The 3 Teams That Will Surprise the NHL…and Make the Playoffs
by Rick Bouch Scores & Statson
A month and a half into the 2018-19 National Hockey League season and already some heads are turning. The always-contending Pittsburgh Penguins are in last place – yes, last place – in the Metropolitan Division. Last year’s darlings, the Vegas Golden Knights, have had a rough start and just 9-11-1 and in seventh place in the Pacific.
Don’t worry. There will be plenty more surprises before the season is over. When it ends, don’t be shocked when these two teams make the postseason.
CALGARY The Calgary Flames were supposed to contend for a postseason spot last year after qualifying in 2016-17. That didn’t happen as the season got away from them and Calgary won just 37 games. The Flames are simply too talented to allow that to happen again. So far in 2018, they are showing just that.
After 21 games, the Flames are 12-8-1 and have taken over first place in the very competitive Pacific Division. Calgary went out in the offseason and brought in James Neal, a 25-plus-goal scorer, and C Elias Lindholm, who has 11 goals and 22 points. With Matthew Tkachuk (25 pts), Johnny Gaudreau (24), Sean Monahan (24), Lindholm, and Mark Giordano (20); the Flames have five players with at least 20 points already.
Where Calgary really has an advantage is between the pipes. Goaltender David Rittich has taken over for Mike Smith and has been a force. He is 7-1 thus far with a goals-against average of 1.93 and a save percentage of .931. Smith won 25 games last year and had a .916 save percentage. These are two guys that can carry Calgary deep into the postseason.
CAROLINA Wait…what? Carolina? The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs since the 2008-09 season when they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Since then, the Hurricanes have finished no higher than ninth (2010-11) in the East. Each year, Carolina teases its fans but in the end, falls short of the postseason. This is the year.
Currently, Carolina is 9-8-3 and sits in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. One of the big reasons they can finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference is because of their defense. Carolina is tied for 11th in goals against (2.90) and is led by offseason acquisitions Calvin de Haan and Dougie Hamilton. The Hurricanes also have three capable goalies in Scott Darling, Petr Mrazek, and Curtis McElhinney.
Don’t forget. The Hurricanes also have one of the bright young stars in the NHL in forward Sebastian Aho. So far this season, the 21-year-old has six goals and 17 assists for 23 points, a team high. Aho scored 29 goals and had 65 points last year.
FLORIDA Sure, it’s a stretch, but the Florida Panthers have what it takes to make the playoffs this season. So far in 2018-19, the Panthers are 8-7-3 and in last place in the Atlantic Division. Still, they have had flashes of what is achievable like a recent five-game winning streak. The acquisition of LW Mike Hoffman gives Florida a frontline that is simply scary. Aleksander Barkov (6 goals, 17 points) is one of the most underrated forwards in the league.
Don’t forget that in goal for Florida is Roberto Luongo. The 18-year veteran is 4-2 thus far this season with a save percentage of .913 and a goals-against of 2.71. If the Panthers can fix their defensive inefficiencies, they certainly have the offensive firepower to make a postseason run.