2011 NHL Playoffs: Welcome to March Madness

Kyle WahlgrenCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2011

2011 NHL Playoffs: Welcome to March Madness

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    CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 27: Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks (center with mask) is surrounded by teammates including Marian Hossa #81, Bryan Bickell #29 and Patrick Sharp #10 after a win over the Phoenix Coyotes at the United Center on February
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    While rosters continue to be adjusted, many are looking toward what may be coming in April.  Numerous teams are positioning themselves for a playoff run, while only a few are true Stanley Cup contenders. 

    What is truly becoming a reality is the depth of talent up-and-down the Western Conference.  Maybe it is stability and consistency that has left the Eastern Conference lacking luster, but many can justify it to injuries.

    Get ready for the beginning of the last full month of regular season hockey.  Intensity and physicality will surely be ratcheted up a few rungs in the weeks to come, but for now take a look at this week's playoff projections and games to watch this week!

Games You Don't Want to Miss

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    SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Niklas Kronwall #55 of the Detroit Red Wings and Logan Couture #39 of the San Jose Sharks go for the puck at HP Pavilion on November 30, 2010 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Monday, February 28, 2011

    Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild

    Both teams currently sit in the race for a playoff spot with 72 points a piece.  Recently, the Blackhawks have been on a roll, reeling off four straight victories. The Blackhawks lead the season series 2-1.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

    The Rangers have won both meetings this season, the most recent being a 3-2 OT bout on November 11th.  While consistency is a word neither of the teams have an understanding of, both still remain big threats out of the East with goaltenders that can perform under pressure. The Rangers lead the season series 2-0.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Detroit Red Wings at San Jose Sharks

    Both teams have taken different paths to get where they are, but they now will battle for that second seed, as it is unlikely that the Vancouver Canucks will relinquish the top spot.  While the Sharks had an awfully rough start to the season, they have morphed into the Sharks of old since the All-Star Break.  Sharks lead the season series 2-1.

    Saturday, March 5, 2011

    Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins

    Is there a team out there more injured than the Penguins?  Must be that new ice—not that it really matters.  With the parity in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins should be playoff bound, regardless of recent performances on the ice (3-6-2 in last 11 games).  A game that should have been between two of the conference's best will hopefully serve as a turnaround for the injury depleted Penguins.

Playoff Projections: Eastern Conference

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    TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 25:  Dwayne Roloson #35 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is congratulated by teammate Sean Bergenheim #10 after shutting out the Toronto Maple Leafs at St. Pete Times Forum on January 25, 2011 in Tampa, Florida.  The Lightning defeated the L
    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    We are still a month away, but the Eastern Conference is pretty much sewn up in regards to participants (with a couple exceptions).  The main focus out East is the seeding and fight for home-ice advantage.

    It would have been hard to imagine the Penguins not winning a division in which they were dominating up until their roster was depleted.  With Sidney Crosby out and no time table for a return, you wonder who will step up.  Losing either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is one thing, but with both of them out Pittsburgh should be grateful wins were plentiful in the first-half of the season.

    1st Seed:  Tampa Bay Lightning (37-18-7, 81 PTS)

    2nd Seed: Philadelphia Flyers (40-16-6, 86 PTS)

    3rd Seed: Boston Bruins (36-19-7, 79 PTS)

    4th Seed: Washington Capitals (33-20-10, 76 PTS)

    5th Seed: Montreal Canadians (33-23-7, 73 PTS)

    6th Seed: Pittsburgh Penguins (37-21-6, 80 PTS)

    7th Seed: New York Rangers (33-27-4, 70 PTS)

    8th Seed: Buffalo Sabres (29-25-7, 65 PTS)

Playoff Projections: Western Conference

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    VANCOUVER, CANADA - FEBRUARY 26: Goalie Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks makes a pad save while Ryan Kesler #17 of the Vancouver Canucks and Patrice Bergeron #37 of the Boston Bruins look on during the second period in NHL action on February 26,
    Rich Lam/Getty Images

    The conference to beat is clearly the Western Conference.  While Cup contenders will be addressed next, clearly the strengths this year appear out West. 

    How so?  This season, the Western Conference is 128-72-31 against Eastern Conference teams.  There is only one team that doesn't have a winning record against the opposing conference and it isn't Edmonton (Minnesota, 5-6-1).  This has created a log jam in the standings.  Currently, fourth through twelfth is separated by only eight points, so in the end who knows who gets in.  Lets take a shot though!

    1st Seed:  Vancouver Canucks (39-15-9, 87 PTS)

    2nd Seed: Detroit Red Wings (38-18-6, 82 PTS)

    3rd Seed: Los Angeles Kings (35-23-4, 74 PTS)

    4th Seed: San Jose Sharks (36-21-6, 78 PTS)

    5th Seed: Chicago Blackhawks (33-23-6, 72 PTS)

    6th Seed: Nashville Predators (32-23-8, 72 PTS)

    7th Seed: Dallas Stars (33-23-6, 72 PTS)

    8th Seed: Minnesota Wild (33-23-6, 72 PTS)

Seperating the Contenders From... Well from Non-Contenders.

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    CHICAGO - OCTOBER 09: Members of the Chicago Blackhawks carry the Stanley Cup Championship banner across the ice past the Stanley Cup in a ceremony before the Blackhawks season home opening game against the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center on Octobe
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Notice how the word "pretender" wasn't used.  After last season's playoffs, bottom seeds are just as dangerous, yet surprising, as the top seeds.  The best equation for success is having depth and peak performance at the right time. 

    While it is hard to gauge where teams will be at in a month from now, the most consistent clubs will be the favorites going down the stretch.  What follows are the rankings of the teams' chances to win the Stanley Cup.

    #1 Detroit Red Wings Clearly at a time where the window on dominance has closed drastically.  After claiming back the Central Division, the Wings will have momentum and home advantage on their side.
    #2 Philadelphia Flyers After just missing out last year, it seems as if they may be on the path to possible greatness.  What scares their crowd is not knowing who will show up under-pressure.
    #3 Vancouver Canucks Is there a team out there that wants this more?  First answer, is there a team out there who has let down so many when being surrounded by so much hype?  Now that Dustin Byfuglien is with Atlanta, maybe Luongo can stay focused in times of need.
    #4 Tampa Bay Lightning There isn't a roster in the league that has the "WOW"-factor like the 'Bolts.  With Stamkos on the ice, anything is possible.  Ultimately, it will be the defense that falters in May.
    #5 Chicago Blackhawks Critics at one point feasted on the 'Hawks struggles, but as they have gotten healthier, they have gained momentum.  Once again they will finish with at least 10 skaters with 10+ goals, but the shaky third and fourth lines are what may prevent a repeat visit of the Stanley Cup.
      Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh (Injuries), San Jose (Inconsistency)