4 teams, 2 spots in Northern playoff battle

There are about 30 games to play in the regular season and there is a four-team scramble (possibly six teams, if you pull the magnifying glass back a bit) in the Northern Conference for playoff spots. In the Southern Conference, four teams are virtually tied for the last three spots, meaning one will be left without a chair when the music stops.

Northern Conference
The Kostitsyn brothers are both in the playoff hunt, but with different teams. Sergei (left) plays for Minsk, while Andrei is an Edinburgh Capital.

The Kostitsyn brothers are both in the playoff hunt, but with different teams. Sergei (left) plays for Minsk, while Andrei is an Edinburgh Capital.

The top five teams seem to be cruising toward the post season and sixth-place Gothenburg, which has lost fewer home games in regulation time than anyone in the EURO League, has a little breathing room. But London has been coming on like gangbusters lately and suddenly there is a crowd of four teams in spots 7-10, all within four points of each other. A good winning streak by Oslo would put the Outlaws in that group, but right now, they are in 11th place and 4 points behind London.

If Gothenburg goes downhill or Oslo surges forward, things will change, but as of this moment, it looks like a four-team rugby scrum for the last two playoff spots. None of the four teams seems to have a statistical advantage over the others. If you sort the team statistics, they remain bunched together in almost every category. All four are in the bottom 11 of the league in both goal scoring and goals against average.

Rose in the home office got some help from her nephew, looked up information online, and offered the following advice to the four teams.

7th place – Minsk Hussars. The third-most penalized team in the league could give their penalty killers and goalie a break by taking one or two fewer penalties each game. Otherwise, Minsk seems balanced. Good and bad equally. For example, Minsk’s top three scorers are all in the minus 20 range. Patrik Berglund has done very well as the second-line center but he has coughed up the puck to opponents more than anyone on the team. Third-line center Jacob Josefson has a great plus-minus rating, 10 more takeaways than giveaways, but only one goal. The Hussars should get in if they commit fewer penalties or if they follow defenseman Kris Russell’s lead. The 26-year-old might be one of the most underrated players in the league. He doesn’t hit as often as the other D-men on Minsk, but he has been durable, smart with the puck and ranks second on the team in plus-minus and shot blocks.

8th place – Edinburgh Capitals. The Caps’ powerplay needs to improve and they have to cut the goals against the rest of the way or they are going to be passed up by Belfast and/or London. It is interesting to note that Edinburgh gives up the fourth fewest shots per game in the league, so begin the finger pointing at goalies Ilya Bryzgalov and James Reimer right about … now. John Tavares and James Neal have 24 and 25 goals, respectively, and have been offensive forces for the Capitals this season. Edinburgh will stay in playoff position if those two keep up the pace. For that matter, third-liners Chris Stewart and Brandon Dubinsky have exceeded a lot of people’s expectations and they also need to keep up their pace.

(Side note: Of the four teams, the seventh- and eighth-place teams each has a Kostitsyn in their lineup. The ninth- and 10th-place teams don’t. Rose thinks Belfast and London should scout people named Kostitsyn. And soon.)

9th place – Belfast Giants. Get on the powerplay. Rose isn’t advocating taking dives, but get on the powerplay. Belfast scores 20.4 percent of the time when they have the man advantage. Only three teams have better powerplay numbers. That means the health of top unit members Sidney Crosby, P.K. Subban, Olivier Roland, Nazem Kadri and Justin Faulk is paramount. Hire a nurse for each one of them for every minute they’re off the ice. Of the four teams in the scrum, Belfast boasts the best goalies in Cory Schneider and Ondrej Pavelec. That will help a lot.

10th place – London Dons. Don’t let other teams get on the powerplay – especially Belfast. London’s penalty killing is really bad and if anything will prevent them from making the playoffs, it’s that. Their recent 8-2 run, coupled with the fact four of their top seven scorers came from trades earlier this season could mean the Dons have developed some chemistry. If the trend continues and London gets in, credit GM Geoff Paul for moves that brought Sam Gagner, Pavel Datsyuk, Teddy Purcell and Kevin Shattenkirk to England. Coach Ken Hitchcock has an interesting strategy going. He has the team’s top three scorers playing on three different lines – and none on the top line. As of this morning, all-star Taylor Hall is listed on the second line, all-star Devin Setoguchi on the third, and Tyler Bozak centers the fourth line.

Tomorrow: The Southern Conference schmozzle that includes Bratislava, Bern, Frankfurt and Geneva.


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