playoffs come April?  As always, the following chart has the details.

Team Record Points Conference Record (Points)
1) Toronto 33-16-9-3 78 23-13-7-1 (54)
2) Philadelphia 31-15-11-5 78 26-12-8-2 (62)
3) Tampa Bay 31-17-7-5 74 25-14-5-1 (56)
4) Ottawa 32-15-8-5 77 26-13-7-3 (62)
5) Boston 30-14-11-6 77 20-12-9-4 (53)
6) New Jersey 30-17-11-1 72 23-12-7-1 (54)
7) Montreal 29-24-6-2 66 22-21-4-1 (49)
8) New York I. 28-22-8-2 66 22-18-5-2 (51)
9) Buffalo 28-26-6-1 63 19-19-6-1 (45)
10) Florida 21-25-12-3 57 17-15-10-2 (46)
11) Atlanta 24-30-6-2 56 17-24-2-1 (37)
12) New York R. 22-27-7-4 55 17-19-5-3 (42)
13) Carolina 18-27-11-3 50 14-20-10-1 (39)
14) Washington 19-32-7-2 47 15-20-6-2 (38)
15) Pittsburgh 11-41-5-4 31 7-34-5-2 (21)

Positions 1 through 3 are determined through division leaders, regardless of point totals, standings as of games played through February 20, 2004.

Is it any surprise to see that the top 6 teams in conference records in the East also happen to BE the top 6 teams in the Eastern Conference?  Didn’t think so.  And is it any surprise to see that the bottom 7 in this category are the teams currently on the outside looking in on the postseason?  Nope.

For Hab fans, it is useful to analyze positions 7 through 10, as it appears that the race for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference will be between 4 teams, Montreal, New York I., Buffalo, and Florida, the latter being somewhat of a stretch.  Let’s take a closer look at those 4 teams here:

Team GP vs East Record vs East Points vs East PPG
7) Montreal 48 22-21-4-1 49 1.02
8) New York I. 47 22-18-5-2 51 1.09
9) Buffalo 45 19-19-6-1 45 1.00
10) Florida 44 17-15-10-2 46 1.05

PPG = Points per game vs Eastern Conference opponents.

Upon further analysis, we see that the Islanders are doing the best of the 4 teams left fighting for a playoff spot.  (Every team still has a chance of making the playoffs mathematically, but realistically, only the above 4 teams have a realistic shot.  And in the case of Pittsburgh, they will likely be mathematically eliminated by week’s end.)  Given the fact the the Islanders have a game in hand on the Habs, and the better conference record, one could safely assume that the Isles have the upper hand on 7th place in the conference, leaving Montreal, Buffalo, and Florida left to battle for the 8th and final spot.  Florida has the better conference record out of these three teams, however they are very close to being out of contention, so it comes down to the Habs and the Sabres.

Out of these 2 teams, Montreal has the better conference record, averaging 0.02 PPG higher than the Sabres, so in other words, piddly squat.  What this will come down to more than likely is the pair of head-to-head games these teams have in the final 2 weeks of the season, including the final game of the season for both teams in the first week of April.  Montreal also has the tougher schedule, with 15 of their remaining 20 games being against opponents with a winning percentage of .500 or higher.

At this point in the season, there is hardly a statistic more vital than this, given the number of inter-conference games each team must play, not only in the East, but the Western Conference as well.  That being said, trends can change, so a good team in this category can falter, while a weaker one can flourish down the stretch.  Now’s as good a time as any to do so, with just 6 weeks left to play in the season, before it’s crunch time for some, and golf season for others. 

A little standings trivia for you:

Q – Pittsburgh is currently on pace for just 42 points this season.  Their franchise is 37 years old.  Name the only other franchise older than 37 years old to have a season of 40 points or worse.

Options – A – Montreal  B – Toronto  C – Detroit  D – Chicago

Questions/comments?  E-mail me at [email protected].

Standings courtesy of the National Hockey League.