One of the most popular refrains you’ll hear from hockey coaches everywhere when addressing their team before a game goes something like, “That team over there isn’t going to do us any favors, so we’ve got to help ourselves.”
I’m sure Eastern Conference bench bosses are using that line again this year, though they may feel that little knot you get in your stomach when you know you’re saying something that isn’t entirely true. That’s because the nine teams battling it out for playoff seeds five through eight in the East are an incredibly mediocre collection of clubs, including the Montreal Canadiens.
The competition in the East has long been second-rate compared to that of the Western Conference, but this year the dip is deeper and more pronounced.
Typically, it’s not until you get past the sixth seed that the skill level starts to dramatically erode, as six or seven teams usually fight it out for the final two playoff spots.
But beyond the top four clubs in the east this season – New Jersey, Washington, Buffalo and Pittsburgh – there is really little to chose from the fifth seed all the way down to the bottom of the conference, where only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes appear to have kissed off any legitimate chance of post-season play.
The reason competency only runs four teams deep this year is because both the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers are performing way below expectations. We at The Hockey News pegged the Flyers as Stanley Cup champions prior to this season and they were making us look very foolish until things started to turn around in the last three weeks. Still, Philadelphia is a long way from the high-end threat its roster indicates it should be.
The Bruins are enduring what the Habs did last season, following up a surprise season in which they finished with the most points in the East with a middling campaign that has the team struggling to nail down a playoff spot. Boston has been hard hit by injuries this year, so maybe if the roster heals up in the spring, the Bruins fortunes will improve.
And so can Montreal’s, if the Canadiens just bear down and take advantage of the average teams they’re surrounded by.
This article also appeared in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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