The 2013 NHL playoffs are only a few days away, and some important questions are starting to emerge as more and more of the dust settles from the regular season.
There are still several huge battles going on for the last handful of playoff spots in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. The Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals are in the middle of a bloody battle for the Southeastern Division crown, the Detroit Red Wings are fighting to keep their playoff streak alive and the Columbus Blue Jackets are giving fans of the underdog a go-to team.
The 2013 season has been a sprint, and a weird one at that. The final leg heading into the playoffs shouldn't be any different.
Tonight's game between the Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals has massive playoff implications. The Jets are currently one point behind the Ottawa Senators for the eighth seed in the East, but with a win against the Capitals in Washington, they will jump all the way from ninth to third, taking the Southeast Division lead.
If the Capitals win in regulation or overtime, they clinch the division, and the Jets will be forced to overcome the Senators or New York Rangers to make the postseason.
Is there any chance that both teams make the playoffs?
The Southeast has been the worst division in the NHL this season, and no one would be surprised if only the division winner represented the group come playoff time. Washington has made a lot of headlines for a resurgent season, but most of their points have come against beating up on teams like the Florida Panthers.
Every year it seems like at least one team catches fire after being eliminated from the playoff hunt. This season that team is the Calgary Flames, who have played the role of giant killers over the last three games, winning them all.
They have played the spoiler in games against the Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild.
The Wings desperately needed points against the Flames but blew a lead and eventually lost the game because of two gaffes behind their own net. The Ducks were looking to secure the Pacific Division crown by downing Calgary but were also stopped cold.
Minnesota had a game stolen from them by goaltender Joey MacDonald and suddenly find themselves in seventh place in the West, barely holding on to a playoff spot.
It seems rather silly that Calgary would suddenly put the pieces together with a handful of games left, thus shooting themselves in the foot and drastically reducing their odds at a high pick in the draft in June. Then again, if it made sense, it wouldn't be the Flames.
Would there be a more fitting end to the Central Division rivalry than a hard-fought playoff series? The 'Hawks have locked up the first seed, so this dream matchup only comes to fruition if the Wings manage to scrape their way into the playoffs.
Detroit is currently in ninth place but plays three games this week while the Columbus Blue Jackets only play two.
Much has been made of Detroit's move to the Eastern Conference due to the NHL's new realignment plan and how the departure will split up the longtime rivals. While fans would have to keep their fingers crossed for a Stanley Cup Final between the two in the future, a great postseason series between the two storied teams would be a storybook end to the Central Division as we know it.
If the 2013 regular season was 50 games instead of 48, the Columbus Blue Jackets would almost certainly make the postseason. If their game against the San Jose Sharks over the weekend was any indication, this isn't a team that is ready to fade away just yet.
The Jackets have gone 7-3 over its last 10 games, but they only have two games to play this week while the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings have three games each.
They'll need some help to secure the No. 8 seed in the West, and that's if they win both of their games this week. The Dallas Stars won't be an easy out on Thursday, as they also are scrambling for a playoff spot. Still, if Columbus continues to play like it has, then the matchup against Dallas is very winnable.
That leaves the Nashville Predators on Saturday and some prayers to the hockey gods by Columbus' faithful that the Wings, Wild and Stars all squander their respective games in hand.
Is it against the odds that the Jackets end up holding on to the eighth seed? Sure, but this is too fun of a storyline to root against.
Another feel-good story of the 2013 NHL regular season is the turnaround of the Montreal Canadiens. After finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2012, the Habs have turned things around and are currently in a dogfight with the Boston Bruins for the Northeast Division crown.
Pundits who believed that the Canadiens would be fighting with the mighty Bruins for the top spot in the division were few and far between in the preseason, but that is why they play the games, folks.
Things haven't been so cheery in Montreal lately, though. The team has gone 4-6 over the last 10 games and appears to be cooling off at the worst of times.
Carey Price is at the center of the cold streak, as his play has been erratic at best lately. After starting off the season looking like Superman, he's been awful through his last five starts. His .830 save percentage over that span is not even in the same universe as the .925 he sported through the first two months of the season.
If Montreal wants to continue its turn around, Price will need to get back on track, and in a hurry. This is a team that has looked remarkably average in front of a struggling netminder.
The New York Rangers have been one of the better teams in hockey as of late, winning seven of their last 10 games and taking the last three by a combined score of 18-6. The Eastern Conference is still a gridlock, though, and despite the solid play, the Rangers are still only one point ahead of the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets.
While Rick Nash and Co. have struggled at times this season, the rival New York Islanders have taken off behind the MVP-caliber play of John Tavares and the suddenly-good-again Evgeni Nabokov.
There's a good chance that both squads make the postseason, but it's an interesting thought. What happens if the Rangers are on the golf course while the Islanders are vying for the Stanley Cup?
That kind of embarrassment may lead to some more changes in New York, including the firing of head coach John Tortorella.
A postseason without the Blueshirts isn't imminent, but it's a possibility, making this an interesting little storyline to follow through the final days of the regular season.
Yes, please. Three more of those.
Regional rivalries always bring a special spark to a playoff series, and there is exactly zero love lost between the San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings. Their fans really don't like each other, and the teams have quite the bitter rivalry.
The two teams faced off six days ago in a possible postseason preview and did not disappoint. The playoff-like game went to the shootout, with Raffi Torres scoring the winner.
That game had all the makings of a classic, so the two meeting in the postseason two weeks later would not disappoint. San Jose is now the only California-based team to have not won the Cup—a fact that would not be lost on them as they tried to dethrone the L.A. Kings.
Maybe. Maybe not.
It's just a matter of which Minnesota Wild shows up to play. The coaching and management staff obviously saw the need to add grit for the playoff push, as they sent Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker to the minors and recalled Jake Dowell and Stephane Veilleux.
This came on the heels of a mildly devastating loss to the Calgary Flames, leaving the Wild in a corner and looking for a way to fight out.
Their saving grace may be that they have a game in hand on the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team currently occupying the eighth and final spot in the West. Even that might not be enough for a team that seems to be struggling to find its identity at the wrong time of the year.
Minnesota needs to dig deep for its upcoming game against the L.A. Kings tonight. A victory against the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be a massive boost to their playoff hopes and chances. A loss, and suddenly, they are in a dead sprint with the hotter Blue Jackets.
Pundits have been calling for the end of the Winged Wheel since the salary-cap era began back in 2005. Since then, the Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs in every season, won a Stanley Cup and made the Cup Final one other time.
History doesn't matter much when there are games to be played, however, and new captain Henrik Zetterberg and the rest of the Red Wings find themselves in a peculiar position in the final week of play: on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Seriously, when was the last time Detroit wasn't firmly in a playoff spot with only a handful of games remaining? There have been some midseason scares—and Wings fans have undoubtedly been wrestling with the notion that if the 2013 season was 82 games long, they might not be caught in this current predicament—but the fact of the matter is that this is unfamiliar territory for the model franchise.
The Wings did themselves a huge favor by shutting out the Phoenix Coyotes last night and effectively maintained their game-in-hand edge on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Detroit still has some work to do, with games remaining against the L.A. Kings (those guys again? Do they play every night this week?), Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars.
Clear your calender for the Stars game on Saturday—the contest could be a win-and-in, lose-and-go-home contest for Detroit.
The feeling is that this veteran group of players finds a way to get it done and squeaks into the playoffs, keeping the streak alive by a hair.
The Stanley Cup champions always seem to have a player that they rally around. During the Conference finals, the storyline develops, and all the guys on the team start talking about how they want to win the Cup for one particular veteran teammate. A great player who is running out of time to win the ultimate prize.
Think Ray Bourque with the Colorado Avalanche. Teemu Selanne with the Anaheim Ducks. Dallas Drake (Yes! Dallas Drake) with the Detroit Red Wings. The list goes on.
Insert a class act and perennial outstanding captain Jarome Iginla onto this Pittsburgh Penguins team, and how fired up must Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the guys be to finally get Iggy his ring?
These aren't guys that typically need any extra motivation to go out and win hockey games; the Penguins boast one of the most competitive groups of players in the NHL. But add in the kind of fire that playing for a guy like Iginla can bring, and this is a dangerous and riled-up Pittsburgh team that is ready to do some damage.