Three teams, two spots

On Monday evening, I joined the folks at Driving Play for their playoff race podcast and one of the topics that came up was the battle for the last two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals are currently separated by a total of four points and at the time of the recording, the Sabres and Caps were tied with 84 points going into their showdown the next day. When we were asked which two of these teams would be the most likely to make the playoffs, I said that Ottawa will likely stay in the 7th spot and that Washington will make it in because Buffalo isn’t that good.

Well….I got at least one of those predictions right. Ottawa is sitting tight at the #7 spot but the Sabres absolutely demolished the Caps last night 5-1, have claimed the #8 spot in the East and I look kind of like a jackass. There is still another week of hockey to be played so things can change but Buffalo definitely has to like their chances of making the playoffs now when you compare their schedule to Washington’s.

The reason why I did not pick Buffalo despite their recent hot streak is because they are still a pretty bad team when playing at even strength in close games . Another thing is that a main reason for their turnaround is Ryan Miller having a .937 even strength save percentage in March and quite a few of their skaters have been striking gold lately as nearly 10% of their five-on-five shots have been goals. I figured that they will cool off eventually and return to how they were earlier in the season but I overlooked a couple things.

1. There’s only a week left in the season the small sample size of Buffalo’s hot streak could be enough to get them in.

2. Washington hasn’t been that much better, if at all.

More to come after the jump.

Here are some various numbers from Ottawa, Washington and Buffalo in the month of March.

W L OTL Pts FenClose Sv% Sh% Clear
Buffalo 10 2 2 22 0.516 0.94 9.8 7
Ottawa 5 5 2 12 0.527 0.926 8 4
Washington 6 5 3 15 0.497 0.912 7.2 3

FenClose = Fenwick percentage in close games, Sv% = team even strength save percentage, Sh% = team shooting percentage, Clear = number of clear victories, which are wins by more than one goal.

Have the Sabres been getting incredibly lucky in March? Absolutely. Miller is a great goaltender, but a save percentage that high is going to come down soon unless he has a run similar to his hot streak during the 2010 Olympics. The team’s shooting percentage has also been abnormally high over the last month, which is likely the result of a small sample size but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the Sabres will not continue to shoot at over 15% when Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno are on the ice. Those three have accounted for 43% of the Sabres goals and have some of the worst even strength possession numbers on the team right now. If they hit a wall over the next week, they could be in trouble, especially if Miller has a couple bad games.

With that being said, they have been controlling possession at a slightly better rate than Washington over the last month, have been getting much stronger goaltending and are picking up points at the right time. It’s a little odd to see this kind of emergence from them because they were tagged as sellers at the trade deadline, but great goaltending, some contributions from rookies and a lot of luck have them back in the mix. The theory behind this is that they will regress back to normal soon, but with so few games left in the season, this hot streak could be enough to get the Sabres into the playoffs.

One of the main reasons for that is because the Capitals have not been a good team under Dale Hunter. At all. Their possession rates have improved a bit over the last month and they have been teetering around 50% in Fenwick close during that time. If they can get Tomas Vokoun back as soon as possible and have him play to his potential, then Washington has a better chance. Like the Sabres are finding out, goaltending coupled with other things can take you a long way and the Caps goalies have been below average for all of March. Their skaters haven’t been getting much luck at even strength either but the Caps aren’t exactly dominating territorially right now so it’s not like that’s what is keeping them back.

As for the Senators, I think they will be fine. They are playing good enough to make the playoffs and the four point cushion helps. They have also played fewer games in march so that’s why their counting numbers look slightly worse than the rest of the pack.

I stand by my comment about Buffalo not being as good of a team as their recent hot streak indicates but I did overlook a few things. Mostly how few remaining games there are and how little room for error there is at the point of the season. It should be an exciting finish if Washington can put some kind of run together, which is very possible.