The conference was the butt of jokes for months, nicknamed the “Leastern Conference” primarily because of just how badly it was being pummelled by the heavyweight teams of the West.
The NHL standings reflected that pretty well, too. Looking back, exactly a month ago today, the eighth and final playoff team in the East at that point was the New Jersey Devils, and they were on pace for a pitiful 82 points at season’s end.
In the Western Conference, meanwhile, the eighth-place team was on pace for 97.
But what’s happened since then has been remarkable: The East has gotten good.
Heading into Wednesday night’s games, the Philadelphia Flyers were 12-4-3 in their past 19 games, the Columbus Blue Jackets 11-3-0 in their past 14, the Devils 9-4-5 in their past 18, the Ottawa Senators 8-2-3 in their past 13 and the New York Rangers 11-4-1 in their past 16.
And if you want, you can even include the New York Islanders, who are 10-3-0 since late December, thanks to a Hart Memorial Trophy-calibre surge – 10 goals and 23 points – from 23-year-old captain John Tavares.
Almost everyone that was on the bubble, in other words, is winning.
All that has changed the landscape in the conference dramatically, and if it continues, it could now take upwards of 92 points to qualify for one of the two wild-card spots and make the postseason.
Which brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs, yet another surprising, surging Eastern team.
The Leafs are now comfortably in a playoff spot, with a six-point cushion to work with over the final 30 games. It has been built up over a six-game win streak, which took them from a low of 12th in the conference less than two weeks ago to fifth heading into Thursday’s game in Dallas.
Their chances of making the playoffs, according to sportsclubstats.com, rose from just 12 per cent to nearly 54 per cent in that span.
That’s how quickly things can change when you do nothing but win. But given what’s gone on in the standings, it’s also a glimpse at what would have happened had the Maple Leafs been merely ordinary over this stretch.
What’s happened in the NHL playoff races in years past is things really heat up in March, when teams that are out of it sell off assets at the trade deadline and then begin to struggle to win games. That puts a ton of points up for grabs for the contenders and bubble teams in the final quarter of the year.
The Maple Leafs have only eight games remaining before the Sochi Winter Games break, which will not only give everyone on the roster – save for Olympians Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk (United States) and Nikolai Kulemin (Russia) – nearly three weeks off, but general manager Dave Nonis and his management team some serious time to contemplate what to do before the March 5 trade deadline.
A couple weeks ago, the smart move appeared to be being a seller and recouping some assets to set them up for 2014-15 and beyond.
But two weeks from now, Nonis may even be in a position to add a rental player or two.
Either way, the way things are shaping up in the 16-team Eastern Conference, the Leafs’ bid for the playoffs is likely going to go right down to the final week – and they’ll need to finish in the neighbourhood of 16-13-1 or better to get there.
They’ve set themselves up nicely with this recent streak and so many shootout wins, but the real challenge is going to be consistently playing the way they have lately, avoiding injuries and continuing to get superb goaltending.
Otherwise, this current high won’t last.
Eastern Conference playoff race
Pace on Dec. 23
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