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Posted On Thursday, 04.28.2011 / 3:32 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECSF: Philadelphia-Boston Live Blog

EA SPORTS predicts second round full of upsets

With four Game 7s in a 30-hour span, the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs went out with a bang, and given the win-or-go-home nature of each of those games, the chances that postseason brackets in office pools across North America would stay intact were tenuous at best. Having an opening round record of 7 correct picks would be pretty impressive. Even getting just 5 series right, as the writer of this very story did, isn't terrible.

Of course, going 8-for-8 isn't bad either.

The wizards at EA SPORTS did just that with their EA SPORTS NHL '11 simulation engine, which accurately tabbed such upsets as Tampa Bay's win over Pittsburgh and Nashville's first-ever postseason series victory. Rather than walk off into the sunset, however, EA SPORTS is back at it for round two of the postseason, and this time those predictions are a little gutsier than usual.

Taking three of four lower seeds to advance to the 2011 conference finals would make another perfect projection a pretty remarkable example of clairvoyance, but that's just what EA SPORTS is banking on, as its latest round of predictions has Vancouver as the lone higher seed advancing. For the Canucks to do so after a draining seven-game win over Chicago could be difficult, but EA SPORTS' simulations expect it -- and in just five games. If all goes according to plan, the Canucks will be facing Detroit, which is predicted to topple San Jose in overtime in a decisive seventh game.

In the East, Tampa Bay is picked to complete what would be the upset of the playoffs thus far, as EA SPORTS has the Bolts eliminating the No. 1-seeded Capitals in seven games, while the Bruins get a measure of revenge for last year's historic ouster at the hands of the Flyers with a six-game win over Philadelphia.

EA SPORTS will continue to run simulations after each round of the playoffs, but in addition fans are invited to make their own predictions in the EA SPORTS NHL 2011 Playoff Bracket Contest at www.facebook.com/EASPORTSNHL. Participating fans can accrue points for correct predictions with the ultimate prize at the end of Stanley Cup Final of two tickets to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa on the line.

Second Round fan voting opens today at http://www.facebook.com/EASPORTSNHL, when fans can make predictions for the postseason's opening round. Start dates for subsequent rounds will be announced at the conclusion of each series.

EA SPORTS NHL 11 Round Two Predictions: Conference Semifinals

Western Conference

(1) Vancouver vs. Nashville (5)
 
Game 1: Nashville 3 @ Vancouver 1

Game 2: Nashville 2 @ Vancouver 5

Game 3: Vancouver 2 @ Nashville 1

Game 4: Vancouver 4 @ Nashville 2

Game 5: Nashville 0 @ Vancouver 2

Vancouver wins series 4-1

 
(2) San Jose vs. Detroit (3)

Game 1: Detroit 3 @ San Jose 2

Game 2: Detroit 2 @ San Jose 4

Game 3: San Jose 3 @ Detroit 4

Game 4: San Jose 5 @ Detroit 4 [OT]

Game 5: Detroit 2 @ San Jose 3

Game 6: San Jose 2 @ Detroit 5

Game 7: Detroit 4 @ San Jose 3 [OT]

Detroit wins series 4-3

 

Eastern Conference:

(1) Washington vs. Tampa Bay (5)

Game 1: Tampa Bay 1 @ Washington 3

Game 2: Tampa Bay 4 @ Washington 6

Game 3: Washington 3 @ Tampa Bay 4

Game 4: Washington 2 @ Tampa Bay 3 [OT]

Game 5: Tampa Bay 2 @ Washington 5

Game 6: Washington 0 @ Tampa Bay 2

Game 7: Tampa Bay 3 @ Washington 1

Tampa Bay wins series 4-3


(2) Philadelphia vs. Boston (3)


Game 1: Boston 4 @ Philadelphia 2

Game 2: Boston 2 @ Philadelphia 3

Game 3: Philadelphia 1 @ Boston 2[OT]

Game 4: Philadelphia 1 @ Boston 4

Game 5: Boston 1 @ Philadelphia 4

Game 6: Philadelphia 2 @ Boston 3

Boston wins series 4-2

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Posted On Thursday, 04.28.2011 / 3:31 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECSF: Washington-Tampa Bay Live Blog

EA SPORTS predicts second round full of upsets

With four Game 7s in a 30-hour span, the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs went out with a bang, and given the win-or-go-home nature of each of those games, the chances that postseason brackets in office pools across North America would stay intact were tenuous at best. Having an opening round record of 7 correct picks would be pretty impressive. Even getting just 5 series right, as the writer of this very story did, isn't terrible.

Of course, going 8-for-8 isn't bad either.

The wizards at EA SPORTS did just that with their EA SPORTS NHL '11 simulation engine, which accurately tabbed such upsets as Tampa Bay's win over Pittsburgh and Nashville's first-ever postseason series victory. Rather than walk off into the sunset, however, EA SPORTS is back at it for round two of the postseason, and this time those predictions are a little gutsier than usual.

Taking three of four lower seeds to advance to the 2011 conference finals would make another perfect projection a pretty remarkable example of clairvoyance, but that's just what EA SPORTS is banking on, as its latest round of predictions has Vancouver as the lone higher seed advancing. For the Canucks to do so after a draining seven-game win over Chicago could be difficult, but EA SPORTS' simulations expect it -- and in just five games. If all goes according to plan, the Canucks will be facing Detroit, which is predicted to topple San Jose in overtime in a decisive seventh game.

In the East, Tampa Bay is picked to complete what would be the upset of the playoffs thus far, as EA SPORTS has the Bolts eliminating the No. 1-seeded Capitals in seven games, while the Bruins get a measure of revenge for last year's historic ouster at the hands of the Flyers with a six-game win over Philadelphia.

EA SPORTS will continue to run simulations after each round of the playoffs, but in addition fans are invited to make their own predictions in the EA SPORTS NHL 2011 Playoff Bracket Contest at www.facebook.com/EASPORTSNHL. Participating fans can accrue points for correct predictions with the ultimate prize at the end of Stanley Cup Final of two tickets to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa on the line.

Second Round fan voting opens today at http://www.facebook.com/EASPORTSNHL, when fans can make predictions for the postseason's opening round. Start dates for subsequent rounds will be announced at the conclusion of each series.

EA SPORTS NHL 11 Round Two Predictions: Conference Semifinals

Western Conference

(1) Vancouver vs. Nashville (5)
 
Game 1: Nashville 3 @ Vancouver 1

Game 2: Nashville 2 @ Vancouver 5

Game 3: Vancouver 2 @ Nashville 1

Game 4: Vancouver 4 @ Nashville 2

Game 5: Nashville 0 @ Vancouver 2

Vancouver wins series 4-1

 
(2) San Jose vs. Detroit (3)

Game 1: Detroit 3 @ San Jose 2

Game 2: Detroit 2 @ San Jose 4

Game 3: San Jose 3 @ Detroit 4

Game 4: San Jose 5 @ Detroit 4 [OT]

Game 5: Detroit 2 @ San Jose 3

Game 6: San Jose 2 @ Detroit 5

Game 7: Detroit 4 @ San Jose 3 [OT]

Detroit wins series 4-3

 

Eastern Conference:

(1) Washington vs. Tampa Bay (5)

Game 1: Tampa Bay 1 @ Washington 3

Game 2: Tampa Bay 4 @ Washington 6

Game 3: Washington 3 @ Tampa Bay 4

Game 4: Washington 2 @ Tampa Bay 3 [OT]

Game 5: Tampa Bay 2 @ Washington 5

Game 6: Washington 0 @ Tampa Bay 2

Game 7: Tampa Bay 3 @ Washington 1

Tampa Bay wins series 4-3


(2) Philadelphia vs. Boston (3)


Game 1: Boston 4 @ Philadelphia 2

Game 2: Boston 2 @ Philadelphia 3

Game 3: Philadelphia 1 @ Boston 2[OT]

Game 4: Philadelphia 1 @ Boston 4

Game 5: Boston 1 @ Philadelphia 4

Game 6: Philadelphia 2 @ Boston 3

Boston wins series 4-2

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Posted On Wednesday, 04.13.2011 / 6:32 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2011 ECQF: Philadelphia-Buffalo Live Blog

EA SPORTS Simulation: Flyers advance

Every spring there is no shortage of postseason predictions and prognostications, and EA Sports has its own answers to which team will be advancing to round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Using its EA SPORTS NHL 11 simulation engine, EA SPORTS has determined that Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Tampa Bay will emerge from the first round in the East, while Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit and Nashville will do so from the West, and perhaps the fans should take note. EA SPORTS correctly tabbed the Canucks to take the Presidents' Trophy this season, while also predicting Chicago's eventual reunion with Lord Stanley last June.

While no major upsets are predicted in the conference quarterfinals, both Nashville and Boston are predicted to be pushed to the brink before moving on after a Game 7 victory. Sweeps, too, are in short supply, however, as only the Capitals are tipped to breeze past their first-round opponent in four games.

EA SPORTS NHL 11 Round 1 Predictions

Western Conference

 
(1) Vancouver defeats (8) Chicago; 4-2

(2) San Jose defeats (7) LA Kings; 4-1

(3) Detroit defeats (6) Phoenix; 4-2

(5) Nashville defeats (4) Anaheim; 4-3
 
Eastern Conference

(1) Washington defeats (8) NY Rangers; 4-0

(2) Philadelphia defeats (7) Buffalo; 4-1

(3) Boston defeats Montreal (6); 4-3

(5) Tampa Bay defeats (4) Pittsburgh; 4-2
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Posted On Thursday, 03.31.2011 / 2:46 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

The Canucks could use some company

There are just 11 days remaining in the NHL regular season and as far as postseason races go, the current ones drawing to their conclusions in both the Eastern and Western Conferences are about as tight as they come. There are 11 spots yet to be decided for the annual playoff derby, but what's most noteworthy is that in the West a grand total of one -- yes, one -- berth has been clinched.

One has to wonder if Vancouver feels lonely.

The Canucks have been running away with the West's best record for most of the season, and have already clinched the conference's top seed, but not only does Vancouver have no idea who it will play in the first round, it has no idea who anyone else in the field is going to be. The Canucks might get some company tonight at long last, as San Jose can clinch a spot with a regulation win over Dallas, but that it has taken this long for multiple teams to seal up a playoff berth is a testamant to what has been an historically tight race.

This is the latest in a season that just one berth in a conference has been clinched since the NHL went to its current playoff format in 1993-94. This is not to say that berths are taking this long to be filled because they aren't deserved. It's quite the opposite, in fact. There is a very real possibility that one or two teams in the West, including the defending Stanley Cup champs, might not make it past April 10 despite being more than deserving of a spot.

Perhaps even more remarkably, there's a chance that Detroit, which is currently second in the conference, might not make it to the playoffs despite already having a whopping 98 points this season.

With only five points separating fourth place from eighth place in the West, there's still plenty to be decided, but Vancouver should be getting plenty of new guests at the party as different teams start to punch their tickets on an almost daily basis from here on out -- potentially starting with the Sharks tonight. Of course, the Canucks do have one more hill yet to climb. With a win tonight and a loss by Philadelphia in regulation, Vancouver would claim its first ever Presidents' Trophy.

Surely that's not the hardware the Canucks are ultimately after, but it would mean that however long they play this Spring, the party will be in their house. Considering their League-best 25 wins at Rogers Arena, that's not a bad start.
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Posted On Monday, 03.28.2011 / 3:49 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

West contenders shouldn't sleep on the Predators

In Barry Trotz's impressive tenure in Nashville, despite relatively little national attention and the financial constraints of a non-traditional market, he has not just kept the Predators competitive, but he's also led them to the postseason five of the past six seasons. With that fact, however, comes the unfortunate truth that Nashville has never reached the second round.

That could be changing this season.

While the Preds have had their close calls, and were less than a minute away from putting the eventual-champion Blackhawks on the brink last spring, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this may be the year the Predators don't just get out of the first round, but could potentially emerge from a very crowded Western Conference. The idea of the Cup being challeneged for in Music City is probably odd to most hockey fans to be sure, but make no mistake, Nashville's roster is one that has been built by GM David Poile to compete in the postseason.

The evidence of this lies on the back end where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter head a strong defense, but a solid goaltender who gets hot at the right time might be the most valuable asset in a postseason run. The last few Cup winners didn't necessarily have experienced men in net, but Antti Niemi, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Cam Ward were all goalies that flourished when spring hit. While Predators netminder Pekka Rinne doesn't have the experience of playing deep into the postseason, he certainly has the capability of carrying a team, as evidenced by his .929 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average, each of which ranks second in the League.

Offensively the Preds have produced lately, too, averaging 3.67 goals per game in winning eight of their last nine. With things going well at both ends of the ice, this is a team that is playing like a contender as the season winds down. Nashville will be tested Tuesday night against the Canucks, but the Preds have won six in a row against opponents that are all in the playoff hunt, with the exception of Edmonton. Of course, it helps when you play at home and Tuesday will be the Preds' ninth game in their last 10 at Bridgestone Arena, but Nashville, with a 19-17-3 road record, is no slouch away from home. The Predators do get a break in that 12 of their last 15 games this season are in Tennessee, but getting into a groove over the last 15 games is almost a prerequisite for a champion now. The last four Stanley Cup winners have all played exceedingly well down the stretch. Chicago won six of its last seven a year ago, while Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim each went 10-2-3, 11-3-1 and 9-3-3 respectively over the final 15 games of their Stanley Cup seasons.

In addition, Nashville appears more than ready to challenge the West's top teams. Against the likely top three seeds in the West -- Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose -- Nashville is 8-2-2, with games still to go against the Canucks Tuesday and the Red Wings Saturday night.

This is not to say that Nashville has necessarily proved itself to be a member of the West's elite just yet, but the NHL postseason is littered with lower-seeded teams making deep runs in the past decade. Look no further than last year's Philadelphia Flyers, who were the No. 7 seed in the East before making a dream run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Anything is possible in Spring if you're using the right ingredients.

The rest of the West would be wise to take note of what Trotz is cooking.
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Posted On Thursday, 03.24.2011 / 12:23 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Is Parise's return too little too late?

With nine games remaining in New Jersey's season and nine points separating the Devils from the last playoff spot in the East, it seems their brilliant run at a postseason berth, valiant as it was, is likely to come to an end soon and there will be no souls or fiddles made of gold to console them.

The Devils' remaining schedule -- only two of their remaining opponents would not be in the playoffs if the season ended today -- is hardly favorable even if New Jersey plays five of its final seven at home. Those last two weeks are likely to serve merely as a curtain call to what was an incredible 2011 after a decidedly unincredible 2010. But while the sobering reality of New Jersey's first early spring in 15 years starts to set in, there is some good news coming out of the Garden State this morning.

According to Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, GM Lou Lamoriello announced today that young star forward Zach Parise will play again this season "unless there is something unforeseen that happens."

When one looks at New Jersey's incredible second-half, in which the team went from a very un-Devil-like 27 points out of the postseason to as close as six points earlier this month, one has to marvel that not only did the Devils embark on one of the most impressive runs at the playoffs ever -- New Jersey shave 21 points off the gap, the largest deficit overcome to make the playoffs is 12 -- but they did so without, arguably, their best player for the vast majority of the season.

Parise went down with a torn meniscus in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, just 12 games into the season. It was a huge blow to lose a player whom, after consecutive 80-plus point seasons, appeared to be on the verge of superstardom -- something not easily achieved for an offensive star in New Jersey's defense first system.

Given that the Devils didn't really take off until after Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean as head coach, Parise's absence was obviously not the only problem, but to assume this team couldn't have done better with the four-time 30-goal scorer in the lineup is silly.

Lamoriello declined to say if Parise would be practicing with the team today, but given the dramatic nature of his injury and the stunningly high odds against the Devils making the postseason, one has to wonder if bringing him back at all makes sense. Parise has skated on his own for weeks and, according to Lamoriello, is "on a time frame", but it seems unlikely Parise's return could provide the boost New Jersey will run the table and get the help required to close the gap by April 10.

Of course, there may be much more at play than a run at the playoffs. Parise is a restricted free agent after this season and will likely be given an offer sheet that leaves the Devils hard-pressed to retain their franchise cornerstone given the hefty contract of Ilya Kovalchuk. Despite his eye for talent and maintaining a system, Lamoriello is yet to prove himself a master at making the math work in the salary cap era like Detroit's Ken Holland, but he is certainly savvy enough to find a way if he feels Parise is worth the investment -- and if he plays like he did before his injury, Parise certainly is.

As a result, this may be more of a glorified tryout to see how Parise has recovered before the looming monetary decisions come, and with several large contracts coming off the Devils books over the next few seasons -- Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador, Colin White and Martin Brodeur to name a few -- there certainly should be a way to squeeze Parise in for the long term even if it means a cap crunch could make 2011-12 difficult.

But what impact it could have on the current campaign seems minimal at best barring a miracle. That's not to say the Devils don't have a penchant for comebacks. New Jersey's comeback from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the 2000 Eastern Conference Final is the stuff of legend for Devils fans and the less-heralded rally to take the 2006 Atlantic Division title by winning the final 11 games of the season might be even more impressive. One more incredible comeback will probably not happen this time given the daunting task that still remains, however.

And the return of the best homegrown forward in franchise history is unlikely to change that.
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Posted On Monday, 03.21.2011 / 5:14 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Is Calgary's last stand tonight in Los Angeles?

As NHL.com's Dave Lozo noted in his story about tonight's Calgary-Los Angeles game, this might very well be the night the Flames' remarkable second-half run comes to an end.

Because the Flames will have played three more games than Anaheim and Dallas, each of which they trail by one point in the chase for the West's final playoff spot, a loss will almost certainly leave Calgary with too large a hill to climb, something that seems fairly surprising considering the Flames had jumped up to as high as fifth in the West on their blistering run.

The potential demise of this hot streak is interesting because it could be foreshadowing the very same fate for New Jersey in the East, another team that has turned heads with a remarkable second half -- and garnered most of the press in doing so. But that run by New Jersey, as impressive as it is, may have obscured a more impressive feat in Calgary given a number of circumstances.

This run in Calgary came as the team showed no signs of life and had a number of issues in flux when GM Darryl Sutter stepped down from his post in late December. What made Sutter's change so different from a similar front office move is that not only was Sutter more or less the face of the organization after captain Jarome Iginla, but Sutter was also the brother of head coach Brent Sutter, which immediately put the entire coaching staff's status up in the air.

While New Jersey did have a change at head coach -- one that now seems to have been warranted -- the front office was never in position for a shakeup. GM Lou Lamoriello is likely to have carte blanche with the Devils as long as he wants.

Calgary's uncertainty was on an entirely different level, and when one throws in that Iginla, arguably the best player in the history of the franchise, was rumored to be on the move throughout February as the trade deadline approached, the chance that the Flames could descend quickly into irrelevance this season was looking quite good.

But despite questions in the front office, behind the bench and in the locker room -- not to mention the pressure of hosting the first outdoor game in Canada in more than seven years at the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic -- the Flames authored a remarkable turnaround from top five pick in the 2011 NHL Draft to top five in the Western Conference playoffs, going 22-6-6 since late December.

Unfortunately for Calgary, however, a recent 1-3-1 skid seems to have put the kibosh on completing what was a tall order from the outset. The chances of a rally for the final spot aren't done yet -- after all, the Flames play four of their last eight games against teams near the bottom of the West standings -- but another loss against a team also competing for a postseason spot could spell the end of the trip.

A defeat tonight in Los Angeles would fit the bill.
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Posted On Sunday, 03.20.2011 / 5:27 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Is Bylsma getting help soon?

It was 11 days ago that Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was given a three-year contract extension. Given that Bylsma led the Pens to a championship in his first season, and that he has amassed more than 100 wins without having completed two full seasons behind the Pittsburgh bench, the deal seemed like a smart one for both parties. But while some might view the extension as a just reward for delivering a championship, this season, fraught as it has been with injuries and stiff competition, may be the reason GM Ray Shero has decided to ink the young coach longterm.

This season, Bylsma has earned his money.

While no one has ever questioned the coaching brilliance of Phil Jackson in the NBA, with players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen, it's easy to get cynical and notice that he's picked his spots well. Similarly, Bylsma's tenure started with a Pittsburgh franchise that is loaded for bear with young talent -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury -- and a strong defense that is locked up for several seasons, meaning that his coaching career could cover a span in which the Pens are set up for competitiveness if not dominance.

Having that kind of talent can make it easy to dismiss the impact of the coach, but this season a roster that has essentially been without two of the three best players in the world for half the season is still in the thick of it. In addition, prior to Sunday's loss at home to the Rangers, the Penguins were not just safely in the East's top eight, but they had won four of five and were pushing Philadelphia atop the Atlantic Division.

Doing so without the team's two best players is astonishing, particularly given that Crosby, prior to suffering a concussion, appeared headed for the League's MVP award in a walk. Sid was on pace for 64 goals and 68 assists, totals that would have given him just the second 60-goal season the NHL has seen in the past 12 years, and the most points in the League since Mario Lemieux tallied 160 in 1993. Bylsma's coaching job has been impressive to this point, but there's no denying that Pittsburgh would be better off with its two young perennial all-star pivots. Without both Crosby and Malkin in the lineup this season, the Penguins are just 12-8-4, a mark that, while above .500, could certainly be improved upon by a Cup contender.

Fortunately for Bylsma and Co. help could be on the way. The Penguins haven't set any sort of return date for Crosby, with some speculating that he could be done for the season so as not to jeopardize his entire career -- and given the recent concern over concussions, that kind of thinking certainly seems reasonable. But it's clearly noticeable that Crosby has been more and more active in recent weeks, with perhaps the most reassuring signs coming Sunday morning when he took the ice at roughly 7:30 a.m. to run a number of drills in full pads.


Those drills were of the non-contact variety to be sure, but considering reports weeks ago that Crosby was having difficulty riding a stationary bike this is a tremendous improvement for one of the League's biggest stars. Obviously, the very real chance that Crosby won't return this season is still out there. Taking a shot at a championship this year with your franchise cornerstone's future hanging in the balance would be unwise for several reasons. But if Crosby is healthy enough to come back come playoff time -- and plays like he did before leaving the ice in January -- it could be just what the Penguins need.

And, without question, it will completely change the dynamics of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.15.2011 / 4:33 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Could Montreal be a dark horse Cup contender?

This season the Eastern Conference seems to have a well-defined elite with Philadelphia, Washington and Boston making up the class of the conference and Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh not trailing far behind, but the hottest of those teams -- and hottest in the entire League -- could get a rude awakening from an unlikely contender tonight.

The Caps are opening a season-high six-game road trip tonight at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and when they take the ice a formidable group will be looking to prove they belong in the discussion. The Canadiens currently sit sixth in the East and while they seem relatively safe in the hunt for a playoff berth (seventh-place Buffalo is seven points back) Montreal isn't a regular in the chatter about teams likely to hoist Stanley this spring. If the Habs can snap Washington's eight-game winning streak tonight, however, some heads may be turning towards Rue de la Montagne.

And if they aren't, they should be.

The Canadiens have quietly won six of their last seven games and taken advantage of an untimely swoon by Boston to pull within two points of first place in the Northeast Division. Should Montreal overtake the Bruins and pick up a top-three seed, the Habs will get at least one series with home ice in the never hospitable Bell Centre. While the Bell Centre is yet to see a championship, something shocking for a franchise that claims 24 of them, Montreal fans are unlikely to make life easy for any visiting foe, particularly if it happens to be their rivals from the Hub.

More importantly, however, is that Montreal has several ingredients that can equate to a long playoff run. The Canadiens have offense spread all across the lineup -- seven players have double digit goal totals -- while the blue line features pieces both sturdy -- Hal Gill and Brent Sopel -- and dynamic -- PK Subban and James Wisniewski.

Most importantly, however, the Habs have man between the pipes who is playing some spectacular hockey. In the last 40 years, Montreal's championship teams have all had a young, stellar goaltender. In the 1970s, Ken Dryden crafted a Hall of Fame career that saw him lead the Habs to six Cups and accomplish the remarkable feat of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy a year before he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. In 1986, Patrick Roy led the Canadiens to the first of two titles, taking his own Conn Smythe in the process.

Could it be Carey Price's turn? Last year, the British Columbia native appeared to have lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak, but after Halak was shipped off to St. Louis, Price took the job over and has won 33 games while compiling career bests with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. In addition, Price can be devastatingly good on occasion, has he has in his eight shutouts this year, and lately he appears to be reaching an entirely new level. In his last six starts, Price has five wins, a 1.17 GAA and a .965 save percentage.

Add all this up along with the fact that Montreal's roster is experienced with deep playoff runs after reaching the Conference Final last spring, and the Canadiens could be a dangerous foe this postseason. Being one would require them to continue their strong play of late, a challenge with the Capitals coming to town tonight.

If the Habs take out Washington, though, it could be a sign to the rest of the conference that le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge are for real.
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Posted On Thursday, 03.10.2011 / 2:58 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

The Western Conference might need a bigger boat

In the suspense classic Jaws, it was clear Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss would need far more than a boat to keep Amity Island safe from repeated shark attacks. Unless you're a marine biologist, the best tack for keeping yourself safe is simple -- stay out of the water -- but if you're a contender in the Western Conference, you don't have a choice of staying out of the water when San Jose is on your schedule.

And those Sharks may not be getting a Spielberg film, but they are getting vicious.

Much of the talk over the past two months has revolved around teams making surprising runs to get into playoff contention, such as Buffalo or in particular the Devils, who have played themselves out of the League basement and are taking aim at an unlikely berth in the East. But lost in the shuffle is a remarkable reclamation project happening in the Bay Area, which just may be giving us a preview of who is going to be the most dangerous team in the West once the playoffs begin.

San Jose reaching the playoffs is no longer a noteworthy or surprising occurrence. The Sharks have won three straight Pacific Division titles and have missed the postseason just once since 1997, but for much of this season there was a good chance players could start booking April tee times at the Presidio golf course. After a 1-0 win over the Kings on New Year's Day, the Sharks hit the skids in a big way, enduring a six-game losing streak that culminated in a 5-2 pasting at the hand of the 15th-place Oilers at the Tank. On the morning of Jan. 15, San Jose was 21-19-5, 12th in the Western Conference and 10 points back of Dallas in the Pacific.

Not anymore.

Since then the Sharks have been rolling to the tune of 18-3-1 in their last 22 games, a streak that has San Jose not just in the top eight, but back in first place and just two points behind Detroit for the Conference's No. 2 seed. Over that span San Jose has lost consecutive games just once and that came near the end of a season-long seven-game road trip.

If you're looking for a reason as to why this is happening, one could point to Devin Setoguchi, who has tallied 17 of his 29 points this season in the last 22 games, or Patrick Marleau, who has 10 goals over the same stretch and has scored in three straight outings. But more likely, a renewed commitment to defense is what has coach Todd McLellan's charges climbing the standings at such a torrid pace. Over the first 45 games, San Jose gave up goals at a rate of 2.84 per game -- in the past 22 that number has dropped nearly a full goal to 1.86. Compared to San Jose's glory days -- the Sharks gave up 2.55 goals per game when they were the West's top seed last season and 2.43 per game two seasons ago when they won the Presidents' Trophy -- that figure is startling.

Playing a significant role in that is Antti Niemi, who after leading Chicago to a championship last season, may finally be returning to Stanley Cup form. Over the Sharks recent hot stretch he has a 17-3-1 record, three shutouts, a 1.96 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage.

But what might really give the rest of the West pause is not San Jose's meteoric rise, but who it's come against. The Sharks have played 12 games in their last 22 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today, and in those games they're an astounding 10-1-1. In that stretch San Jose has one win over League-leading Vancouver, two wins over Detroit and two wins over the resurgent Capitals. Incidentally, the Sharks face the Canucks again tonight at the Tank. Another win over the Presidents' Trophy favorites and it could be time to seriously consider San Jose as a Stanley Cup contender.

Tack onto that a 4-0-0 record against Minnesota, Nashville and Anaheim, who are all within three points of a playoff berth and it's clear that few teams have escaped the San Jose steamroller. In fact, the Sharks have faced all but two teams in the Western Conference in their last 22 games -- Edmonton, which might well be headed to a second consecutive No. 1 pick this June, and Chicago. The Blackhawks, who swept the Sharks in last year's Western Conference Final, should also be in the postseason field this spring, but San Jose boasts a 3-0-0 record against Chicago this season.

The Sharks are unlikely to keep up this pace all the way through June, but their play begs the question of whether there is any team that shouldn't fear them come April. Regardless of those fears, the rest of the West will have no choice but to get in the water. If the Sharks can continue to roll, however, their opponents may not have a choice of how long they get to stay there either.
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Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres