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Four teams opponents won't mind seeing in the NHL playoffs

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Late-season struggles and past playoff failures make the Penguins look vulnerable. (USATSI)
Late-season struggles and past playoff failures make the Penguins look vulnerable. (USATSI)

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Thursday, our Brian Stubits brought you the four teams that nobody wants to face in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So it's only fitting to bring the opposite end of the spectrum with four teams that probably aren't the most intimidating foes on paper for potential postseason combatants.

Knowing that this is the NHL and the parity within the league, particularly among playoff teams, doesn't really make for stark differences between one opponent from the next, this is a potentially dangerous practice. What is the most common phrase you will hear over the next three weeks? "Get into the playoffs however you can, then anything can happen."

It's true. Anything can happen. Even with that in mind though, it's not hard to pick out some teams that are looking particularly vulnerable this time of season. That is, teams heading in the wrong direction in the pertinent stat columns, most notably the win-loss column. But there's more to it than that.

Here's a look at four teams that aren't going to scare their first-round opponent as much as the ones Stubits mentioned.

Minnesota Wild

This one starts off in kind of an obvious fashion. The Wild have done enough all year to get themselves into playoff position, but they're starting to slide. After that tremendously hot start behind the all-world play from Josh Harding, the Wild built themselves quite a cushion and still hold the first wild-card spot by a point over the Phoenix Coyotes. At this point, that would set up a date with the San Jose Sharks.

The Wild have some noticeable issues heading into the postseason, the first of which is goaltending. Harding hasn't played since Dec. 31 and is doubtful to return, while Niklas Backstrom has been out since Jan. 30 and won't return. That puts the job in the hands of young Darcy Kuemper and nomadic veteran Ilya Bryzgalov. Kuemper has played capably, but in recent weeks has gotten no help, while Bryzgalov has had middling results. This is not a tandem that is going to be feared by any hockey club.

Then there's the concern about goal scoring. The Wild are 27th in the league with an average of 2.38 goals per game, the worst of any playoff team. The Wild hold the same slot for shots on goal and their possession numbers put them firmly in the bottom half of the league.

Part of that is due to the fact that Wild have barely been healthy all year, but the trend is evident. They're not improving in any areas that would suggest they'll be able to compete with the top half of the conference barring some unexpectedly otherworldly goaltending and some puck luck.

Toronto Maple Leafs

As of right now, the Leafs are not in the playoffs, losing tiebreakers to the Blue Jackets, Red Wings and Capitals, with each of those four teams locked at 80 points. That has Columbus and Detroit with the last two wild-card slots. Seeing as it's too close to call which of these four will make the postseason, I decided to go with the most vulnerable. That's Toronto.

It has been a story all season. The Maple Leafs get routinely outshot and at times it hasn't hurt them. At others, like right now, it kills them. No team has allowed more shots on goal per game than Toronto's 36.2, not even the last-place Sabres. That's sobering enough, but the underlying numbers are just as bad if not worse.

According to ExtraSkater.com, the Maple Leafs have a total Fenwick for percentage of 42.7 (a measure of shot attempts, excluding blocked shots), worst in the NHL, which dips to 41.7 percent in five-on-five with the score close, second worst. If teams routinely outpossess the Maple Leafs so decisively (by 58.3 percent), their chances of winning a seven-game series against a team like the Boston Bruins should seem near impossible.

Toronto has gotten by on hot scoring streaks and great goaltending, which can work in a seven-game series if it all comes together at once. You can't bank on that happening, particularly against a team as good as the Bruins, if that ends up being the first-round matchup. Of course, the Leafs have to get there first.

Pittsburgh Penguins

I know how it looks. How could the Penguins, a team atop the Metropolitan Division with a Stanley Cup not so far in the rearview mirror and two of the best players in the world, not scare anyone? This is a team that made it to the conference finals last spring, but looking up and down the roster, there are key differences between this season's team and last.

The depth is a real concern. The Penguins are without injured Pascal Dupuis, a loss that has been magnified as the team starts sliding. Other bottom-of-the-lineup players like Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy also may have been improvements over what the club is trotting out now. Not to mention Jarome Iginla on the roster to bolster scoring depth.

There's also the ever-present concern about Marc-Andre Fleury's play in the postseason. His numbers in the regular season this year aren't much different from any of his recent campaigns, but over his past four trips to the playoffs, his save percentage has been sub-.900. He even lost his job to Tomas Vokoun last postseason.

Considering the relative lack of depth, there's so much pressure put on the top players to produce, which they absolutely can. However, if they have an off night, it's almost a sure loss for the club. Can they sustain that style for any more than a series or two? Probably not.

I think the Penguins can get out of the first round depending on how the wild card ends up, but beyond that, it could be a real challenge. That's especially true if Evgeni Malkin's foot injury doesn't heal up on the timeline expected.

Anaheim Ducks

It almost pains me to write this as the Ducks have been one of the more intriguing teams in the league this season, but the question about Anaheim has always been, how long can it keep this up?

It's rather remarkable what Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are doing this year. Getzlaf could even receive heavy Hart Trophy consideration with his 30 goals and 79 points, while Perry has 37 goals and 72 points. After that, Nick Bonino is the next closest teammate with 45 points. The Ducks have a problem similar to Pittsburgh -- after the top, there's not much left.

Can a team get by with that kind of lineup? There's always going to be the concern that one of the big guns goes cold against a certain opponent. The good news for the Ducks is that they've gone 3-0-1 against likely first-round opponent Los Angeles, which is one of the best possession teams in the league.

Things can change awfully quick in the playoffs though.

The Ducks have gotten by this year with a high shooting percentage combined with a high save percentage. When combining the two, the Ducks come away with a league-high PDO of 103.7 according to ExtraSkater.com, which is meant to measure good fortune, essentially. That number almost always regresses back to 100 at some point for most teams. It really hasn't for the Ducks yet, but that's hardly the kind of thing you want to go into the playoffs expecting will happen.

If they end up going head-to-head with the Kings, it's going to make for a fantastic opening-round series, but the Ducks will have to rely on their shooting staying hot against one of the best playoff goalies of the past three years and Jonas Hiller putting together a heck of a series himself.

It's tough to put the Ducks here as they very well could catch the Sharks and end up with a more favorable matchup in the first round, but of the teams at the top of the league, this is the one that appears to be in the most dangerous position right now.

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