Separating NHL's contenders and pretenders at quarter mark

The other day we talked about the Pittsburgh Penguins and the middle of the Eastern Conference being a huge pile-up.

After Thursday night’s games, we’re looking at a situation where the No. 4 team in the East has 23 points, and the No. 11 has 20 with two games in hand. Some are trending up (Florida, Philadelphia), others down (Buffalo), and Tampa continues to be a sleeping dragon waiting for its huge spate of home games to play out over the remainder of the calendar year.

Meanwhile, the Western Conference is much the same, where even the No. 1 spot — currently occupied by the Blues — is only four points ahead of fourth place, and that’s the same number of points separating that No. 4 team from No. 12.

The point is that this is maybe the most parity-feeling season we’ve had in a while, and you’re not allowed to fact check whether that’s actually true. But given that we’re about a quarter of the way through the season, we have to ask who’s for real and who’s just having a good time right now.

Again, Buffalo seems to be the obvious candidate to drop out in the East, but that still leaves seven teams vying for what’s probably five playoff spots. No matter how bad you feel about how the Leafs have played since the start of the year — they really only beat the absolute dregs of the league in regulation — you have to think they have the talent to pull through and at least get into the eighth slot. 

So that leaves four slots for about six teams. You also have to think the Panthers will come together well enough — with both talent and coaching, let alone Bobrovsky getting his act together — to hold onto their current spot for the long run. Likewise, though the Hurricanes are certainly going through it right now, they’re one of the best process teams in the league and their struggles on the road probably won’t last. They were well above .500 away from home last season, so they can be counted on to figure that out.

That leaves Montreal, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh vying for just one spot. It’s tough to choose between them. Pittsburgh is playing well, but as discussed, its long-term injuries are a real concern. Philadelphia has been very up-and-down this season and its defence in particular is shaky enough that it’s no sure thing, though to be fair the team is playing better lately. 

Then there’s Montreal, a tricky team to figure out. The Canadiens are scoring by committee right now (no one has more than eight goals) but arguably don’t have enough star power anywhere except in the crease, and if Carey Price is, well, Carey Price, the rest of the issues may not matter.

All things being equal, I like the Habs to hold on right now, but if the Penguins can play well without Crosby and Letang they’ll be tough to handle.

The Montreal Canadiens are a tricky team to figure out. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Out West, given that very little is spoken for anywhere in the standings, the bubble seems to be defined in the 6-10 area with Calgary, Winnipeg, Dallas, Nashville, and Vegas. They’re holding those spots now but they have some very obvious flaws that can’t be ignored. The Predators are the ones you’d say are maybe best-positioned to figure it out because their biggest problem for now is their team save percentage (.900). Everything else looks real good, even if we acknowledge that shooting percentage (north of 11) is going to come down.

Then there’s the obvious problem of both Dallas and Vegas being on the outside looking in. Both are playing well enough of late but not necessarily getting the results. While few of us would have had Edmonton or Arizona in the playoffs at the end of the year, they clearly have the players at key positions (Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl and Darcy Kuemper) to keep them in games for the entire season. 

Can the Stars and Knights overtake them? Probably not, given the cushions here. But can they overtake two of the Flames, Preds, and Jets? Absolutely. And frankly, if the southwestern teams do get in, the Canadian ones are the most likely to allow it.

There are, of course, other teams that may fall in the standings, but some (like the Islanders or Blues) have at least built themselves the kind of cushion where they’ve shown their play can improve and also they’ve built up this big cushion of points where even regression doesn’t really hurt their playoff chances.

For everyone else it’s a dogfight, but some dogs certainly have a better chance than others.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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