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Netcrashing: Which non-playoff team will play their way in?

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Jamie Bell, TSN.ca Staff
1/27/2011 1:54:02 PM
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There's been no shortage of pleasant surprises during the first half of the NHL season to choose from.  Whether it be the resurrection of the Tampa Bay Lightning under new general manager Steve Yzerman, the ongoing 'Miracle in the Music City' act by Barry Trotz and the Predators in Nashville, or the surging "Blackhawks South" in the Atlanta Thrashers, it's clear that several teams have shattered expectations and clearly have reasons to feel good about themselves.

Unfortunately for the aforementioned teams, things going well don't make for good editorial copy!  While fans around the league may admire the spectacular job that Trotz does year-after-year with limited resources in Nashville, patrons are far more interested when the train goes completely off the tracks as it has so far this season in New Jersey where the Devils are floundering.

While the Devils may have earned the title of most disappointing first half team, there are plenty of contenders for the crown. 

The Ottawa Senators entered the season with playoff aspirations, but are currently mired in a five-game losing streak and are circling the drain in the Eastern Conference.

Similarly out West, there were plenty of reasons for optimism prior to the season in St. Louis.  An enormous trade with Montreal brought the Blues the starting goaltender they were in search of.  As well, the belief that their young, developing talent would continue to head in the right direction led many Blues fans to believe that this could be their year to make noise in the post-season.  As you read this, the Blues are stuck in 14th in the Western Conference and have won just twice in their past 10 games.

While the NHL's All-Star break may not be the exact half-way point of the season, (most teams have played at least 50 games) it does mark a clear dividing point where a team can no longer use the excuse, 'We just got off to a bad start.'

So will any team currently outside of a playoff position be able to punch their ticket to the big dance in the second half of the season?

The good news for those currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, is that there is time to turn their seasons around.

The bad news is that it's statistically improbable.

When looking at the standings prior to the All-Star break since the lockout in 2005, what becomes apparent is that if a team is not positioned inside the top eight in either conference, chances are they're missing out on the big dance.

When the NHL paused for the Olympics last season, 15 of the 16 teams that would eventually compete for the Stanley Cup were situated comfortably in playoff positions in their respective Conferences.  The Detroit Red Wings were the only team that earned their way in, nudging out the Calgary Flames who were hanging on to the bottom rung in the Western playoff picture.

This is the trend rather than the exception since the lockout.

The 2008-09 season had the most movement overall of any season in the past five with three teams pushing their way in. While the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes all entered the break with post-season dreams dancing in their heads, when the smoke cleared it was the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets who had to postpone their tee times as they had playoff dates to deal with.

The Blues situation was particularly impressive as they entered the break that season sitting dead last in the Western Conference with just 42 points.  Their unbelievable second half surge saw them jump all the way to sixth in the Conference, picking up a phenomenal 50 points down the stretch.

The three seasons prior to that saw only two different teams work their way in each year.  In 2007-08 the Hurricanes replaced the Isles in the East while the Predators took the Canucks spot in the West. 

In 2006-07, it was the Islanders and Penguins replacing the Canadiens and Hurricanes and the 2005-06 season saw the Sharks and Ducks switch places with the Canucks and Kings.

So if only 10 teams have bettered their situation over the past five years, the question that presents itself now is who are the candidates for this season's second-half streakers?

Sportsclubstats.com - a website that dedicates itself to calculating the odds of making the playoffs - updates the statistics daily using a complex mathematical formula that takes into account several variables that allow them to predict things, such as the final standings in the NHL this season.

According to the website, the Kings, who sit 11th in the West, have the best chance of any team outside the top eight in their respective Conferences, to burst their way in to the post-season.  The site's weighted expected winning percentage theory gives Los Angeles a 60.4 percent shot at the playoffs.  Their chances are currently superior to the ninth ranked Avalanche as they currently have two more wins, have a better record in their past 10 games and have allowed 41 goals less than Colorado.  As well, the Kings are the only team currently outside of the playoff picture that has scored more goals (143) than they have allowed (124).

When we look at the East, the Hurricanes appear to be the team most likely to work their way into the top eight.  The ninth place Canes are listed as having a 61.4 percent chance of making the post-season according to sportsclubstats.com which is actually better than the odds for the eighth place Atlanta Thrashers.  Carolina has 25 wins in 50 games so far, while the Thrashers have 24 in 52.  The Hurricanes have one more goal scored than the Thrashers on the season (153 to 152) and have allowed 11 less goals (155 to 166).  Also, the Canes are currently hot, having won three of their last four, while Atlanta has only three wins in their last 10 games. 

In fact, the Hurricanes are not the Thrashers only threat as the website gives the 11th place Florida Panthers as good a chance at reaching the playoffs as Atlanta.  Despite trailing the divisional rival Thrashers by 8 points in the standings, the Panthers have three games in hand and have scored as many goals (131) as they have allowed.  

In terms of completely hopeless situations, it appears as though the Devils, Islanders, Oilers and Senators can start booking their tee times as they all have zero percent chance of making the playoffs - according to the site.  Maple Leaf fans can take heart in the fact that they have a 0.2 percent chance of still working their way in, but they still might want to hold off on purchasing their playoff packages or planning any parades just yet.

Obviously statistics can be used to prove virtually any argument, and sometimes stats alone don't tell the whole story. 

The Calgary Flames are listed as having only an 18 percent chance to break through, however their odds have jumped significantly lately thanks to a four game winning streak.  Pair that with the veteran leadership of Jarome Iginla and a probable return to form for Miikka Kiprusoff and suddenly the Flames could make some real noise in the second half.

Obviously, there are a couple of enormous intangibles going forward that makes some of these calculations more like speculations.  The first is the NHL's trade deadline. 

When the league gets back underway following the break on Monday, NHL general managers will have less than a month to decide if they will be buyers or sellers at the Feb. 28 deadline.  A team in a battle for their playoff lives could acquire a few key pieces and suddenly go on a second-half run.  Similarly one bad trade could quickly upset the chemistry on a team, thus turning a contender into a pretender. 

The second factor which is impossible to account for is of course injuries.  A star player is lost for the season and a red hot team rapidly becomes ice cold.  A top goaltender injures himself at practice and all of a sudden a team's Stanley Cup hopes rests solely on the shoulders of an unproven backup.

While it is impossible to predict what will happen, it certainly is fun to speculate.

Our question for you in the latest edition of Netcrashing is the following: 'Which team currently out of the playoff picture will work their way inside the top eight by season's end?'

Let your opinion be known in our 'Your Call' feature below.

Jeff Skinner and Jack Johnson (Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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