There is less than a month left in the regular season and the Eastern Conference Playoff picture is starting to shape up. There is still a lot to be determined so we thought we’d get out our prognosticating hats and make some Eastern Conference Playoff predictions. As of 3/4/11 the standings look like this:

 

Reading Royals – The Royals are in. The question will be it they can hang onto the top seed in the Conference. They will no doubt win the Atlantic Division which will assure them of a top 3 seeding. The Challenge for the top honours will come from Dean Stork’s Greenville squad.

Greenville Road Warriors – The Road Warriors have been one of the most consistent teams all season and will make the post season. Despite their lackluster performance for Dean Stork’s return to USBA, they will be the team to beat come playoff time. Greenville plays the right kind of game when it comes to play off hockey; defensively sound with solid goaltending.

Kalamazoo Wings – The Wings have been on a tear lately. They’re probably the hottest team in the Conference right now. They will most likely win the North Division and the 3rd playoff seed. The question that will determine the Wings success will be goaltending. Ryan Nie should be back stopping the Wings in the playoffs. We’re thinking their current use of Riley Gill is simply to get Nie some rest since he’s carried the load for the Wings all season. The issue with Nie is in his head. If the Wings can get him a lead, he gets confident and can play lights out. However, if the opposition can get to him early, the game can get out of hand before they realize it. The Wings play a tight checking game in both zones and have enough skill to take advantage of the opportunities they get.

South Carolina Stingrays – Cail MacLean’s team is in and could still possible contend for the South Division Title. The ‘Rays will have their work cut out for them if they want to catch the Road Warriors but once in the playoffs everyone starts from scratch with the same goal, 15 wins. The ‘Rays have a head coach in MacLean, who as an assistant to Jared Bednar, hoisted the Kelly Cup in 2009. Should it happen, a potential meeting between the Stingrays and the Road Warriors would be one to watch.

Florida Everblades – The ‘Blades fast start should have been enough to get them in. They’ve been struggling as of late due to lack of goaltending. They play a run and gun style of game which can put up goals in bunches but from what we’ve observed in their game, doesn’t yield much in the way in puck possession. In fact, in the games we’ve watched, whether it be in person of on AmericaOne, Florida doesn’t seem to interested in playing 5 on 5 possession type hockey, regardless of whether is offensively or defensively. It’s a game that’s fun to watch but puts a lot pressure on the net minders. We can’t see the ‘Blades sticking around too long if they don’t get the services of Goepfert or Janus back, especially since as the probable 5th seed they will get a 1st round match up with either South Carolina or Greenville.

***

The top 5 seeds are pretty safe. There could be a little shuffling to happen but the real discussion will take place over the 6th, 7th and 8th slots.

Wheeling Nailers – The Wheeling Nailers are in a complete free fall since losing the majority of the team to AHL call up. The Nailers’ success this season has been a direct result of the players assigned to them by their affiliates and now due to injuries throughout the food chain, they find themselves with a line up depleted of skilled players and despite their best efforts have gone winless in their last 10 games. The future doesn’t look bright for the Nailers either. There are 3 players on IR for the Pens that the Wilkesbarre/Scranton Baby Pens were hoping to have on their Clear Day rosters, unfortunately there is no loop hole, if a player is on a NHL roster at the trade deadline he is not eligible to be on the Clear Day Roster and therefore not eligible to play the reainder of the AHL season, including the Calder Cup Playoff. That all translates to 3 more players Wheeling won’t be getting back as well. In fact, the Nailers were lucky to get Schnell and Haddad back. Taking a look at the Nailers’ remaining schedule, we feel their going to have a hard time hanging on. If they do, it will be for 8th.

Elmira Jackals – The Jackals are a bit of a surprise right now. They’ve gone from being a struggling team to being on a roll; all since firing Malcolm Cameron. Elmira currently holds the tiebreaker with Cincinnati having one more win than the ‘Clones. The question for Elmira will be if they can keep up the current run or if their recent success is just a boost from the coaching change.

Cincinnati Cyclones – We haven’t always agreed with coach Skalde’s philosophies here on CycWords but one thing is clear, he’s going to do what he feels is best to get the Team playing the way he wants. This season that has meant changing the roster. Those decisions haven’t always been popular with fans but there is no doubt the team is better now than they were at the beginning. There are still some questions remaining, especially around the defensive core and goaltending but overall Skalde and Co have done enough to get in provided they keep it going.

Gwinnett Gladiators – The Gladiators are on the outside looking in right now. They will have to overtake both Cincinnati and Toledo to get in. Even with a game left against the Cyclones, the 2 extra games played by the Gladiators will probably haunt. The Gladiators best chance lies in going on a run over their last 6-8 games and get help from Toledo in the form of wins over the Cyclones.

Toledo Walleye – Of the teams on the outside, Toledo probably has the best chance of sneaking in. They have 3 games left with Wheeling which could prove to be pivotal for the 8th spot, not to mention the 3 games remaining against the Cyclones. It’s been a common theme in this post, but Toledo’s success will be tied into their goaltending. The Fish have struggled defensively all year allowing the 2nd most goals in the Conference. If they don’t tighten up in their own zone it will be an early tee time.

Trenton Devils – We just checked in with the country club and their tee times are already booked. Let’s face it, while not mathematically eliminated, the Devils have been awful all season and there’s no reason to think that is going to change.

***

Back in January we guessed it would take roughly 75 points to get in. It still looks like that is going to be the number. That being said here’s our guess at the final standing:

  1. Reading Royals
  2. Greenville Road Warriors
  3. Kalamazoo Wings
  4. South Carolina Sting Rays
  5. Florida Everblades
  6. Elmira Jackals
  7. Cincinnati Cyclones
  8. Wheeling Nailers

There could be some shuffling in the top 5 but we think they’re pretty well set. The question is going to be Wheeling’s free fall; if Killeen and Delmas can stay healthy they should be able to hang on. However, even if they do to hang onto 8th, they would get a 1st round match up with Reading which will not likely end well for them. There is a chance the ‘Clones could overtake Elmira for the 5th spot but given that it sets up a 1st round date with Kalamazoo, we would rather them stick in 7th.

The top the 3 teams get to select the 1st round format which will be best of 5, they can choose between hosting games 1 and 2 or games 3-5. We guess that unless there are other issues (building usage etc) teams will have learned from last season and start on the road.

In the Quarter final match ups we’ve got…

Reading over Wheeling 3-1 – Killeen will be able to steal a game but not much more.

Greenville over Cincinnati 3-2 – We really hope the Boys can carry the success they’ve had against the South Division into the playoffs, but we can’t see the Boys pulling off an upset. Especially  Dean Stork has his full roster back, Greenville is just scary if that’s the case.

Kalamazoo over Elmira 3-1 – Kalamazoo is playing their best hockey of the year right now and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. We doubt the Jackals ability to keep their current momentum going.

South Carolina over Florida 3-1 – South Carolina is the real dark house and Florida’s play is too one dimensional. The ‘Rays should handle the ‘Blades without too much of and issue.

In the Semifinals…

South Carolina beats Reading 4-2 – Reading will put up a fight but Cail MacLean’s defense will get the job done.

Greenville beats Kalamazoo 4-2 – Despite how well they’re playing now, we can’t see the Wings upsetting Greenville. The Road Warriors are the team to beat.

That will set up South Carolina and Greenville in the Conference Finals. We’re going to give to Greenville 4-3. That will send Dean Stork to the Kelly Cup Final where he’ll probably face either Las Vegas or Alaska. If it’s Las Vegas, anyone want to go?

-Mike-

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