There are plenty of things we know about the Eastern Conference as we head down the stretch run toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For example, the Islanders and Devils would need unprecedented runs to get back in the playoff race, making them sure-fire sellers come the end-of-February trade deadline. But there's plenty else to be determined as the East's teams jockey for position and a spot in the postseason.
With each team having about 30 regular season games left, here are some bold predictions for what will go down in the season's final two months.
The Atlanta Thrashers will ... be one of four Southeast Division teams to make the playoffs. The Thrashers currently sit eighth in the conference but have won just two of their last 10 games. In that stretch, star defenseman and top scorer Dustin Byfuglien has no points and has gone 11 overall (through Wednesday's games) without getting on the scoresheet. The eventual return of Tobias Enstrom should be enough to keep Atlanta above water.
The Boston Bruins will ... need to rely on Tuukka Rask. I don't expect that to come due to struggles by Tim Thomas, but the Bruins need to consider lessening Thomas' workload down the stretch so he's ready for the playoffs. Rask will see more time because of that — or because Boston doesn't heed that advice and winds up with an injured Vezina favorite.
The Buffalo Sabres will ... see the end of an era with the departure of Lindy Ruff and trading of Tim Connolly and Mike Grier. The Sabres are still in the playoff hunt, but the absence of Derek Roy will catch up to them for good in the coming weeks and GM Darcy Regier will be a deadline seller. Ruff, who turned down a contract extension recently, will decide it's time to move on with new ownership moving in.
The Carolina Hurricanes will ... trade Joni Pitkanen. That doesn't mean the Canes will be sellers — as I mentioned above, the Southeast will get four playoff spots — but don't be surprised if GM Jim Rutherford moves the pending UFA for more of a stay-at-home defender.
The Florida Panthers will ... hold on to Tomas Vokoun and eventually re-sign him. Vokoun could be the biggest catch on the deadline market, but the well-traveled goalie should see the subtle improvements in South Florida and ink on for two more seasons while the Panthers further groom Jacob Markstrom to be their No. 1. He'll also see the poor pay goalies received last offseason and figure he can't do better than what Florida will offer to keep him.
The Montreal Canadiens will ... miss the playoffs after dropping their last two games of the season at Ottawa and at Toronto. In all fairness to the Habs, they have been crushed by injuries this year, most notably to Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Mike Cammalleri. But losing to their Canadian rivals will leave a bad taste over the summer.
The New Jersey Devils will ... find another loophole to get out of their salary cap mess, because there's no solution otherwise. For everything Lou Lamoriello has done right over the years, he greatly miscalculated how he needed to build his team well before the Ilya Kovalchuk saga. The Brian Rolston and Patrick Elias — who is having a good season, but not a $6 million season — contracts are killer ones for New Jersey, and he will have a hard time shipping out $3 million-plus multi-year contracts like the ones held by Dainus Zubrus and Colin White without taking money back.
The New York Islanders will ... play respectably down the stretch. The Isles likely weren't a playoff team even if they stayed healthy, but the injuries to Mark Streit, Kyle Okposo, Trent Hunter and Mark Eaton dropped New York to the bottom of the standings. But Okposo is back and Streit — their best player, far and way — is close, and the team with nothing to lose will win more than they have the previous 50 games.
The New York Rangers will ... miss the playoffs and clean house, opening the door for Mark Messier to take the GM reins. John Tortorella shouldn't be faulted — except for maybe the fact he agreed to take the job in the first place — but Messier doesn't need an opinionated, brash coach in his first lead front office job and will want a clean slate. Is it possible he could bring The Great One in to coach his team? Probably not, but it's fun to think of a Big Apple reunion between the two.
The Ottawa Senators will ... find a taker for Sergei Gonchar. It may mean taking back a bad contract, but Gonchar could still be of use to a contending team for the next two-plus seasons.
The Philadelphia Flyers will ... enter the postseason unsure of their situation in goal — again. Sergei Bobrovsky has had a spectacular rookie campaign, but as long as the Flyers are contenders, their fans will worry about their goaltender. With three goalies earning NHL money already, Philly is in no place to add another player, but I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Laviolette had to revisit going with the backup (like he did in winning the Cup with Cam Ward replacing Martin Gerber in Carolina in 2006) in order to stabilize his situation in net.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will ... be stunned early in the playoffs, leading to questions about the long-term viability of having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin eat up nearly $17.5 million for the next two season. Malkin to the Kings, anyone?
The Tampa Bay Lightning will ... come back to the pack and lose the Southeast title to the reigning division champs, the Washington Capitals. With Dwayne Roloson — the NHL's oldest goalie — their only legitimate option in net, the Lightning will bow out of the playoffs early and be left with questions in goal and on defense heading into 2011-12.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will ... part ways with several veteran players and finally start rebuilding the right way — by losing big for the next few seasons. The good news is the losing part won't take getting used to.
The Washington Capitals will ... live and die with the performance of Alexander Semin. I have no concerns that Alex Ovechkin will rebound in time for the postseason, but if Semin has another stinker of a playoff, don't be surprised if he and his $6.7 million, one-year extension aren't sent on a rail to somewhere on the West Coast.