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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 Friday, 03.25.2011 / 3:51 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Ranking the schedules: Western Conference

Strength of schedule could play a factor in who claims the final playoff spots in both conferences as well as the final seeding. Determining the actual strength of schedule at this time of year can also be tricky -- some great teams might have little to play for while some non-playoff teams might be playing really well.

With that in mind, here's an attempt to rank the remaining schedules for teams in fifth through 10th place in each conference from toughest to easiest (Phoenix and Pittsburgh aren't locks to make the playoffs, but the Penguins could clinch a spot Friday night and the Coyotes are close to being safe at this point). Here's the rankings for the Western Conference (check out the Eastern Conference here):

1. Dallas (38-25-10, 86 points)

Home: Columbus, Colorado
Road: Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota

Analysis: Seven road games, including five against teams currently in front of them. Best bet might be to try and steal 3-4 points in those first five road games and then sweep the final four.

2. Anaheim (41-28-5, 87 points)

Home: Chicago, Calgary, Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles
Road: Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles

Analysis: No other team on this list has to play seven games against the 10 teams still in the hunt in the West. Toss in those home-and-homes with rivals San Jose and Los Angeles, and a postseason berth for the Ducks is far from a given at this point.

3. Chicago (40-25-8, 88 points)

Home: Anaheim, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit
Road: Detroit, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Detroit

Analysis: Seven games against current playoff teams, but three are against the Eastern Conference and the West has dominated crossover games this season (Chicago is 9-4-2). This slate nudges ahead of the Kings' schedule because of three games against Detroit and an extra set of back-to-backs.

4. Los Angeles (42-26-6, 90 points)

Home: Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim
Road: Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim

Analysis: Three games against the top four in the West (inclduing a trip to Vancouver while the Canucks are still trying to seal the top seed and Presidenst's Trophy) plus a home-and-home with archrival Anaheim when the Ducks might be desperate to secure a postseason berth.


5. Nashville (40-25-10, 90 points)

Home: Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Atlanta, Columbus
Road: Colorado, St. Louis

Analysis: Seven home games and two on the road against non-contenders (basically the opposite of Dallas) -- even if they lose the three against the top-nine clubs, they can still win the four against non-contenders and be safely in the playoffs.

6. Calgary (37-28-11, 85 points)

Home: Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver
Road: Edmonton, St. Louis, Colorado

Analysis: Good news: The Flames clearly have the easiest schedule, with four games against teams not in the mix (including all three road contests) and a game against the Canucks when they will likely have the West wrapped up. Bad news: They probably need to win all six.
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Posted On Friday, 03.25.2011 / 3:51 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Ranking the schedules: Western Conference

Strength of schedule could play a factor in who claims the final playoff spots in both conferences as well as the final seeding. Determining the actual strength of schedule at this time of year can also be tricky -- some great teams might have little to play for while some non-playoff teams might be playing really well.

With that in mind, here's an attempt to rank the remaining schedules for teams in fifth through 10th place in each conference from toughest to easiest (Phoenix and Pittsburgh aren't locks to make the playoffs, but the Penguins could clinch a spot Friday night and the Coyotes are close to being safe at this point). Here's the rankings for the Western Conference (check out the Eastern Conference here):

1. Dallas (38-25-10, 86 points)

Home: Columbus, Colorado
Road: Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota

Analysis: Seven road games, including five against teams currently in front of them. Best bet might be to try and steal 3-4 points in those first five road games and then sweep the final four.

2. Anaheim (41-28-5, 87 points)

Home: Chicago, Calgary, Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles
Road: Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles

Analysis: No other team on this list has to play seven games against the 10 teams still in the hunt in the West. Toss in those home-and-homes with rivals San Jose and Los Angeles, and a postseason berth for the Ducks is far from a given at this point.

3. Chicago (40-25-8, 88 points)

Home: Anaheim, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit
Road: Detroit, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Detroit

Analysis: Seven games against current playoff teams, but three are against the Eastern Conference and the West has dominated crossover games this season (Chicago is 9-4-2). This slate nudges ahead of the Kings' schedule because of three games against Detroit and an extra set of back-to-backs.

4. Los Angeles (42-26-6, 90 points)

Home: Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim
Road: Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim

Analysis: Three games against the top four in the West (inclduing a trip to Vancouver while the Canucks are still trying to seal the top seed and Presidenst's Trophy) plus a home-and-home with archrival Anaheim when the Ducks might be desperate to secure a postseason berth.


5. Nashville (40-25-10, 90 points)

Home: Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Atlanta, Columbus
Road: Colorado, St. Louis

Analysis: Seven home games and two on the road against non-contenders (basically the opposite of Dallas) -- even if they lose the three against the top-nine clubs, they can still win the four against non-contenders and be safely in the playoffs.

6. Calgary (37-28-11, 85 points)

Home: Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver
Road: Edmonton, St. Louis, Colorado

Analysis: Good news: The Flames clearly have the easiest schedule, with four games against teams not in the mix (including all three road contests) and a game against the Canucks when they will likely have the West wrapped up. Bad news: They probably need to win all six.
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Posted On Thursday, 03.24.2011 / 1:38 PM

By Adam Kimelman -  NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Orpik near a return

If Penguins fans were wondering just how close defenseman Brooks Orpik is to returning to the lineup he said if the situation were different, he'd be playing.

"If it was the playoffs, I'd be playing tonight," he told NHL.com following Thursday's practice here at the Wells Fargo Center. "Or I'd probably be playing before tonight."

Orpik won't play Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) in Philadelphia against the Flyers, but he's getting closer to playing again for the first time since he broke a finger on his right hand blocking a Patrick Marleau shot Feb. 23 against the San Jose Sharks.

Coach Dan Bylsma said that return could come next week, maybe in time for Tuesday's rematch in Pittsburgh.

Orpik has stayed in shape by skating during his recovery, saying he missed just two or three days, so conditioning won't be an issue.

"He means a lot to our team, especially on the PK," said Kris Letang, his usual partner. "He shuts down top guys every night. The physical aspect of the game, which we don't really have on the back end except for maybe two guys -- I think he can bring a lot. Can't wait to bring him back."

The Pens' top four blueliners -- Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek -- haven't been in the lineup at the same time since Feb. 20. And with eight games left following Thursday's game with the Flyers, it's not coming too soon.

Although with the storm of injuries that has battered the Penguins all season, Orpik remains a cynic.

"We've still got nine games to go," he said. "The way thing are going here this year, who knows?"

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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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 Tuesday, 03.22.2011 / 2:50 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Names to watch: potential playoff recalls

There are now several Chicago-area reporters confirming that Marcus Kruger, a fifth-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, is indeed en route from his native Sweden to join the Blackhawks for the final weeks of the NHL season. With injuries to Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland, the Blackhawks need some help in the middle and Kruger could make his debut as soon as tomorrow night.

With Kruger's pending addition in mind, who might be some other surprise call-ups once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin? P.K. Subban, who had all of two NHL games on his resume, was a big hit for the Canadiens last year when injuries forced his recall during the first round of the playoffs. Buffalo played Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 with a pair of guys, Nathan Paetsch and Jeff Jillson, who had combined for three NHL games before that.

The rules for this list is the players must not be on roster today and can't have played more than nine NHL games to this point (this rules out guys like Washington's Braden Holtby and Buffalo's Luke Adam). Here's five names to remember if injury problems strike during the Stanley Cup playoffs:

1. Cody Hodgson, F, Vancouver

Hodgson has already had two stints with the Canucks this season (both last month), and he had a goal and an assist in eight games. The additions of Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins at the trade deadline meant another trip back to Manitoba for Hodgson and made it seem less likely that he'll be around in the postseason.

Manny Malhotra's eye injury could change that though. Hodgson was considered one of the top 2-3 prospects in hockey after a star turn at the 2009 world junior championships, but injuries have delayed his development. Don't be surprised if he earns a sweater for Vancouver at some point if the Cancuks go on a long playoff run and there is another injury or two up front.

2. Brayden Schenn, F, Los Angeles

Schenn began the season with the Kings and had two assists in eight games. He also spent some time on a rehab assignment with Manchester in the AHL before returning to the Western Hockey League. He was the top scorer at the WJC in December/January and The Hockey News recently named him the sport's top prospect in their "Future Watch" edition.

If the Kings were looking for an offensive boost during the playoffs, he could be the guy they turn to. There might be a problem with his availability. Schenn was traded to Saskatoon this season, and the Blades were the top team in the WHL during the regular season. A long run with the Blades could keep him from being available to the Kings if they needed him.

3. Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville

Ellis scored 100 points in the Ontario Hockey League (yes, that total is right) and might be the premiere offensive defenseman prospect in hockey. The Predators have a lot of good, young defensemen but if the power play is struggling during the postseason, he could have a Subban-like impact.

His junior team, Windsor, is not the powerhouse it once was, so he could be out of the OHL playoffs (and with Milwaukee in the AHL or even Nashville) sooner than Schenn. Ellis is a diminutive guy who has always had questions about his size, but his skill is elite and tossing him into the fire in the NHL postseason might just be worth the risk for the Predators if they needed him. Another good prospect on defense, Roman Josi, would be a safer choice but there's no reason why both couldn't play for the Predators if there was a rash of injuries.

4. Brendan Smith, D, Detroit

Could also include Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar here, who had a goal in nine games earlier this season, but Smith would, like Ellis, potentially be making his NHL debut during the playoffs. Smith was Detroit's first-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft and spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin.

He's had a successful rookie season with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League (12 goals and 32 points in 57 games) and his second on the Griffins in scoring among the defensemen. Detroit might lean toward recalling a more seasoned option like Derek Meech or Doug Janik, but Smith is the organization's top prospect and it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he gets a game or two for the Red Wings in an emergency situation.

5. Michael Leighton, G, Philadelphia

OK, so this is breaking the rules a little. Calgary's Leland Irving, San Jose's Alex Stalock or Nashville's Mark Dekanich are possibilities as young goalies who could be thrust into a tough spot during the NHL playoffs, but wouldn't Leighton be a great story?

The emergence of Sergei Bobrovski has pushed Leighton down the depth chart in Philadelphia, and he's made only one appearance for the Flyers this season. He has a .924 save percentage in the AHL this season, and no other team has a guy who went 8-3 in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs sitting in the minors as a "in case of emergency, break glass" option.
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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 Friday, 03.18.2011 / 12:05 PM

By Corey Masisak -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

Sorting out postseason-cinching scenarios

The Vancouver Canucks were the first team to reserve a spot in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, but a pair of Eastern Conference teams can join them Friday night. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals could clinch a spot in the playoffs with some help.

The Flyers are idle, but will lock up a playoff berth if the New Jersey Devils do not beat the Capitals in regulation (New Jersey claims less than two points) and if the Carolina Hurricanes lose to the New York Islanders in regulation (Carolina gets no points). The Capitals will book their postseason reservations for a fourth straight season with a victory against New Jersey and if the Hurricanes lose to the Islanders in regulation.

Because of the NHL's new tiebreaker rules, officially clinching playoff berths could be tricky -- espcially if those teams in the Western Conference are still so compactly congested in a couple of weeks. The first tiebreaker is now non-shootout wins, so it is possible we won't know who earns the nod in non-shootout wins between teams with a similar number of maximum points until the final game or games of the season.

Here's why Philadelphia and Washington can be safely in the playoffs after tonight's action:

* Philadelphia currently has 94 points and 41 non-shootout wins. If the Hurricanes lose in regulation to the Islanders, they can max out at 94 points and 38 non-shootout wins. If the Devils defeat the Capitals in a shootout, their maximum becomes 94 points and 41 non-shooutout wins. In that scenario the Flyers would earn the spot because they have clinched the next tiebreaker (Philadelphia has seven points against New Jersey to the Devils' four with one game to play in the season series).

* Washington would have 94 points and either 38 or 39 non-shootout wins with a victory. Again, Carolina's maximum after a regulation loss to the Islanders would be 94 points and 38 non-shootout wins. Like Philadelphia with New Jersey, the Capitals have already secured the second tiebreaker (points earned in the season series) by beating Carolina in all five meetings to this point this season, so they clinch a spot either way.
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Quote of the Day

Your team is going to want to recapture the feeling. What they're going to have to figure out is they're going to have to rewrite the story. Because you're going to rewrite the story doesn't mean you want a different end. It's just that you're going to have to learn that there's different challenges to get there, and if you're going to try and tap the same feeling, it ain't going to happen.

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi on maintaining their success from last season