By now we have a pretty good sense of which teams are going to be in the playoffs and which teams won't be with the exception of the final couple of spots in each conference.
For the 13 teams that seem pretty safe bets to make the playoffs, from here on out it's about getting set for the postseason. In some cases that means getting healthy and getting your game going in the right direction. But in some small sense it's also about matchups.
Not that any team is truly concerned about who they will play in the playoffs, just that they'll be in the playoffs. Certainly no team is going to throw games down the stretch with their eyes on the postseason.
But for us watching the action and the fans that are hoping their team is the one that will lift Lord Stanley's Cup? Absolutely the matchups are a thing to look out for because as we know, not all playoff opponents are created equal.
It's pretty common to look at the field and parse those teams that everybody would like to draw and those that everybody would like to avoid. In the case of the latter a few things usually go into that criteria, the biggest always being if that team is hot. You'll hear the key words "playing their best hockey at the right time." Other times it's rather obviously; they're just really good.
Excluding the teams in first place of their divisions for the purposes of this discussion -- of course no team would like to see the Bruins, for example -- here are four teams that not many would be excited to see (in no particular order).
This season didn't start off so smoothly for the Rangers. They stumbled out of the blocks and have been in the middle of the standings pack. They just weren't picking up points in bunches. That has changed.
At this point the Rangers are comfortably on the inside of the playoff push and are getting primed for their big postseason plans. With only eight games remaining in their season, the Rangers are playing the best hockey they have all season, currently riding a five-game win streak.
Two reasons people always looked at this team and said "if they wake up, watch out" -- No. 1, they're very talented; No. 2, they are a strong possession team that has been bitten by a very low shooting percentage. Their even-strength, close-score percentage is only at 6.1, the third-lowest mark in the league. They are too talented for that to last and even with just a small move toward normalcy it makes a big difference when you have Henrik Lundqvist.
One other factor making the Rangers a threat for a lot of teams is their ability to win on the road, where this season they are 23-13-0. In the playoffs that's always huge. You can't go far without winning on the road.
As luck would have it, these first two teams are almost assuredly going to play each other in the first round, which is good news for the rest of the East.
Why? Because the Flyers have been one of the toughest teams to beat for months now and still are destined for a lower seed in the playoffs. Since Nov. 5 the Flyers are 34-17-6, which is a pace of more than 106 points over 82 games. They've been playing really well.
With the Flyers there is of course one constant caveat: goaltending. Steve Mason has been very competent this season with a .916 save percentage but it's the Flyers we're talking about and until they are able to get good defense/goaltending on the playoff level, we'll wait and see. Particularly with Mason's career track record and this season being his best since he was a rookie.
Out of all the teams, though, none would like to avoid the Flyers more than the Penguins. There's not just their recent playoff battles to remember but the fact that the Flyers have dominated the rivalry of late. Since 2011 the Flyers have made themselves at home in Pittsburgh with a 7-2-1 mark, including postseason.
All of the adjectives people use to describe big teams is used with the Kings --tough, heavy, punishing, etc. Add them all together and you get a team that is engineered for the playoffs.
This has been validated in the past two years with the Kings' postseason runs. Of course there was the Stanley Cup two seasons ago -- which was no fluke even though they were the eighth seed in the West -- and then a Western Conference finals appearance last season. This is still mostly the same team and it's a possession monster. Possessive and punishing doesn't sound like an ideal relationship in the least.
Earlier we mentioned the Rangers' low shooting percentage but it's even worse for the Kings. They somehow have already hit 90 points on the season with a shooting percentage of 5.8 this season, well below the league average. It has come around a touch since the Olympic break but there's always room for more. With another pure scorer on the ice in Marian Gaborik, you won't want to be on the other side when that turns around.
Oh, and there's always this: Jonathan Quick. Yeah, you won't want to see him in meaningful games.
This one is a pretty big no-brainer considering the Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champs but they haven't had the most amazing regular season (that tells you where their standards are). At times they have looked mortal, much more mortal than at any point last season.
The tangibles? They have them. The Blackhawks are an offensive powerhouse, especially when Patrick Kane is back and healthy for the playoffs. They are strong defensively and Corey Crawford has had a nice second half of the season. They're a monster puck possession team. On and on it goes. But they have the intangibles, too, chief among those is the experience.
One thing that bodes well for the Blackhawks is that obviously there's no shootout in the postseason and that's where they have lost a lot of games. The Blackhawks remain one of the best five-on-five teams in the game, if not the best. At even strength the Blackhawks are the third-best team in the league with 1.39 goals for per every one against.
What has little bearing is the fact that they are defending champs. That doesn't make them any less threatening because teams don't go back-to-back often. Just because no other team has done it in 16 years doesn't mean these guys can't. It's looking like they have as good of a shot as any team before and nobody will want to test that.