Stanley Cup Dreams: NHL Teams Vying for Last Playoff Spot

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Stanley Cup Dreams: NHL Teams Vying for Last Playoff Spot

Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.  That is likely a sentiment of several NHL teams vying for playoff spots. 

Today, the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche hold the eighth and final slots in their respective conferences.

However, a plethora of clubs are making a strong case that they will be postseason bound at year's end. Let's look at some of the candidates:

In the Eastern Conference, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers will backstop his team into a playoff spot. 

Despite their slow start, the Rangers have enough veteran leadership to win down the stretch.

When the Blueshirts failed to sign pivot Michael Nylander in the off season, his linemate and captain Jaromir Jagr sulked. 

But, No. 68 appears to be inspired again playing alongside Martin Straka and ex-New Jersey Devil Scott Gomez.  Add a healthy Brendan Shanahan and a proven winner in Chris Drury and Rangers faithful shouldn't worry too much about not being in the elite eight of the east.

The Atlanta Thrashers will likely be on or near the bubble come playoff time.

Everyone is well aware superstar Ilya Kovalchuk is capable of putting a team on his back.  He is on pace to score 60 goals and eclipse the 100 point mark. 

However, the Thrashers need talented winger Marian Hossa to focus on the ice.  Speculation is that Hossa wants out of Dixie at season's end. 

GM and coach Don Waddell did make an astute move recently with the signing of former Penguin Mark Recchi.  

Netminder Kari Lehtonen will need a better second half for the Thrashers to give his team a chance to return to the postseason after making their first but very brief appearance.

Buffalo, Washington, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida, who may trade Finnish centre Olli Jokinen before the deadline, will all likely be golfing at season's end.

In the Western Conference, there is likely a quartet of teams who will battle for the last two remaining playoff berths.

As previously mentioned, the Avalanche hold the eight spot to date, but strong cases can be made for the St. Louis Blues, as well as, the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes.

St. Louis is blessed with blue chip forward in Brad Boyes, who has blossomed into a terrific winger and leader.  Boyes has scored 25 goals thus far, more than double any other player on this team.

Last month, the Blues traded veteran Doug Weight to Anaheim for speedy centre Andy McDonald.  McDonald, along with fellow ex-Duck Paul Kariya, and hard-nosed forward Keith Tkachuk, gives the Blues a legitimate shot at the post season.

Next we have the Blue Jackets, who are playing inspired hockey under head coach Hitchcock. 

Hitchcock is no stranger to the rigors of playoff hockey, his passion and experience behind the bench makes the Jackets a viable playoff contender. 

Hitchcock, who led the Dallas Stars to a Cup in 1999, appears to have lit a fire under Nikolai Zherdev, a gifted Russian forward who is showing the NHL this season why he is one of the most creative forwards in the game.

Finally, let's not forget about the biggest underdog to make the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes are three games over .500 and sit only four points out of a playoff picture. Bench boss Wayne Gretzky has them playing a conservatively and it appears to be working. 

Phoenix added an all-world goalie last month when they plucked Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks—he has paid huge dividends thus far.

Who will be watching from the West come April?  Probably, Phoenix and Columbus, as well as, the current bottom feeders, Nashville, Chicago, Edmonton and Los Angeles.

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