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COMMENTARY

There’s a big playoff divide in the East

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s too early to count out the Florida Panthers. They’re 13-8-4 in the last 25 games, and they have the talent and goaltending to make a playoff push during the second half of the season.

Aside from them, the Eastern Conference could have less intensity than the All-Star Game when the NHL resumes.

The league that prides itself on parity and meaningful games down the stretch may not have either in the East. It appears seven of the 15 teams can start gearing up for the Draft Lottery instead of the Stanley Cup.

Buffalo is 26 points away from a playoff spot. Carolina is 20 points out. The other teams – New Jersey (15), Columbus (14), Philadelphia (12), Toronto and Ottawa (10 each) – will need multiple hot streaks and collapses at the top in order to sniff a postseason race.

If it seems crazy that so many teams can already look toward next season, that’s because it is. Consider this: One year ago today, only two teams in the East (Florida and Buffalo) were more than six points out of a playoff spot. The teams from ninth place through 13th were all within two points of the final position.

There won’t be many Eastern cities watching the standings this season. Well, at least not for playoff purposes. They will watch to see what kind of odds they’ll get for Connor McDavid’s lottery ball.

The lack of drama in the East was just one note from the first half. Here are others:

• Los Angeles hit the break outside of a playoff spot. Is a king-sized Stanley Cup hangover finally hitting L.A.?

Not really. The Kings certainly can play better, but they’d be in a postseason position if they could win when the games get past regulation. L.A. has a league-worst 12 overtime losses, including their 1-7 record in shootouts.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs are a mess. They’ve gone through one coach, and the team is struggling to adapt to the defense-first plan of interim coach Peter Horachek. The Leafs have lost six straight and 14 of the last 16.

“What do we have to do, slay a dragon?” exasperated forward Phil Kessel said.

• Detroit is second in the Atlantic Division, one point behind Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay. The Red Wings have won five straight and are 13 points better than were at this point last season. The surprising part is they’ve gotten better with little roster turnover.

“Around July 5 when not much happened last summer, I was disappointed – just like a few of my veteran players who called me were disappointed, too,” coach Mike Babcock said. “I don’t think any of us would’ve believed we’d be in this spot, the general manager and myself included.”

• One of the things I remember most from the 2006 Eastern Conference finals were the boring interviews by Peter Laviolette. They were torturous.

Now the only thing he’s torturing are his opponents. In his first year with Nashville, Laviolette has the Predators second overall in the NHL with 65 points (30-10-5).

Rookie Filip Forsberg is a revelation with a team-high 15 goals and 40 points. It helps to have a healthy Pekka Rinne, too, as the goalie is 29-6-2 with a .931 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average. They’re the favorites for the Calder and Vezina trophies.

• Winnipeg is ready to bring the playoffs to the frozen tundra for the first time since 1996. With 60 points, the Jets are just two behind Central Division big shots Chicago and St. Louis. Goalie Michael Hutchinson is 14-4-2 with a .935 save percentage and 1.90 GAA.

• The Stars’ Tyler Seguin plays for the right team. He’s a star. Run out of Boston because of his partying ways, the 22-year-old center leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace for 93 points.

“Do I think the Bruins gave up on me too early? Yes, I 100 percent believe that,” Seguin wrote Friday on ThePlayersTribune.com.

Tippett can relate to Nolan

Anyone who’s watched Ted Nolan descend from upbeat optimist to tortured soul knows that coaches take the biggest hit during rebuilds. Dave Tippett can attest to that.

The Coyotes are in position to challenge Buffalo for 30th place. General Manager Don Maloney has apparently listened to his assistant GM, Darcy Regier, and is going full speed ahead with a tank. Tippett, who was Coach of the Year in 2010, is taking it hard.

“We’ve got to find some kind of plan here to try to move our group ahead because this is unacceptable,” Tippett said.

“You’ve got a bunch of kids that are learning how to play. That’s all you can say.”

Arizona is 16-25-5 and 0-5-1 in the last six games.

“You deal with it in a professional way,” Tippett said. “You come to work and make sure you don’t let your teammates down and look at the guy beside you and make sure you play hard every night and doing your job. If that guy beside you does his job, you’ll stay competitive.

“I think we’re still a good enough team that we should win some games, but we need everybody to pull to do that.”

Like Nolan, Tippett has been unimpressed with his newcomers.

“The reality is you’re going to put young players in your lineup,” Tippett said. “They’re getting great opportunity. If they’re coming in stale, we might have the wrong players there.”

On the fly

• With a 6-3 defeat Wednesday, the Flames have lost 20 straight games in Anaheim. It’s tied for the fourth-longest losing streak of its kind behind Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (24 games from 1980 to ‘87), the Rangers at Montreal (21, 1954-57) and Washington at Montreal (21, 1975-81). St. Louis lost 20 straight in Philly from 1972-79.

• Steven Stamkos expects to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Tampa’s captain wants to sign an extension in July, a full year before he’s eligible for free agency. “I feel like the old fart at 24, all these guys coming in here,” Stamkos said, “but they’ve played extremely well and I want to be part of it to say I was there from the beginning to see the end result.”

• Ryan Miller’s roller-coaster season just completed another high spot. The Vancouver goaltender had a shutout streak of 200 minutes, 45 seconds. “I’m just playing with good awareness and good energy,” he said. “Not every game has gone the way I wanted, but I think I was reading the play OK and putting myself in good position. I’m just going to try and continue that. It’s just a matter of getting your head in the right place.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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