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Posted On Monday, 03.07.2011 / 4:05 PM

By David Kalan - Staff Writer / - Countdown to the Playoffs

The Devils' biggest obstacles are out of their control

If you've paid any attention to hockey in the past month there are two things you are certain to know.

1) Hockey teams play for a three-feet-tall trophy known as "The Stanley Cup".

2) The Devils are on one unbelievable tear right now.

At this point, rehashing New Jersey's remarkable play in more than one sentence -- the one time League-basement residents have lopped 19 points off what was considered a terminal playoff deficit -- would be redundant. The Devils' 20-2-2 stretch is almost as absurd as it is amazing, but the unfortunate truth for New Jersey is that the rain that may come down on the Garden State's parade is most likely to come from, well, anywhere other than the Garden State.

New Jersey has shown no signs of slowing its current pace after Sunday's 3-2 shootout win over the Islanders, who are on an amazing run of their own, but even with the Devils' deficit between them and the eighth spot down to just eight points, a look at the schedule shows that at this point their playoff fate is simply not in their control.

The 7th and 8th seeds in the East appear to be up for grabs still and if we include the Rangers and Sabres, who currently hold those spots, there are five teams competing ahead of the Devils for a playoff berth. Even if we take the fast-fading Thrashers out of the equation, Toronto, Carolina, Buffalo and New York all stand in New Jersey's way.

What makes this a significant hurdle for the Devils is not how many teams they have to hop over, but how little impact they can have on the race. New Jersey plays just three games in its final 17 against teams it is directly chasing in the playoff race -- one each with Buffalo, New York and Toronto.

However, while they troll through their remaining slate, the teams above the Devils play a total of six games against each other. One could argue that they are beating up on one another as the Devils get a free game to gain ground on someone, but as time starts to run low, those six games will loom large for New Jersey because in each of them someone has to win. That means a minimum of 12 points are guaranteed to be sprinkled across the teams the Devils are chasing.

Toss in that any or all of those games could be three-pointers -- a virtual certainty as more than 23% of games this year have gone to overtime -- and as many as 18 points could be thrown into the mixer.

The Devils' schedule does provide them with several advantages -- it's relatively soft, 9 of their 17 remaining games are at home and one is across the river in Manhattan and the team never leaves the Eastern time zone -- but the simple fact is that all they can really do is win and then hope. In addition, while the Devils have a game in hand on nearly each team they're chasing, and have three games in hand on the Rangers, the team that has been the best of the lot lately is Buffalo, which has played the same 65 games New Jersey has.

For an indicator of how difficult the task is, note that in the past ten games, when the Devils went 9-1-0, they picked up a grand total of four points. Coach Jacques Lemaire acknowledged as much Monday morning when he told reporters, "It's not that you don't believe. The thing is, games are running out."

Indeed time is running short. Completing the Devils' miracle rally is not impossible, but despite the progress it remains a tall order. The only thing certain is that if New Jersey continues to win at such an astounding pace, there is going to be a lot of scoreboard watching.

The Devils will just be watching the scoreboard in multiple places.
Posted On Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 4:31 PM

By David Kalan - Staff Writer / - Countdown to the Playoffs

Forecast looking cloudy for Hurricanes

While the Western Conference has been the scene of one of the wilder, most logjammed postseason races in NHL history, the East has been shaping up as having a pretty significant dogfight of its own in recent weeks. Carolina is currently holding onto the eighth seed, but an impressive run by Buffalo, which Carolina will play tonight, as well as some inconsistency by the Hurricanes has put that final playoff seed very much in doubt. With the very real possibility that Carolina will be on the outside looking in Friday morning, the Hurricanes would do well not to look past the Sabres on the schedule.

It might only make them more anxious.

A quick glance at the Canes' upcoming slate reveals that Carolina has one of the tougher remaining schedules in the East, particularly in the next two weeks. One night after the Canes' four-pointer with Buffalo Thursday, Carolina will be in Chicago to face a Blackhawks team that is on a six-game winning streak and playing its best hockey of the season. To make matters worse, the Hurricanes may not even have the energy to take the ice for what will be their third game in four days.

After a tumultuous 28 hours or so, Carolina gets to look forward to playing four of its next five games against Washington, a Columbus team that has won 8 of its last 12, Buffalo again and the Maple Leafs, who haven't lost in regulation in nearly three weeks.

Getting through a stretch that brutal will require quite a bit of energy, but expect that to be on short supply, too. Carolina spends its next seven games jack-knifing between home and the road.

One could make the assumption that successfully navigating the next few weeks will make the Hurricanes a battle-tested, tough out come spring -- and that may be so -- but it certainly won't be easy. And if the Canes do make the playoffs, a schedule like this could leave them entirely spent by the time they get there.
Posted On Monday, 02.21.2011 / 6:58 PM

By David Kalan - Staff Writer / - Road to Trade Deadline Day

The Goligoski-Neal Deal: Why and What now?

In any trade in February a number of questions are raised, and Monday's deal between Pittsburgh and Dallas may raise more than most. For the Penguins, the move fills an obvious need as James Neal instantly becomes the best winger on a team that was desperate for scoring that came from somewhere other than down the middle.

There are three main factors as to why this trade made sense for Pittsburgh. For one, the 23-year-old Neal is loaded with potential. For two, defenseman Alex Goligoski was unlikely to fully develop into a top pair defenseman on a team that already had several blueliners -- see Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin or Kris Letang -- locked up for the forseeable future. Finally, Evgeni Malkin's season-ending injury has given Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero and inordinate amount of cash to burn as he looks to patch up holes ahead of a postseason run.

Given all that, the move appears to be a no-brainer for the Pens, who would seem likely to use Neal on the top line and could see an enormous payoff when Sidney Crosby returns to action and Neal is playing next to, arguably, the best center on the planet.

For Dallas the incentive is a little less clear. Beyond the idea of any move shaking up a team in the midst of a potentially devastating funk, the Stars do get a defenseman who, with 31 points this season, is a proven contributor from the blue line, a place where the Stars have little offensively beyond Stephane Robidas, who has actually scored less than Goligoski this year.

But what is also worth noticing from the perspective of Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk is the salary that changes hands. Next season Alex Goligoski will earn $2.75 million before he becomes a restricted free agent, meaning he could stay on for 2012-13 at a slightly higher salary or simply come off Dallas' books altogether. Going to Pittsburgh in terms of salary next year, however is $5.25 million dollars -- $3.5 million to Neal and $1.75 to defenseman Matt Niskanen. Both players are restricted free agents after next season and Neal, assuming continued or better production, could easily start to eclipse his 2011-12 salary by a fair amount.

All in all, Nieuwendyk and the Stars have saved $2.5 million on the books for next season, which given Neal's potential career trajectory could be a red herring. However, Nieuwendyk could have two other options after this move. Rather than simply a cost-saving measure, this trade may have laid the ground work for another Dallas deal before next Monday's deadline in hopes of salvaging the current campaign. But it could also be a move intended to clear just enough space off the future cap so the Stars can make a legitimate run at signing All-Star center Brad Richards to an extension, something that would keep the franchise competitive for years.

In all likelihood, the immediate impact of this deal will seem much clearer in seven days, but for now there are a number of potential results for Dallas.  Whether it works out for either side as intended, however, could take months or years to fully realize. Only one thing is really certain: Nieuwendyk now has some significant choices to make.
Posted On Tuesday, 02.15.2011 / 7:33 PM

By David Kalan - Staff Writer / - Road to Trade Deadline Day

With Byfuglien signed, Dudley turns to the deadline

Dustin Byfuglien's contract extension with Atlanta could serve to be a major moment for a franchise that has struggled to be consistently competitive in its 12-year history. The Thrashers have made just one postseason appearance, a Southeast Division title in 2007, but his team on the playoff bubble this season, Thrashers GM Rick Dudley said Tuesday that he is looking to make a move.

While the team is searching for offense to bolster a potential playoff run, Dudley at admitted that despite his efforts, the search for the right move hasn't yielded any fruit just yet.

"I only know that I'm on the phone a lot," Dudley said. "It's not an easy time in history to do trades."

"You have to be patient enough to not do something that's going to harm the team in its long term while helping the team in its short term."
-- Thrashers GM Rick Dudley

The extension to Byfuglien means that Atlanta has its top defensive pair locked up for at least two more seasons, as Tobias Enstrom is under contract through the 2012-13 season. Add 2008 first round draft pick Zach Bogosian into the mix and Atlanta's future looks to be in good hands as far as the blue line is concerned, but the team could certainly use help at forward, both down the middle and on the wing.

While Byfuglien and Enstrom lead the team with 43 and 42 points respectively, left wing Andrew Ladd's 42 points are the highest total of any forward. Bryan Little and Evander Kane have the next most production with 33 points each.

Given Atlanta's tremendous cap space -- the Thrashers are projected to have just under $18 million between their payroll and the League's salary limit -- there is almost no cap-driven restriction on who the team can acquire both this season and in the future.

Still, Dudley reinforced the guiding principle for him that making any move isn't as important as making the right one.

"It's difficult because you're in a playoff hunt," Dudley said. "But you have to be patient enough to not do something that's going to harm the team in its long term while helping the team in its short term. Those are trades that they can be made and we hope that we will make one here, but they haven't jumped off the page just yet."
Posted On Saturday, 02.05.2011 / 2:37 PM

By David Kalan - Staff Writer / - Road to Trade Deadline Day

Malkin fallout: Where do the Pens go from here?

While it would be silly to assume Pittsburgh will benefit from Evgeni Malkin's ACL tear, which could very well sideline him for the remainder of the season, his injury could add a significant wrinkle to the upcoming trade deadline for the Penguins -- both in terms of flexibility and terms of need.

With Malkin out, Sidney Crosby's slow return from a concussion and Mark Letestu's current absence with an upper-body injury, the Penguins are currently missing three of their top four centers and become more likely to look at adding depth down the middle before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. One player expected to be on the block who could be appealing to Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero is New Jersey center Jason Arnott, who has postseason experience and a championship pedigree that could make him an attractive short-term fix for the Pens' injury woes.

If Pittsburgh decides it is comfortable at center once Crosby and Letestu are back, they could feasibly search for help on the wing at the deadline. When Crosby is healthy, he and Jordan Staal still provide very formidable pivots to anchor the Penguins' top two lines, meaning the considerable cap space opened by Malkin's injury -- roughly $8.1 million -- gives Pittsburgh an enormous amount of flexibility if it chooses to address other needs. The only catch for the Penguins is that the added cap flexibility only will help them this spring as Malkin and his cap hit will be back next season. As a result, any major acquisition would have to be moved after the season or be in the final year of its contract.

With Marc-Andre Fleury in net and a solid defensive corps, the wing would seem the most likely area for Shero to attend to if he chooses to do so. Where Pittsburgh would go is anyone's guess, though if Edmonton chooses to move Ales Hemsky or Dustin Penner, the Penguins could certainly make the numbers work. And if Shero truly wants to dream big, could a run at Calgary's Jarome Iginla be in the mix?

There are several options of where the Penguins can go from here, but if they follow the organization philosophy they've maintained since acquiring Marian Hossa for a Cup run in 2008, the only certainty is that Pittsburgh, with its newfound cap space and ailing lineup, is unlikely to stand pat.
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