It's my estimation the best thing for a team going into the playoffs is to be riding a hot streak. Every team goes through hot and cold streaks during the year and going in limping may spell doom for your favorite team. This is not a perfect formula, but you can bet the Philadelphia Flyers rode the momentum of their season-ending shootout win over the New York Rangers pretty far in their run to the Stanley Cup final last year. Here are some teams and players who are trending in a certain direction and how it may affect their playoff chances. I'll do the eastern Conference today and the West tomorrow.
Thomas Vanek: With Derek Roy done for the year just 35 games into the season, the pressure has been on Ryan Miller more than ever. After posting amazing numbers last year (41-18-8, 2.22 GAA, .929 SV%) he has become more pedestrian this year (29-20-7, 2.70 GAA, .912 SV%) leaving the Buffalo Sabres in a fight for one of the bottom seeds. In come the notoriously streaky Vanek who has two goals and eight points in his past five games, four of which have been Sabres wins. They are currently tied with the Rangers for eighth, four points over the Carolina Hurricanes. With six of their next thirteen games, including tonight's game against the Hurricanes, against teams within six points of catching the Sabres, it is important Vanek keep this hot streak up. they have seven games remaining against teams in the top-half in goals against and five (Nashville Predators, Montreal Canadiens , New Jersey Devils, the Rangers and Washington Capitals) are in the top 10 meaning goals are going to be very difficult to come by for the rest of the season. Should Vanek stay at at least a point per game, the Sabres should be in good shape to lock down one of the final spots.
Washington Capitals: The best thing that could have happened to the Capitals this season did. They struggled. They haven't been able to score, they faced a number of important injuries and their goaltending has been inconsistent. The transition towards a defensive game in the beginning of the season didn't go quite as smooth as planned, but they have righted the ship and are ready to soar in the playoffs. Winners of their past eight and 10 of 11 allowing only 19 goals (13 taking away their 6-0 loss to the Rangers) in that span, the Caps are playing well at the right time of the year. They have been so dominate the past two seasons, it may have caused them to think the playoffs would be a breeze, but they were sadly mistaken both times. A 50-24-8 record for 108 points (fourth overall in the NHL) and 54-15-13 record for 121 points (first overall) the past two seasons was followed by just one playoff series win and two Game 7 losses on home ice. Alex Ovechkin has seven goals and 17 points in his past 12 games and after facing adversity for the first time in three seasons, he appears ready to play a complete game and dominate in the playoffs.
Tim Thomas: Throughout most of the season, Thomas was on pace to obliterate records for goals-against average and save percentage. At the end of January, he was on pace for the third lowest GAA since the modern era began in 1947 with a 1.81 GAA (only Miikka Kiprusoff, 1.69 2003-04 and Marty Turco, 1.72 2002-03 have been lower) and the highest save percentage by far at .945 (Dominik Hasek, .937 1998-99). Those numbers, while still the best in the league by far, have slowly been dropping the in month-and-a-half since. His stats since the beginning of February are a 5-4-2 record, .915 SV% and 2.73 GAA. Unless he allows eight goals every game from now until the end of the season, he is all but guaranteed the Vezina Trophy. At the same time, the Bruins are starting to struggle to score goals, potting more than two just once in the past six games. It becomes even tougher to score in the playoffs as they found out last year when their offense suddenly went dry after game 4 against the Flyers in the second round and if Thomas' 2.73 GAA since February keeps climbing, the Bruins could be in trouble. Right now they are set to face the Canadiens, a team who has given them trouble throughout their long rivalry and has at least three goals in eight of their past nine. Thomas is still having a phenomenal season, but now is not the time for his game to start slipping.
Philadelphia Flyers: As I stated above, each team goes through slumps and the Flyers are in theirs right now. A 4-4-2 record in their past 10 isn't terrible until you see who they are losing to. Three of the losses are against teams out of a playoff spot (Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Atlanta Thrashers) and two of them are against the two teams tied for eighth (Sabres, Rangers). Two of those losses are really embarrassing, dropping a 7-0 decision against rival Rangers and blowing 3-0 and 4-2 leads in the third period to lose in overtime to the Thrashers. Their 4-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers doesn't really count because, well, its the Oilers. This does not bode well because since the lockout, four of the five Stanley Cup winning teams (assuming they make it that far) have had a better record in their last 10 games than their counterpart. Last season, only three of eight series was won by the team that had a worse record in their last 10 games. The team with the worst record to win a playoff series was the Canadiens who went 3-4-3 before upsetting the Capitals. It took them overtime to beat the Islanders and the two games against the Leafs were close and not very well played. They still have 14 games to get this trend turned around, but with their goaltending starting to falter and their history with that position, it doesn't look so good right now.