Well folks, after more than six months it all comes down to this. What precious few spots remain in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be gone in the next seven days as the regular season hits its final week. Here is how I think it will all shake out, as well as a few other things on my mind.
WHO IS MAKING IT?
Not every team in the top three of its division has clinched, but it seems pretty clear that the top-three teams in each division won't be changing. The wild cards are where most of the action is going to be.
In the Eastern Conference, it looks like the Detroit Red Wings are going to be a safe bet to extend their playoff streak for another season. The conference's final spot, in my mind, has come down to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New Jersey Devils. That the Devils are even in this discussion is a surprise, but they've been playing extremely well lately and haven't lost in regulation in seven games. I still think, however, that Columbus gets in. The Blue Jackets are playing too hard right now and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is too good for that team to let a three-point lead slip away in four games.
I still think it will be a good race though, and if we were able to get a perfect ending, it would be the Devils, 0-for-11 in the shootout this season, having to win a shootout against the Boston Bruins on the final day of the season with a wild-card spot on the line. That would be something.
In the West, I thought a few weeks ago that we would see the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes taking the two wild-card spots, but with the Dallas' Stars recent surge, I think they'll be the ones joining Minnesota in the postseason.
The Stars have looked much improved lately and they proved it quite a bit on March 29 when they came back to win against the St. Louis Blues. That was a huge two points both mentally and in the standings, and despite missing out on a valuable opportunity to get a win Sunday in Florida, I still think Dallas looks like the better of these two teams right now. Phoenix, meanwhile, has fallen off significantly and just can't score goals right now. The Coyotes' one hope though is their final game of the season is at home against, who else, Dallas. The schedule should lead to a very exciting ending in the hunt for that final wild-card spot.
ROY'S AMAZING SEASON
Before this season, I think everyone knew the Colorado Avalanche were on the right track. Because the Avs had been bad for a few years, they had several high draft picks and now there are a lot of great young players on the roster. It was hard to believe Colorado wouldn't improve, but to do what the Avalanche are doing this season, to have 50 wins, to have an outside shot at finishing first overall in the West, one of the best conferences we've seen in a long time, that's simply astounding.
A number of young players have really started to emerge like forward Gabriel Landeskog or goalie Semyon Varlamov, and the defense has been far better than many people expected, but when you have a turnaround like this you have to look at what's changed. No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon came in, but did a rookie make that much of a difference? I don't think so. You have to give it to Patrick Roy. He's come in and taken a rebuilding team that looked three or four years away right to the top of the heap. This is not just a talented team now, but it's a confident team that plays like it's never out of it, even with center Matt Duchene missing from the lineup.
I'm not sure how the Avalanche will respond when the playoffs start. They're still a young team and there's a lot to be said for losing before you can win, but Roy has made Colorado a dangerous opponent to face after a remarkable regular season.
WILL HEADS ROLL IN TORONTO?
Technically, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still in the playoff hunt, but with how inconsistent and poorly they've played over the last few weeks, I can't see them closing the gap between them and the Blue Jackets, particularly when Columbus has a game in hand. When you consider the way last season ended with that playoff collapse in Boston and then consider the losing streak late this season that is probably going to cost the Maple Leafs a playoff berth, you would think something has got to give.
I've listened to Leafs fans on the radio and the Toronto media, and it seems like they all want their pound of flesh. Someone in Toronto has to pay the price. My guess is that coach Randy Carlyle will be the man to go because general manager Dave Nonis didn't hire him and might get the opportunity to bring his own man in. But that may not fix the problem. After all, Carlyle is a pretty good coach. In many ways it's a mystery, because while this isn't the best roster in the NHL it's certainly a decent one, one that should be in the postseason.
Their biggest problem might be the defense. Dion Phaneuf is a solid defenseman, but I don't see him as a No. 1. He makes too many mistakes to be in the same class as Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith or Shea Weber, but the Maple Leafs are paying him like he is. The defense as a whole has suffered. This is a team that gets outshot every night and it's come back to bite it over the last part of the season. Before 2014-15, Toronto will need to get some help on the back end. It may be too late for Carlyle though. Of all the people in danger with the Maple Leafs, I'd say Randy is the one walking the tight rope.