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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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Posted On Wednesday, 03.16.2011 / 3:18 PM

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

Flames road to playoffs in peril?

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs began tonight, the Calgary Flames would be preparing to play the Vancouver Canucks.

Alas, the NHL postseason does not begin for nearly a month and the Flames have a lot of work to do to be part of the 16-team party. While the Flames currently sit eighth in the Western Conference with 81 points, there are a few factors working against them and the path to retaining their current position in the top eight is not likely to be an easy one.

Calgary's two biggest problems on the ice are recent play and injuries. The Flames have lost three straight games, all in regulation, for the first time since mid-December. Two of those three losses came to the Phoenix Coyotes and represent the four-point difference in the standings between the two clubs (the Coyotes are fifth with 85 points).

"I'm not going to sugar coat it, we've lost three in a row now at this time of the season — it's unacceptable," Calgary coach Brent Sutter told reporters Tuesday after a 4-3 loss to Phoenix. "We're at a critical point in the year and when you’re at a critical point you need to play with a huge urgency and I didn't think we had it here tonight."

The Flames have been without Brendan Morrison since March 2 because of a swollen knee, and are now without David Moss indefinitely because of an ankle injury. That's two of the team's top eight scorers and has forced rookie Mikael Backlund, who turns 22 on Thursday, into the No. 1 center role between Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla.

Calgary has enough adversity to overcome, but the Flames have only 10 games left to play. Every other team in playoff contention in the West has at least one game in hand on Calgary. Nashville, currently in ninth place and one point behind Calgary, has two games in hand. Anaheim is two points back with three games in hand.

The Predators are 8-8-4 since the All-Star break. Project that pace out and they would finish with 92 points. However, Nashville has nine of its final 12 games at Bridgestone Arena where the Predators are 17-8-7 this season. Factor in the home/road ratio and 94 points looks like a solid projection for Nashville. The Predators also have four of their final five contests against Colorado, Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis -- four the bottom six teams in the standings.

Anaheim has an extra game on Nashville, but the Ducks have a tough closing schedule. The Ducks have 6 of their 13 contests are at home, but 11 of the 13 games are against the nine teams currently ahead of them in the Western Conference.

The Ducks are 9-7-1 since the All-Star break. Using either projection method (post-ASG pace or home/road), Anaheim settles in somewhere between 93 and 94 points.

So a 6-3-1 finish for Calgary gets them to 94 points. The problem then becomes the tiebreaker. The Flames have only 28 non-shootout victories, which puts them behind Nashville (29) and well behind Anaheim (33). Should the Flames and Predators finish the season with the same number of points and non-shootout wins, Calgary does hold that tiebreaker thanks a four-game sweep of Nashville this season.

Six of Calgary's 10 games are on the road. One positive is four of the Flames' remaining games are against Colorado (twice), St. Louis and Edmonton -- the bottom three teams in the conference. Two of their games are against Anaheim and Calgary has one each at San Jose and Los Angeles.

The problem for the Flames is they have lost six straight games to the California trio and have not won in the Golden State this season. The two games against Anaheim will be critical (March 20 in Anaheim and March 30 in Calgary), and the three contests in four nights in California (March 20, 21 and 23) could be a defining stretch.

It certainly looks like 7-3 (and 95 points) could be the minimum for the Flames to stay ahead of Nashville and Anaheim in the race for the final spot in the West. It is possible one of the teams in front of them slumps, but 93 or 94 points could end up leaving the Flames agonizingly short of a tremendous comeback after being in 14th place in the West in late December.

"There are 10 games left in the season and we still have time," Sutter told reporters. "Teams have games in hand on us and we need to start winning some games and getting some points or we will find ourselves on the outside looking in quickly."
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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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Posted On Thursday, 03.10.2011 / 10:54 AM

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

Breaking down the Southeast title race

The Tampa Bay Lightning were in first place in the Southeast Division for 65 straight days, but the Washington Capitals have used a six-game winning streak to reclaim the top spot.

Both clubs won last night, so Washington has a two-point lead but Tampa Bay has a game in hand. One month from today, both teams will finish their seasons with road games against division foes. Will Washington claim its fourth straight division title, or will Tampa Bay earn its first banner since the Stanley Cup-winning season of 2003-04?

First and foremost, the Capitals are playing better right now. Six straight wins, albeit against mostly weak competition (a road win in Tampa is the only one against one of the top 24 teams in the League), matches the longest run of success for the Capitals this season. Tampa Bay scratched out a big win against Chicago last night, but the Lightning had lost four in a row and are 7-6-3 since the All-Star break.

Both teams have key players dealing with injuries. Mike Green is out until at least March 22 for Washington, and fellow defenseman Tom Poti is out indefinitely. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is also hurting, but the other two kids in net for the Capitals have been just fine without him. Nicklas Backstrom might miss another game with a thumb injury, but it isn't expected to be much more than that.

Tampa Bay is missing Ryan Malone and might not get him back until the postseason. Defenseman Randy Jones and forward Steve Downie are also missing. Washington just added Eric Fehr to the lineup, while Mike Lundin just returned for the Lightning. Should Washington get Green or Poti back (or Malone make a speedier than expected recovery for Tampa Bay) that could have a big impact.

A big key for Washington has been Alex Ovechkin's form. The captain and two-time MVP has points in six straight games and 10 of 11 -- the best run of his season both in total production (16 points) and consistency. For the Lightning to keep pace, they will likely need their top gun, Steven Stamkos, to put together a similar stretch. He had a goal and an assist last night after going six games without a goal. A hot streak from Stamkos could swing the race.

Both teams have six home games left, so Tampa Bay's game in hand will come on the road. The biggest advantage for the Lightning is their six games against non-contenders, including three with Ottawa (though Craig Anderson has made the Senators plucky of late). Washington has four games against non-contenders, including a home-and-home with Florida to finish the season.

Washington has one less set of back-to-back games, so that might be worth a point or two. The Capitals also have a sizable advantage in the first tiebreaker (non-shootout wins) in the event the teams finish with the same number of points - the Lightning have won three more games via the shootout.

The Capitals do face a tougher schedule though, and not just because they have fewer games against bottom feeders. Tampa Bay has three games against current top-10 opponents (vs. Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at Montreal), while Washington has five such tilts (vs. Chicago, at Montreal (twice), Philadelphia and Detroit).

Both teams have to play three games in four days twice, but the difference is Washington's 3-in-4s overlap, and that brings us to the most important stretch of either schedule - and what could ultimately decide the Southeast Division.

The Capitals play four times in six days next week, and the task is brutal. A Sunday matinee at home against surging Chicago, then road games at Montreal (Tuesday), Detroit (Wednesday) and New Jersey (Friday). That's three of the top 10 teams in the League and three of the hottest teams in the League.

After the Capitals play in New Jersey on March 18 and the Lightning play in Ottawa the next night, both teams will play on the same day until the final week of the season, so there will be plenty of scoreboard watching in those arenas and in the coaches' offices during intermissions. Tampa Bay won't make up the game in hand until April 8 against Florida.

If it goes down to the final day, Washington is in South Florida to play the Panthers and Tampa Bay will be in Raleigh, N.C., to play the Hurricanes. It could end up being the NHL's most exciting division race.

Who has the edge? Tampa Bay has the easier schedule. Washington has the momentum. It should be fascinating to see it play out.
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.08.2011 / 4:25 PM

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

Projecting the field: Post All-Star break pace

Imagine Minnesota edging out Dallas for a playoff spot on the final day of the season? Or New Jersey not only making the playoffs but reaching the No. 7 seed and setting up a rematch from last season with the Philadelphia Flyers?

Take a look at how the NHL standings would finish the season if the teams continue at their current post-All-Star break pace, and both of those scenarios play out. It is a pretty simple excercise -- calculate how many points each team will collect in the final four-plus weeks of the season based on its pace from the ASG break until now and then add to the current total.

The Devils have become the No. 1 story in the NHL because of their incredible turnaround. If they keep up their post-ASG pace, not only will they make the playoffs but in comfortable fashion.

The Devils would finish with 94 points -- tied for Seventh most in the Eastern Conference with the Buffalo Sabres. New Jersey claims the seventh seed because the Devils currently would hold the tiebreaker (non-shootout wins). The Devils and Sabres would make the playoffs, while Toronto would just miss out in ninth place.

Carolina and the N.Y. Rangers have been slumping of late, and if those two clubs don't snap out of it they are in danger of falling out of the race long before the final days of the season. Given how well they've played of late, the Islanders would climb all the way to 12th in the East.

Other items of interest in the East from this excercise include Boston cliaming the top seed, Washington winning its fourth consecutive division title and getting Southeast rival Tampa Bay in the first round and Montreal climbing to fourth and grabbing home ice for a rematch with Pittsburgh from last season.

The Western Conference standings have four sets of teams finishing the same number of points, but the two tied for eighth would certainly be the biggest news. The Wild best the Stars because they currently hold the tiebreaker.

Chicago's strong play of late could help the Blackhawks chase down the Red Wings, but Detroit captures the Central Division and the No. 3 seed based on the tiebreaker.

The Red Wings and Blackhawks would see the Kings and Flames in the first round, with Los Angeles besting Calgary for the No. 5 seed based on the second tiebreaker (head-to-head) but those two teams still have a game to play. Still, the Flames climbing from 14th place in the West

San Jose climbs to second with some cushion thanks in part to having collected the second-most points in the NHL since the ASG break after New Jersey. The Sharks would face Phoenix, as the Coyotes and Wild would beat out Dallas, Anaheim, Nashville and Columbus for the final two spots in the crowded Western Conference.

The race for the top spots in the draft lottery are also quite interesting. The hot play of the Islanders (and corresponding slumps by Colorado and Atlanta) have the five teams with a chance at the No. 1 pick being the Avalanche, Ottawa, Edmonton, Florida and the Thrashers.

Obivously teams will get hot and go into slumps during the final month of the season, but consider this a one-day snapshot based on how teams have been playing for the past five weeks or so.

Post All-Star Game pace
   
Eastern Conference W-L-O Projected Pts.
Boston 10-4-1 107
Philadelphia 7-7-1 103
Washington 10-5-1 103
Montreal 9-5-2 99
Pittsburgh 7-6-4 99
Tampa Bay 6-6-3 98
New Jersey 14-1-1 94
Buffalo 9-4-3 94
Toronto 10-3-4 89
Carolina 6-7-3 86
NY Rangers 6-9-1 85
NY Islanders 10-5-3 79
Atlanta 3-9-2 74
Florida 4-9-4 72
Ottawa 5-9-1 65
     
Western Conference  W-L-O Projected Pts.
Vancouver 11-6-0 112
San Jose 13-3-0 108
Detroit 9-6-2 104
Chicago 11-3-2 104
Los Angeles 9-3-4 99
Calgary 11-3-3 99
Phoenix 9-6-1 95
Minnesota 9-6-2 93
Dallas 6-8-2 93
Anaheim 7-6-1 92
Nashville 6-7-3 90
Columbus 8-5-3 90
St. Louis 7-8-2 82
Edmonton 8-9-0 69
Colorado 1-12-2 64


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Posted On Monday, 03.07.2011 / 4:05 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 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.
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Posted On Monday, 03.07.2011 / 12:58 PM

By NHL Public Relations -  /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

'History will be made' again

Last season's award-winning History Will Be Made™ campaign will return for the 2011 Stanley Cup® Playoffs but with significantly broader distribution.  This year, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NBC Sports Group have joined forces to distribute the national advertising campaign across the TV, online, radio, print, in-arena, in-store point-of-purchase, mobile and social media platforms of the NHL, NBC and VERSUS as well as additional NBC Universal platforms, such as CNBC and MSNBC.

Last season's History Will Be Made campaign was one of the most successful campaigns in NHL history, driving more than 302 million TV viewers for the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the most watched in 36 years. The campaign, which featured prominent Playoffs moments from NHL greats Bobby Orr and others, not only drove interest and television viewership but connected with fans on an emotional level and inspired them to create and post their own versions of the TV spots to YouTube, generating more than 2,400 fan-created commercials and more than 8 million total views.  For the second straight year, fans will be able to download the music composed for the History Will Be Made campaign from the NHL's Facebook page for fan-generated spots.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.05.2011 / 12:59 PM

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

Already rolling, Devils have great chance forthcoming

If people think the New Jersey Devils have peaked during this current 19-2-2 run to scrape into the fringes of playoff contention, take a peak at their upcoming schedule.

The Devils have come from 27 points back of the postseason pace to being nine shy after a 2-1 overtime win against Pittsburgh on Friday night at Prudential Center -- and New Jersey is about to hit a soft spot in the schedule. The next six games for New Jersey are as follows: at N.Y. Islanders, vs. Ottawa, at Atlanta, vs. N.Y. Islanders, vs. Atlanta and at Ottawa.

"I don't know who or where we are playing beyond this weekend," Dainius Zubrus said Friday morning. "I know we play tonight and then an afternoon game on Long Island and that's it. I think that approach has worked very well for our team. A few months ago it was 40 games to go and now it is, what, 19 games to go? We still have to stay focused."

Added Colin White: "Every team at this time of year is playing playoff hockey. Players are playing for jobs next season on some [non-contending] teams."

Those three teams are currently 12th, 14th and 15th in the Eastern Conference. When Atlanta won in Toronto on Dec. 20, the Thrashers were in first place in the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa was in 10th place after that day and only six points shy of the top eight.

Both teams have struggled since then. The Thrashers have lost 23 of their 30 games since that day and now sit one point clear of New Jersey for 12th place. The Senators have lost 22 of 30 since Dec. 20 to fall into last place in the East.

The Islanders have been much improved after a disastorous start. New York has gone 18-14-3 since that day, a 91-point pace over the course of a full season. That's only been good enough to move the Islanders up two spots in the NHL standings from 30th to 28th, but teams have taken notice of their strong play.

Still, there is some evidence of the Islanders losing their momentum. They've lost four of five games (though two were after regulation) as they rely on Al Montoya and Nathan Lawson in net.

New Jersey's next game against a team currently in playoff postition is Mar. 18 at Prudential Center with Washington in town. Between now and then, Buffalo will play five contests against postseason contenders (all on the road) and Toronto will see five contenders. Carolina has four days on inactivity and eventually two back-to-backs in a six-day span.

"It feels like one day we're up after a win and then the next day we don't and we're back down again," Martin Brodeur said.

The Devils have to take care of their own business, but they might finally start getting more help. Don't be surprised if that nine-point deficit between the Devils and eighth-place in the East is a little smaller when the Capitals come to Newark on the 18th -- and this miracle comeback could be for real if the gap is significantly smaller.
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Posted On Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 6:08 PM

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

Flyers look to fix fizzling power play

Over the last few seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers could count on their power play to help them win their fair share of games. They were third in the League last season at 21.4 percent; sixth the season before that at 22.5 percent; second in 2007-08 at 21.8 percent.

This season, however, they're 23rd at 16.7 percent. They're 0-for-10 in their last three games, just 2-for-27 in their last eight.

That's not going to win you many games.

"I'm not sure (of the problem)," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "There are a lot of things we can improve upon, a lot of things we could probably do differently. It is something that is a big concern for us coming down the stretch and hopefully we can work out some kinks over the last 20 games and get ready for playoffs."

Coach Peter Laviolette has changed his two extra-man units around, mostly switching forwards, which led to a bit of public unrest, and he'll have to switch it again with Jeff Carter's absence Thursday against the Maple Leafs. But he's looking for something to work, and what he's been using clearly hasn't been.

"We're working on it in practice," the coach said. "Any time you see things going off course a little bit, you try to get it back on. Maybe there's a little extra video, some more meetings, you have some practice time here."

However, Laviolette said he isn't losing sleep over his powerless power play. One look at the track records of the players available for him keeps him positive.

"I'm not overly concerned about it because for years these same players have been very good on the power play," he said. "I think that when you go through parts of the season where there's something that's not right where you want it to be and I'm sure they'll get out of it.

Danny Briere, third on the team with 6 power-play goals, said he's confident things will get back on track and that it's good to get the problems out of the way now.

"I'd rather have the problems happening now and hopefully correct them before the playoffs," he told NHL.com. "The past few years it's been very good. I really believe we will have a good power play when it matters most."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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Posted On Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 4:31 PM

By David Kalan -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 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.
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Posted On Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 12:25 PM

By Dan Rosen -  NHL.com Senior Writer /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

No easy road for Hawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are finally looking like a solid playoff team, but while their six-game winning streak has allowed them to leap from 11th to fourth in a matter of a few weeks, they are still not even close to being out of the woods. Their 76 points is only three more than the ninth-place Ducks and 10th-place Predators. The Wild are just four points back in 11th.
 
The rest of the Blackhawks' schedule is statistically the most difficult in the League. Their opponents have an average winning percentage of .586 and of Chicago's 18 games remaining, only 11 are on the road. San Jose's remaining opponents also have a .586 winning percentage, but the Sharks will play 12 of their final 18 games on home ice.
 
Let's break it down for the Blackhawks:
 
Record against teams left on schedule: 12-10-3
 
Games vs. Western Conference playoff contenders: 8
 
Games vs. teams ahead of them in Conference standings: 4
 
Games vs. Eastern Conference playoff contenders: 6
 
Games vs. teams with more than 76 points: 8
 
Biggest challenge: Three games left against Detroit
 
Biggest challenge II: Two games left against Tampa Bay

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Posted On Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 10:51 AM

By Darryl Haberman -  NHL.com Director, Production /NHL.com - Countdown to the Playoffs

If the playoffs started today ...

The defending champs are a force to be reckoned with after spending most of the season outside the playoff picture. The roar is back in the Windy City as the Blackhawks are now in fourth place in the West following Wednesday night's 6-4 win vs. Calgary. A 7-1-2 stretch, including six straight victories, has Chicago in position to secure home-ice advantage in the first round -- if the playoffs started today.

In the East, the red-hot New Jersey Devils are fighting to stay alive in the playoff race. A magical 18-2-2 run has them within nine points of the eighth and final playoff spot with only 19 games remaining. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that the Devils were 27 points out and had the worst record in hockey.

For the latest on the playoff race and what potential first-round matchups would be, check out our enhanced playoff standings.


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Quote of the Day

They said, 'You're going to love the city. It's smaller than Philadelphia, but you're going to love it. You're going to love the fans. Just watching the playoffs last year, the fans seemed louder there than they did anywhere. I'm really excited about that.

— Forward Scott Hartnell on his upcoming season with the Columbus Blue Jackets