Around the NHL: League Into Homestretch, Playoff Picture Not Set

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Around the NHL: League Into Homestretch, Playoff Picture Not Set
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Like racehorses rounding the final corner of the Kentucky Derby, the NHL today enters the final week of regular season competition. And just like the homestretch in the holy grail of horse racing, things are far from decided in the world of NHL hockey.

With so many teams still jockeying for position and/or fighting for the last few playoffs spots in each conference, this is looking more and more like it will end up being a photo finish.


Western Conference

In the West, all but the eighth and final playoff spot are locked up. Vancouver and Chicago have both sown up their respective division championships while the Sharks need one more win—or one more loss by Phoenix—to retain their crown.

Further down the list, the Calgary Flames' playoff hopes took a major hit last night. In losing 4-1 to the Blackhawks, the Flames remain in the ninth overall spot in the West, with three games to play. Ahead of them in the eighth and final playoff spot are the Colorado Avalanche with 91 points and one game in hand on Calgary.

It is a bit of a toss up as to who has the easier schedule with Calgary facing the Sharks, Wild, and Canucks, while the Avs play Vancouver, the Oilers, Chicago, and L.A.

With one game in hand over the Flames, the Avs are clearly in the driver’s seat and can own their destiny. It will be interesting to see which team flinches first.


Eastern Conference

In the East, things are far more open and uncertain than they are in the West. On top of the heap are the runaway winners of both their division championship and the President's Trophy—top point total in the entire league—the Washington Capitals.

With 114 points overall and four more games to go, it is conceivable that they could finish the season over 120 points.

Yowza!

Aside from the top dog in the East, every other playoff spot is still up for grabs. By that I mean that aside from the Caps, no one has won their division title yet.

In addition, the bottom three teams in the East—Montreal, Boston, and Philly—could still be knocked out of the playoffs and onto the golf course.

With identical 45-26-7 records (97 points in 78 games), the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins are tied for first in the Atlantic division.

The teams have almost identically difficult, or easy, schedules—depending on how you look at it—so that will be an interesting sprint to the finish. The Pens will face the Caps, the Islanders twice, and the Thrashers while the Devils will play Atlanta, Florida, the Islanders, and the Sabres.

This is basically a push but I think the Pens/Caps game tomorrow night might be the deciding factor in who takes the crown.

Then there's the Northeast division where four out of the five teams are trying to qualify for the postseason dance.

Buffalo is currently at the top of the heap with 96 points in 78 games and can clinch the division title with one more win or one loss by the Senators (91 points in 79 games).

After those two teams, things get even more interesting with Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia all trying to grab one of the last three spots in the East.

As of Monday morning, the Habs sit in sixth overall (86 points in 79 games) followed by Boston (84 points in 78 games) and Philly (84 points in 79 games). Just behind this trio are the New York Rangers (82 points in 78 games) and Atlanta Thrashers (81 points in 79 games) and the distant, but still mathematically alive, Islanders (76 points in 78 games).

One loss by the Islanders, or one point by Boston and Philly, will eliminate them from contention.

Of the three teams currently in the playoffs (Montreal, Boston, and Philly) the Habs look like the ones with the easiest schedule—Islanders, Carolina, and Toronto—and therefore the best chance of making the playoffs.

Boston looks like they might be in tough with two games versus the Capitals, one against the Sabres, and one against Carolina. The two games against the Caps might end up being the ones that knock them out of contention.

Then again, with all the parity flying around the league, you can never say never.

As for the Flyers, they are in the most precarious position out of the bottom three teams. They start off against the Leafs tomorrow night and finish the season with back-to-back games against the Rangers.

I think that those last two games will decide which team, out of the Rangers and Flyers, makes it into the playoffs and I fully expect an intense playoff-like atmosphere.


An Aside About the Habs

While Jaroslav Halak earned his second straight shutout against the Sabres and looks ready for the playoffs, the interesting thing about the win on Saturday was that the Habs' third and fourth lines came to life.

As I pointed out last week, when the Habs were enjoying a six-game post-Olympic winning streak, it was on the backs of a four-line offensive punch. The third and fourth lines lead by Sergei Kostitsyn, Mathieu Darche, and Dominic Moore accounted for 20 points over those six games.

If the Canadiens are going to have any success in the playoffs, they will need all four lines to be contributing offensively, as they have shown that they can't do it with their top two lines alone.

Three games left, two points ahead of Boston and three "should-win" games mean that the Habs, like the Avs in the West, are masters of their own destiny. Or at least they should be.

Let's see how they respond starting tomorrow night in Long Island.

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