Head coach Lindy Ruff has led his Buffalo Sabres to six wins over division-leading teams this season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Wanna be a rock star in the NHL? You have to beat the best. We’re nearly 50 games deep into this glorious 2008-09 season and while there are some universal truths (Boston and San Jose good, Tampa and the Isles bad), there’s still a lot of mud on the windshield as playoff jockeying begins.
In the interest of clearing the picture up a bit, let’s look at which teams have truly earned their points to date. Including last night’s results, the six current division leaders (Boston, New Jersey, Washington, San Jose, Detroit and Calgary) have been defeated 95 times in regulation, overtime or the shootout by 28 different teams. Tampa Bay and the Islanders are the only squads yet to defeat a division winner.
Subtracting wins against each other, the best teams have lost 75 times to 22 teams. If there’s a dark horse team hoping to hoist the Stanley Cup this summer, they’re obviously going to have to go through at least one of the division leaders along the way, so wins against those penthouse franchises are paramount; after all, the easiest way to prove you can do something is by doing it.
With that in mind, here are the teams who can put The Fear into a favorite in the post-season:
BUFFALO (six wins against division leaders)
The Sabres have a balanced attack, good goaltending and a veteran defense. They’ve also beaten every Eastern Conference division leader at least once already, including Boston three times. Buffalo plays Calgary Wednesday night and Detroit and San Jose later on, so the Sabres have a chance at a rare pick-six.
EDMONTON (five wins)
Blown out by the aforementioned Sabres Tuesday night, the Oilers nonetheless have shown they don’t shrink when the big boys are in town. They won’t beat the Bruins this year, but they do have another shot at Detroit; everyone else has fallen at least once to Mac T’s young and dangerous squad.
COLUMBUS (five wins)
Ken Hitchcock said it was crucial for his Jackets to beat the Sharks earlier this season. They did. The Jackets had a golden opportunity to come out of the all-star break with a resume-building win over Detroit. They took it. Coupled with rookie netminder Steve Mason’s two shutouts against Alex Ovechkin and the Caps and you have a team with fire in the belly and a fever for the post-season.
Here are some playoff-bound paper tigers who need some statement wins over the next 30 or so games…
NEW YORK RANGERS (three wins)
They’ve whiffed against the West and haven’t beaten the Caps yet with just one rematch left. Unless the Blueshirts face the Devils (whom they’ve beaten twice so far) in the first round, it could be an early curtain call on Broadway this year.
PHILADELPHIA (three wins)
Another Atlantic Division team content on beating the lesser lights of the league (Isles, Thrashers, etc.), the Flyers also count the Devils as a favorite target, but two wins against a divisional foe isn’t exactly cause for a ticker-tape parade. Philly can still boost its standing with games against Calgary and Detroit still on the docket.
CHICAGO (three wins)
Know what team the Hawks hope they face in the first round? Calgary, because the Flames are the only top team Chicago has beaten to date. All that young talent is sure fun to watch, but back-to-back losses to Detroit (including the Winter Classic) were not a good omen.
Ryan Kennedy 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 Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.