With the NHL playoffs just around the corner, everyone’s attention is fixed on the ever-so-tight standings, and who will finish where, and who will match up against whom.
There's no question that at least one team will experience the joy of scraping into the playoffs in game 82, much like the Islanders last season, and consequently, that means a team will experience the heartache of a long season just coming up inches short, like the Maple Leafs, whom the Islanders displaced on the final day last season.
That could be several teams this season. With some late charges, Chicago could be an unlikely eighth place in the west, and it would deserve entrance considering it would have to beat Detroit on the final day.
The team that could potentially experience the heartache on missing out on the final day could be Colorado, who currently sits in eighth with 84 points, but Nashville is hot on its heels at 82 points, and the surging Edmonton a further point back at 81.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are also tight races at the top.
Detroit has more or less sewn up first place in the West, and San Jose are all but certain to finish second, but the race for third, which will go to the winner of the Northwest division, is one that will come down to game 82.
Even last-placed Edmonton, with the help of the other teams faltering, can still win the division, thanks to a recent 8-2 surge in its last 10 games. But Minnesota (89), Calgary (88), Vancouver (86), and Colorado (84) are well and truly in the hunt to win the division and gain third seed in the West.
The Atlantic division race is also going to be a photo finish—not only to win the division, but the winner of the Atlantic could end up being the top seed in the East.
Pittsburgh (93), New Jersey (91), and the New York Rangers (88) are the candidates and with all three teams playing on the final day, the Atlantic division is up for grabs.
As for some predictions of the first round playoffs, I see them as this:
1. New Jersey vs. 8. Washington
2. Montreal vs. 7. Philadelphia
3. Carolina vs. 6. Ottawa
4. Pittsburgh vs. 5. New York Rangers
Unlucky ninth – Boston
1. Detroit vs. 8. Colorado
2. San Jose vs. 7. Vancouver
3. Calgary vs. 6. Minnesota
4. Anaheim vs. 5. Dallas
Unlucky ninth – Edmonton
Rangers – Have played remarkably well the last month and a half. Proven playoff performers last season, sweeping Atlanta 4-0, then taking top seeded Buffalo to the limit, and taking two games off them.
Hurricanes – Started the season superbly, then had a sag in form due to several injuries, but have turned things around in the last month. Let us not forget they were the champions just two short years ago, so they know what it takes. Potential matchup with Ottawa should be an intriguing contest.
Red Wings – You could argue that they've been surging the entire season, but they had a mini slump because of injuries.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are hitting top gear again. Detroit has depth with two great goalies, and deserves the title as early cup favorites. For added measure, they’re likely to draw the Avalanche in the first round, where they beat them 4-0 in the season series, including three shutouts.
Sharks – Have been the in-form team of the league since getting Brian Campbell. The Sharks are circling, and have a taste for the cup. A hard, physical, seasoned playoff team, the Sharks are on the prowl and will be extremely difficult to beat.
Senators – Spent much of the season as the standout team in the East, but the wheels have come off slightly.
If it weren’t for the fact they had such a good first half of the season, the Senators wouldn't be presently in the playoff picture. But, we all know what this team is capable of, and should not be underestimated.
If they can get some consistent net-minding, and the big three of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson fire like they did in the last playoff campaign, the Senators could cause some headaches.
Flyers – An interesting season for them to say the least. Let us not forget where they have come from.
Last season they were the worst team in the league. They have two good goalies in Biron and Nittymaki, and the talismanic, Mike Richards, is back from injury. A first-round matchup with Montreal could be too much, but maybe their firepower can find away past the Habs’ inexperienced goalies?
Stars – Seems strange to say the likely fifth seed is limping in, but they are.
After a red-hot patch in February, the Stars may have charged too early, and now they've fallen out of the race for the Pacific division. But the Stars have some good, experienced players that can take them far in the playoffs: Mike Modano, Brendan Morrow, Marty Turco, and recently acquired Brad Richards. Richards won a cup with Tampa in 2004, and recorded no less than seven-game winning goals during that campaign.
New Jersey will defeat Washington in five games:
The defensive-minded Devils will be able to nullify the firepower of Ovechkin and the Capitals. New Jersey is perennial playoff contenders and the Capitals are just too inexperienced.
Montreal will defeat Philadelphia in five games:
The only way the Flyers have a chance is if the playoffs spook young goalie Price. But he's been solid this season, and Montreal has many avenues to the back of the net.
Carolina will defeat Ottawa in seven games:
This will be the best matchup in the East. These teams will trade goals in high-scoring games. The Hurricanes are surging into the finals whereas the Senators are limping in. A series that will be decided by a moment of brilliance.
Pittsburgh will defeat New York Rangers in six games:
Evgeni Malkin. It's his time to shine on the big stage, and he will be the difference between the teams in this matchup. If Crosby is 100 percent, the Rangers won't have the answers for the Penguins.
Detroit will defeat Colorado in five games:
All you need to do is look at the season series—the Redwings won 4-2, 1-0, 2-0, and 4-0. That's three shutouts, so the Avs haven't been able to find a way past Detroit’s solid defense and goaltending. I can't the Wings having too much trouble disposing of the Avalanche.
San Jose will defeat Vancouver in six games:
Could very well be the lowest scoring series of the first round, with Nabokov and Luongo in net. San Jose has more options than do the Canucks.
Calgary will defeat Minnesota in six games:
Calgary at present have a 6-1 record against the Wild in the season series. That spells trouble for Minnesota, and the Flames are 4-0 at home in that series. With the Flames getting home-ice advantage, the Wild will struggle against the Flames, who have been one of the top teams since December.
Anaheim will defeat Dallas in six games:
Dallas boasts a 5-2 record against the Ducks this season, but the Stars have dropped off in form recently, and the Ducks have lifted, and have shown signs of repeating the types of performances that took them all the way last season.