Coming Down the Homestretch…
Only two of the division leaders in the Eastern or Western Conference are safe–the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks.
The Caps put a seal on the Southeast Division after only 69 games. The team closes to Washington–Atlanta, has 71 points and is fighting to be in the playoff mix.
The Caps, unless they go into a slump, should run away with the Eastern Conference as well. So, the fight is going to be for second and third- the Atlantic and Northeast divisions still up for grabs. The Pittsburgh Penguins lead New Jersey by one point, despite dropping all of its games against the rivaling Devils this season. The Pens, however, have played one more game. Trailing the Devils by nine points are the Philadelphia Flyers, who are going to be desperately trying to make up points despite losing their top netminder, Michael Leighton for 8-10 weeks with an ankle injury. If the playoffs started today, the Devils and Flyers, 4th and 5th in the East, respectively, would play in a bitter quarterfinal matchup.
In the Northeast, it’s the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres lead the Sens by five points, the Canadiens by six. The Canadiens have been the hotter team lately, winning six straight games. On the other hand, Buffalo has two games at hand on both teams.
The fifth through eighth seeds in the East are not safe. The Flyers (79), Senators (79) and Canadiens (78) will be battling for better playoff positioning while the Boston Bruins (8th, 71 points) hang on for dear life. On the outside looking in are the Atlanta Thrashers (71), New York Rangers (71) and and Tampa Bay Lightning (68). The team with the best chance to make the playoffs are the New York Rangers, who have a more favorable schedule. Their dilemma, eight of their last 11 games are on the road.
Prediction: The Rangers sneak in and the Bruins are ousted. The two teams play in Boston on Sunday in NBC’s Game of the Week.
Out west, the playoff scenarios are even more perplexing.
Two of the divisions are still up for grabs–and who may come out on top may surprise you. The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks are tied for the conference lead (96 points). The Blackhawks lead only because they have two more wins than the Sharks in the same number of games played (70). In third are the Vancouver Canucks, who survived a franchise record 14-game road trip to take a five point lead over the surprising and youthful Colorado Avalanche.
The Vancouver Canucks have been known to falter late the season. The Colorado Avalanche aren’t far behind. The Calgary Flames trail 12 points–points that are going to be hard to make up in a highly competitive Western Conference. Six of their games are against opponents who rank higher in the standings, plus they have one game against the high-powered Capitals.
In the Pacific, it’s the Phoenix Coyotes who trail the highly-touted Sharks by three points. The Coyotes have some important games coming up against Western Conference rivals and division foes. They play the San Jose Sharks in their last game of the season for both teams. Will the division be decided in that one game?
While the Colorado Avalance (86), Los Angeles Kings (85) and Nashville Predators (85) will battle for playoff positioning (the 5th through 7th seeds, respectively), it will be the Detroit Red Wings (8th, 80 points), Calgary Flames (79) and St. Louis Blues (75) vying for the final spot in the west.
Prediction: With a seemingly more favorable schedule, the Red Wings will squeak into the playoffs by a point.