A mere week separates today from the conclusion of the 2011-2012 NHL regular season, and the race for the playoffs is as fierce as ever.
Three Western Conference playoffs seeds remain on the line, including home-ice advantage and a No. 3 seed for the currently indeterminable Pacific Division champion, but the quest to grab those final spots will not be easy.
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.
For the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes, postseason berths have been commonplace over past years.
But this season has made that goal more difficult to accomplish than ever before. A cornucopia of hungry dark horses—from Dallas to Calgary to Colorado—continues to lurk in the shadows, and with only four points differentiating between these six squads, the remaining playoff seeds are certainly still open for the taking.
Who will hold each of them when April 7th comes and goes?
We present our daring predictions for the NHL's final judgement in the coming slides.
Current Position: 10th (86 points)
The young Colorado Avalanche have certainly overachieved this season, riding the scoring talent and surprising poise of future superstars Ryan O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog well into playoff contention.
Both the offense and defense lack significant, experienced depth below their upper lines, however, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov proved extremely unreliable under pressure during his time with the Washington Capitals.
Given that the Avs, already two points below the cut-off line, have only three games remaining in the regular season—the fewest of all teams around the bubble—and a lineup that wasn't expected to be playoff-caliber anyhow, Colorado's valiant campaign looks destined for a finish outside the top eight.
Prediction: 11th (88 points)
Current Position: 11th (85 points)
The Calgary Flames' postseason chances have taken a big hit in the past month.
After all, on March 16th, SportsClubStats.com gave them an eyebrow-raising 52.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. Following just one win in seven games since then, that number has fallen to a measly 4.7 percent likelihood.
Calgary isn't completely dead yet, though. The Flames will benefit from having three of their final four contests at home, including a do-or-die showdown with Colorado and a critical home-and-home series with Vancouver.
35-year-old veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff (ranked fourth in wins and third in total saves) has had an excellent year as well, going 34-21-11 with an impressive 2.35 GAA and .921 save percentage.
Nevertheless, the Flames, who haven't made the playoffs since 2009, face a steeply uphill battle to make the playoffs and have found victories extremely hard to come by in recent weeks.
All things considered, only a miracle could keep Calgary alive further than Game 82.
Prediction: 10th (91 points)
Current Position: Third (89 points)
For the moment, the unheralded Dallas Stars are sitting pretty.
The Stars currently hold the Pacific Division lead and the No. 3 seed in the entire Western Conference, giving them a tremendously invaluable, if slightly undeserved, advantage—guaranteed home-ice advantage through at least the first round, and a matchup against the No. 6 seed rather than the first or second.
But keeping control of that position will prove incredibly difficult. All five remaining games on Dallas's schedule are against other current playoff teams—road matches in Vancouver and Nashville, a season-ending matchup with league-leading St. Louis and a crucial home-and-home against San Jose.
The Sharks can outmatch the Stars in every area. They easily hold the edge in size, skill, depth, experience, star power, leadership and arena atmosphere, just to name a few. Plus, San Jose boasts seven consecutive playoff appearances to their name, while Dallas hasn't found their way into the postseason since 2008.
If underrated backstop Kari Lehtonen can stay rock-solid through this brutal closing stretch, the Stars have a very good shot to hang onto a top-eight position. But the all-around strength of this squad, which pales in comparison to most perennial contenders, could easily crumble in this season's final week.
Prediction: Ninth (93 points)
Current Position: Seventh (89 points)
A vital win over San Jose on Thursday launched the improving Coyotes back into the playoff race, allowing the continually underappreciated 'Yotes to look forward and see a bit of green grass on the desert horizon.
Three of Phoenix's final four matches are against teams with worse records—including home games against Anaheim and Columbus and a visit to plummeting Minnesota. For now, all three of those matchups certainly look quite favorable for the Coyotes.
Offensively, ageless Ray Whitney has heated up with 12 points in his last nine games. The Coyotes' sixth-ranked defense has also stayed steady, with goalie Mike Smith (34-18-10, .926 save percentage) putting the finishing touches on a shockingly impressive campaign.
The Coyotes might never draw much media attention around the league, but the desert dogs are definitely not a club to be taken lightly.
Now is their opportunity to prove it.
Prediction: Eighth (94 points)
Current Position: Ninth (88 points)
If the San Jose Sharks wish to find themselves in the playoffs come April 8th, they'll first have to survive a terrifying four-game closing stretch against the worst possible opponents—the very teams out to unseat them from that precarious eighth-place spot.
Indeed, the Sharks will have a hard time escaping the roller coaster of the Pacific Division over the next week. Closing their regular-season schedule are a pair of two-game sets against each of Dallas and Los Angeles that will set in stone the Sharks' fate in the final standings.
After an alarming early-March slump knocked San Jose down below the cut-off line, the Sharks have rallied with wins in three of their last five. A heartbreaking 2-0 loss in Phoenix on Thursday, conversely, has again knocked the Sharks into the dreaded ninth-place slot.
They don't have too much to make up, though—in fact, only a single point. If they can find more offense moving forward from locker-room leaders like Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau (who have just one combined goal in the team's last eight games), experienced goaltender Antti Niemi will help them survive this ultimate test of valiance and fortitude.
Prediction: Seventh (95 points)
Current Position: Eighth (88 points)
The Los Angeles Kings' woeful offense has transformed this team from an expected Cup contender into a squad in the midst of the playoff race of their lives. With only 38 wins in 77 games to date, there's little doubt that this season has been an entirely underwhelming one in southern California.
But a poor team performance can always be balanced out by a world-class netminder, and that's exactly what the Kings possess in Jonathan Quick.
The 26-year-old's season stat line is amazingly diverse—he ranks fifth in wins (33), eighth in saves (1,652), fourth in save percentage (.930), third in goals-against average (1.93) and first in shutouts (nine). The Connecticut native hasn't allowed more than two goals in a game since March 9th, as well, with a 6-2 record and 1.88 GAA in eight starts since then.
Moreover, Los Angeles will be helped by three "easy" games (two versus Edmonton and another against the Wild) before a season-defining home-and-home series with the Sharks next Thursday and Saturday.
Absolutely nothing can be taken for granted at this point, but the Kings appear to be in good position to have secured a playoff berth—and perhaps even a top-three seed—by the end of the regular season.
Prediction: Third (96 points)