Second-half standings reveal true playoff threats

March, 19, 2009

One of our favorite things to do on the eve of the NHL playoffs is to look at the second-half records of teams before we determine our first-round picks.

More often than not, the second-half records are more telling of what's to come than the final standings. Although the picture still isn't complete in the second half of the regular season, what we have so far shows us some telling trends with certain teams. Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau, below are the second-half records in order of points percentage:

NHL Records: Second Half of Season (Through March 18)
New Jersey Devils 29 22 7 0 44 .759
Detroit Red Wings 30 18 8 4 40 .667
St. Louis Blues 29 16 7 6 38 .655
Pittsburgh Penguins 31 18 9 4 40 .645
Vancouver Canucks 28 16 8 4 36 .643
Columbus Blue Jackets 30 18 10 2 38 .633
Ottawa Senators 28 15 9 4 34 .607
Washington Capitals 31 17 11 3 37 .597
San Jose Sharks 28 14 9 5 33 .589
Calgary Flames 29 16 11 2 34 .586
Florida Panthers 29 15 10 4 34 .586
Nashville Predators 30 16 11 3 35 .583
Boston Bruins 30 15 10 5 35 .583
Edmonton Oilers 28 13 9 6 32 .571
Philadelphia Flyers 28 15 12 1 31 .554
Atlanta Thrashers 30 16 13 1 33 .550
Toronto Maple Leafs 30 13 10 7 33 .550
Carolina Hurricanes 31 16 13 2 34 .548
Minnesota Wild 29 13 11 5 31 .534
Dallas Stars 30 15 13 2 32 .533
Chicago Blackhawks 28 13 12 3 29 .518
New York Rangers 30 13 12 5 31 .517
Buffalo Sabres 29 13 13 3 29 .500
Los Angeles Kings 28 12 12 4 28 .500
New York Islanders 29 12 13 4 28 .483
Tampa Bay Lightning 29 11 13 5 27 .466
Montreal Canadiens 29 11 15 3 25 .431
Anaheim Ducks 29 12 16 1 25 .431
Phoenix Coyotes 29 10 18 1 21 .362
Colorado Avalanche 30 10 19 1 21 .350

Not surprisingly, the New Jersey Devils rank first in the NHL since the halfway point, having picked up 76 percent of their possible points with 44 in 29 games. Detroit, recovering from its first-half Cup hangover, is second with 40 points in 30 games, and there's a stunner in third place: the St. Louis Blues.

In the actual season-long standings, the Blues are 11th and two points out of the playoffs in the crazy race that is the Western Conference. But what this tells you is that if the Blues can get in, they might be on quite a roll and might pose a dangerous first-round foe.

That happened in 2005-06, when the upstart Edmonton Oilers got hot at the right time and played the role of giant killer all the way to the Cup finals as the No. 8 seed.

"We're a team that knows from experience that once you get in, anything can happen," veteran Oilers center Shawn Horcoff told on Wednesday.

The Oilers are doing their usual thing at this time of the season, right in the middle of a crazy battle for one of the last two West playoff spots. Seems as though it's been that way for 10 straight seasons.

"We actually look at it as a positive," Horcoff said. "We feel like we've been here a lot before, and we feel comfortable in this situation."

While Edmonton battles for its playoff life, Vancouver and Columbus (see table above) so far have used huge second halves to put themselves closer to safety. The sixth-place Jackets have a six-point gap on the danger zone. The fifth-place Canucks are just a point behind struggling Chicago for fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round. The young Blackhawks have picked up only 29 points in 28 second-half games, basically .500 hockey. You can guess where our money will be if the Canucks and Hawks face off in the first round.

In the East, the second-hottest team behind New Jersey has been the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were 10th in the conference when they made a coaching change in mid-February -- hello, Dan Bylsma! -- but don't discount the return of Sergei Gonchar as a major factor, not to mention the trade additions of wingers Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. If you add it all up, the Pens have been unconscious yet suddenly find themselves tied in points with fourth-place Philadelphia (although the rival Flyers have three games in hand).

Still, it begs the question: Does anyone really want to play Pittsburgh in the first round? After all, these guys reached the Cup finals last season.

The Boston Bruins, meanwhile, have been on the first-place highway for so long that they must have done a double take when they saw not one, but two speeding cars behind them.

"New Jersey and Washington, absolutely, they're right behind us," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told us Wednesday. "We've got a big game Sunday against New Jersey."

The Devils are suddenly just four points behind the Bruins, while Washington is just another point back. The top seed in the East is still very much in play. Chiarelli addressed the local media in Boston earlier this week, and his message was loud and clear to his players:

Wake up.

"I think we're too good not to overcome it, but I wanted to make sure," Chiarelli said. "Listen, these guys know, I've talked to enough of them. But there's guys who are complacent right now."

Last season at this time, focus wasn't a problem in Boston. Every game was life-and-death as the Bruins got in as the 8-seed.

"Ironically, we were in that battle last year, and our guys now are having a hard time being on the flip side of that," Chiarelli said. "It's a different set of dynamics that this team is going through now, and we're facing teams that are desperate. We need to get back to playing desperate hockey. I know we can, and we're making some strides in getting back. Part of that is playing within the system that got us there, and part of that is to play a selfless, desperate brand that we were playing for most of the year."

In our mind, slipping to second might not be the worst thing for the Bruins. It would take that No. 1 target off their back and could allow them to slide into the playoffs with a little less spotlight if New Jersey takes the top spot.

Last season, the Montreal Canadiens were the top seed in the East. You may have noticed where they ranked in the second-half standings this season. Ouch. The CH stands for Crappy Hockey since the midway point. Of the 16 teams that occupied a playoff spot Thursday morning, the Habs have been the worst performers in the second half. Even if they somehow squeak into the postseason, can you really see them knocking off any team? No, didn't think so.

We'll update these second-half standings at the conclusion of the regular season. Might help you with your playoff pool!

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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