As we reach the final week of the regular season, there are still several teams in each conference battling for that final playoff spot. This week we're going to take a look at each team and who has the toughest or easiest road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Let's start with the Eastern Conference, where four teams -- the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets -- are fighting for the final three spots. Here's what I think of each team and which is likely to be the odd one out.
Position: Sixth place, 53 points
Games remaining: at Carolina, at Philadelphia, at Buffalo
My take: The Islanders have been a great story. For a number of years people wondered if they really knew what they were doing out there after hiring Garth Snow as the GM when he had no experience whatsoever and after making deals like that massive contract with Rick DiPietro. It looked like they were really out of control. But suddenly they've drafted pretty well, they've brought in some solid veterans like Evgeni Nabokov, Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit, and they've got John Tavares, who is as good a player as there is in hockey. Quietly this has become a very good hockey team, and yeah, they have to finish the season with five straight road games, but they've already won two of them and they've got Carolina next, whom you would think they would also beat. With the way this team is playing, where they are in the standings and who they've got left, I think it's safe to say the Islanders will end their six-year playoff drought.
Position: Seventh place, 52 points
Games remaining: vs. Pittsburgh, at Washington, vs. Philadelphia, at Boston
My take: Ottawa has a very tough schedule. The Penguins are still eyeing the Presidents' Trophy, the Capitals are going for the Southeast Division title, the Flyers are always tough and the Bruins may not have anything to play for in that last game, but they could also be fighting with Montreal for the Northeast Division right down to the wire. The Senators are definitely not out of the woods yet, but they have some good news in that they could be getting Jason Spezza back soon and Winnipeg's schedule, which we'll get to in a minute, is also tough. Ottawa is playing well, Craig Anderson is back in net and he won't go in the tank for four games, and with all this team has endured this year, I have to think they'll at least win two of those last four games. If they do, that should be enough to get them in.
Position: Eighth place, 52 points
Games remaining: at Florida, at Carolina, vs. New Jersey
My take: The Rangers have a pretty soft final schedule considering they have the Panthers and Hurricanes in their next two games, and New York has finally started to score again over the last few games, including its big win against the Devils on Sunday afternoon. But that last game against New Jersey could be the fly in the ointment. The Devils are officially out of the hunt, but they would love to be the team that knocks the Rangers out and ruins their year. This is one of the League's great rivalries, and there will be a playoff atmosphere at that final game at Madison Square Garden. I don't think Florida or Carolina will cause the Rangers problems, but the Devils certainly could. That said, I would expect the Rangers to win two of their final three games, and if they do, that means Winnipeg won't be able to catch up.
Position: Ninth place, 49 points
Games remaining: at Buffalo, at Washington, vs. Montreal
My take: The Jets have fought valiantly, but they've got a big uphill battle. They've got the Sabres, who are playing well right now even though they're out of the race, and then two teams that are both fighting for a division title. New York's win against New Jersey on Sunday also hurt the Jets significantly. With their schedule, the Jets have a pretty decent shot at losing two games. If that happens they're done, and if they can't get help from one of their division rivals in Florida or Carolina, the Jets won't be able to overcome New York's point total. As it stands, you have to think Winnipeg will be on the outside looking in when the season ends.
The teams fighting for the eighth spot in the West, for the most part, have a much tougher schedule than the teams that are fighting for the eighth spot in the East. While the Minnesota Wild had a tough loss Sunday night against Calgary, I have to think they'll still make it in, and that means we're left with four teams fighting for the final berth in the West.
Position: Eighth place, 51 points
Games remaining: at Dallas, vs. Nashville
My take: The Blue Jackets are a great story. If you match them up talent-wise with any team in the West, you might put them last. Colorado, Edmonton, any of those teams that are long out of the race, have more talent on the roster, and yet here Columbus is playing great with stellar play from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and a strong argument that they'll make the playoffs. The Jackets had another big win against a good team Sunday night in San Jose and now all they've got left are the Stars, who are tough, but might be out of the race when they play, and the Predators, who are completely out of it. With a team like Detroit behind them the Jackets will need to win both of those games probably, but with the way they're playing, I could see them doing that easily.
Position: Ninth place, 48 points
Games remaining: vs. Phoenix, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Nashville, at Dallas
My take: Given how the Blue Jackets are playing right now, the Red Wings will probably have to win all four of their remaining games to jump Columbus and get that final spot. What I'm looking at with Detroit is I just feel that this is a team that will find a way to get in. They've got so much experience, so many winners, so many guys that have been there before. I just think they'll find a way to get in because they realize at this point that the eighth spot is where they're going. They have no illusions of finishing higher than that and I just think they have a lot of intangibles other teams don't. They're outside the top eight right now, but I don't think they will be on Sunday.
Position: 10th place, 48 points
Games remaining: at San Jose, vs. Columbus, vs. Detroit
My take: The Stars are another great story. This is a team that figured its season was done and traded away multiple veterans to build for the future, and suddenly they've climbed back into the playoff chase. Unfortunately for them, they have the toughest closing schedule in the West and it's not really close. That showed itself Sunday night when the Stars lost in overtime to Los Angeles. Now they have to play three teams that are above them in the standings, and that's a rougher road than any team they're competing with has to face. In the end, despite a great run late, I just think it will be too little too late for Dallas.
Position: 11th place, 46 points
Games remaining: at Detroit, vs. San Jose, vs. Colorado, at Anaheim
My take: The Coyotes got a big win Saturday night against Chicago, and that has to turn some heads when they still have to play Detroit on Monday night. If the Coyotes can get a win against the Red Wings it could throw off everything. The rest of their schedule isn't easy, but if they can get through the Red Wings and Sharks, they'll play a weak Colorado team and a Ducks team that may be resting players before the postseason. The Coyotes also have Mike Smith, and he's a goaltender that proved against Chicago in the postseason last year that he can win games on his own. He and the Coyotes can make it a very interesting last week in the West.
Overall though, it just looks to me like the Rangers and the Red Wings will be the teams that round out the postseason field in each conference. The games are what will decide it, though, and there are several wild outcomes we could be seeing. Wouldn't it the greatest irony if Columbus makes the playoffs and the Rangers miss them? You might have to go to a psychiatrist if that happens if you're a Rangers fan. It's that mind-boggling.
But it's also part of the fun. And this last week looks like it's going to be an awful lot of fun.
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