If I had a nickel for every time I've heard playoff prognosticators discuss the importance of a team entering the playoffs on a hot streak, well, I probably wouldn't be staring down a microwave burrito for lunch right now. In any sport, people place a lot of emphasis on team's "peaking at the right time." New York fans only need to dial back to this past winter to recall sports soothsayers uttering as much about the New York Giants. And we all know how that played out.
So, who's hot in hockey? Here's a quick look at the Eastern Conference over the last 11 games (I added an extra game to help account for some teams resting stars in the stretch run) to see how the first-round series stack up.
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams (Last 11 Games)
Above you can really see the importance of the Rangers finishing first overall in the East. Not only do they get to face Ottawa -- one of just two teams with a negative goal differential over the last 11 games, not to mention a team that's lost three in a row -- but due to the NHL's re-seeding rules, a Rangers win in the first round could likely set up a meeting with the New Jersey Devils instead of the Philadelphia Flyers or the smoking-hot Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2. Not to mention, the No. 1 seed assures the Rangers they won't meet the Boston Bruins -- who seem to have entered into the same late-season beast mode that carried them to the 2011 Stanley Cup -- until the Eastern Conference Finals.
But let's jump back a step. Why do I think there could be an upset in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 game?
Thanks to a win by the Florida Panthers in their regular season finale, the Devils get to play the other team with a negative goal differential, ironically a Division champ, instead of the Washington Capitals. Averaging just two goals per game over their last 11 contests, the Panthers aren't going to inspire too much fear in anyone with their recent play. And that's particularly true given their heavy reliance on OT losses just to make the postseason field.
While certainly nothing is guaranteed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a look at this simple heat index says the odds could be downright decent for a Rangers-Devils postseason grudge match.
Paging Stephane Matteau ...