A mere three weeks separate today from the conclusion of the 2011-2012 NHL regular season, and the race for the playoffs is as fierce as ever.
While the Washington Capitals, usually a top seed throughout the year, struggle to cling to the No. 8 seed, a number of hot and hungry dark horses are fighting furiously to claim that position for themselves.
As March winds down and April looms large in the calendar, victories have become plentiful for many bubble teams. Moving up the standings, however, is now a much harder task.
The Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes—as well as the desperate aforementioned Capitals—have long since begun their respective postseason surges.
But which lone club will be able to maintain it long enough to grab that precious final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference?
We present our daring predictions for the NHL's final judgement in the coming slides.
Current Position: 10th (76 points)
The Winnipeg Jets have enjoyed an incredibly favorable schedule over the past month, playing a whopping 11 of their last 14 games at home in the MTS Centre.
The Jets' record throughout that stretch—seven wins and seven losses—is not quite as remarkable, though, and their scheduling slate is now about to get tough.
Only three of Winnipeg's final nine games are at home, and six of their last nine will be against teams with roughly equal or better records. They'll start off their drive to the finish line with four games in six days against a brutal line of opponents—Washington, Nashville, Ottawa and the New York Rangers.
Although it's hard to cheer against the feel-good Jets this spring, their extremely difficult stretch run, playoff bubble inexperience (the franchise hasn't made the playoffs since 2007) and recent struggles (only two wins in their last six games) make a playoff berth look quite improbable.
Prediction: 11th (85 points)
Current Position: 11th (73 points)
Carolina sat miserably in the league cellar for much of the season, but young, energetic head coach Kirk Muller has quietly brought the Carolina Hurricanes onto the fringe of the playoff bubble in recent weeks.
The 'Canes have won three games in a row, including an memorable 2-0 victory over St. Louis in the PNC Arena debut and a stirring third-period rally in an electric contest in Winnipeg.
Team captain Eric Staal has rebounded dramatically from his early-season woes to record 10 goals and 27 points in his last 21 games, and fellow forwards Chad LaRose (three goals, plus-six in his last three) and Jiri Tlusty (five goals, 15 points since Feb. 2nd) have performed impressively since returning from injury earlier this month.
With at least a point earned in 23 of their last 29 games, the Hurricanes' still-bleak situation (seven points below the cutoff line) and lack of a reputation shouldn't necessarily write them off completely. Seven or eight wins in their final nine games could be enough to put the 'Canes through on Judgment Day; right now, though, it still looks as if they'll fall a few points short.
Prediction: 10th (87 points)
Current Position: Eighth (80 points)
The Washington Capitals' four-game winning streak earlier this month looked like a reawakening for this star-studded team, but losses in two of their last three games (including a pivotal regulation defeat in Winnipeg) sent the frustrated Caps tumbling back to Earth.
In fact, while Washington has certainly improved over the past month, it's been its horrific play against its closest competitors that has kept the pressure on in America's capital city. Washington has lost three straight to the Hurricanes (by an ugly 12-3 combined score, no less), two straight to the Jets and two of three meetings with the Sabres.
An inconsistent goaltending rotation isn't helping either. 2011 big-fish signing Tomas Vokoun has struggled through a variety of health issues this spring, and young Michal Neuvirth has allowed four goals in three of his last four starts and earned a win in only 11 of 32 appearances this season.
From here on out, it will only get harder for the Capitals to avoid a disastrous slip-up. Several nearly-assured losses await them—including frightening road games in Philadelphia, Boston and New York—and only three of Washington's final nine opponents currently possess worse records than the Caps do.
We're not guaranteeing anything, but don't be completely shocked to see the Capitals out of the playoff picture by season's end.
Prediction: Ninth (90 points)
Current Position: Ninth (78 points)
The Buffalo Sabres are for real.
After a five-month campaign of severe underachievement and painstaking disappointment, the Sabres may finally have become the imposing contender they were once expected to be.
Yes, indeed, that "contender" status was supposed to regard the Stanley Cup. Nowadays, though, a simple 2012 playoff appearance would be very, very welcome in western New York.
Despite their anguish for most of the past winter, the Sabres are truly legitimate contenders to earn that right. Their play of late—including points in 14 of their last 16 games—has been remarkable, as the squad has found a way to win almost everything that's come its way.
Whether a tight defensive showdown (a 1-0 win in San Jose on March 1st) or a high-flying affair (a 7-3 victory Monday in Tampa Bay), Buffalo and its well-balanced roster have proven hell-bent on completing their eye-opening run into the eighth-place position.
Although major challenges certainly still remain—the Sabres finish the year with consecutive contests in the Flyers' Wells Fargo Center and the Bruins' TD Banknorth Garden—there's little doubt that Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and co. have the firepower to surge into the top eight before April 7th rolls around.
Prediction: Eighth (92 points)