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11 playoff berths still up for grabs

Thursday, 04.02.2009 / 12:43 AM / NHL Insider

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

The calendar reads "April," and that means playoff time is almost upon us. But with just 11 days remaining in the regular season, 11 of the 16 postseason berths are still up for grabs.

Just five teams -- San Jose and Detroit in the West; Boston, Washington and New Jersey in the East -- are assured that they'll still be playing when the Stanley Cup Playoffs get under way (and none of these five know exactly where they'll finish).

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up:

Eastern Conference:

Boston (Northeast) and Washington (Southeast) have wrapped up their division titles. New Jersey looked to have the Atlantic Division all but locked up before an 0-5-1 slide cost them a chance at first in the East and gave the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins a chance to catch up. The Devils have assured themselves of a playoff berth.

Philadelphia (92 points after Wednesday's 3-2 loss at Toronto) has held fourth (the last home-ice advantage spot in the opening round) for most of the last few weeks, fending off a variety of challengers. The Flyers have a deep, balanced offense (five 25-goal scorers) and excellent special teams, including a League-best 16 shorthanded goals (and none allowed). But they've dropped three of their last four when they had a chance to lock up a berth.

The Flyers have six games (three at home) in the season's final 10 days, though only three (two against the Rangers, one against Florida) are against teams that could make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh (92 points after Wednesday's 5-1 win over the Devils) has been nearly unbeatable since changing coaches in mid-February. The Penguins are 15-2-3 since Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench after Michel Therrien was let go. GM Ray Shero found some wingers for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by landing Bill Guerin from the Islanders and Chris Kunitz from Anaheim. Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped up his play since the coaching change, and Crosby has a 16-game points streak.

Bylsma's up-tempo style has been a much better fit for the Pens' personnel, and they've climbed from 10th in the East into the middle of the pack.

Pittsburgh helped itself by going 6-1-1 on a just-concluded eight-game homestand. They play their next three and four of their final five games on the road. Three of the five games are against playoff contenders.

Carolina (91 points) hopes more home cooking will keep the wins coming. The surging Hurricanes enter Thursday night's home game against the Rangers with six consecutive victories, the longest active streak in the NHL. Goalie Cam Ward was the NHL's Player of the Month for March after going 10-1-2 with a 1.98 goals-against average and has been the biggest factor in his team's surge.

The Hurricanes play their next four games at home (three against playoff contenders) before ending their season at New Jersey.

The New York Rangers (89 points) have had a wild ride. They rode an easy early schedule and a raft of shootout wins to a fast start, struggled badly enough to get coach Tom Renney fired and are playing well under John Tortorella. The Rangers don't score a lot, their power play has struggled for most of the season, and the defense has been mushy at times. On the positive side, their penalty-killers have been terrific and Henrik Lundqvist is among the NHL's best goaltenders.

The Rangers have the toughest schedule of any Eastern playoff hopeful: All five games, beginning with Thursday's visit to Carolina, are against teams currently in the top eight in the East.

The Canadiens' centennial season hasn't gone as planned. Montreal (88 points) has struggled since the All-Star break, leading GM Bob Gainey to fire coach Guy Carbonneau and go behind the bench himself. A stretch of nine-in-10 at home helped the team regroup, as has improvement from goaltender Carey Price, who is 5-0-3 in his last eight games.

In one way, the schedule is not in Montreal's favor. The Canadiens are below .500 on the road and play four of their last six away from the Bell Centre, beginning Thursday night on Long Island and including visits to Toronto, the Rangers and Boston. However, their next three games are against teams out of the playoff race.

Florida (87 points) is desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The Panthers' hopes looked all but gone a week ago after they blew a 3-1 third-period lead in a 5-3 loss at Buffalo, with a visit to Philadelphia looming 24 hours later. But coach Peter DeBoer switched goalies, turning to Craig Anderson after Tomas Vokoun couldn't hold the lead in Buffalo, and was rewarded with three consecutive wins to get back in the race.

The Panthers have three of their five games at home, including a season-ending meeting with Washington. Three of the five are against playoff teams; the other two are against Atlanta.

Buffalo (83 points after a 3-2 overtime loss at Atlanta on Wednesday) may have seen its playoff hopes irreparably damaged when starting goaltender Ryan Miller went down with a high ankle sprain in a win over the Rangers on Feb. 21. They went 4-7-2 without Miller, then won twice over the weekend when he returned before losing in OT on Wednesday.

The Sabres have six games (three at home) left, beginning at Washington on Friday. They've got to get at least 10 points to have a realistic chance to climb into the top eight.

Western Conference:

San Jose (Pacific) and Detroit (Central) have long since wrapped up their divisions and are battling for first in the conference and the overall standings. Nothing else has been decided.

Vancouver (93 points) not only survived a six-game road trip that ended Tuesday at Minnesota, the Canucks thrived -- enough so that they came home first in the Northwest Division, passing Calgary with a 2-1 overtime win over the Wild. The line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows has been one of the hottest in the NHL over the past six weeks, and goaltender Roberto Luongo is healthy and hot after missing nearly two months earlier in the season with a groin injury.

The Canucks have four of their last six at home, including Thursday's game against Anaheim. Three of their last four games are against non-playoff teams. The division title is theirs for the taking.

Chicago (93 points after Wednesday's 2-0 win over St. Louis) has held fourth in the West for most of the season and looked like they'd surely end up there. But the Hawks have stumbled down the stretch, perhaps reflecting the inexperience on one of the NHL's youngest teams. Youngsters like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have plenty of talent and should benefit from their first trip to the postseason -- something that will happen with one more point.

The Hawks have six games left, three at home. All six are against Central Division rivals, including a home-and-home series against Detroit to end the season.

Calgary (92 points) looked like it would run away with the Northwest Division, but came back to the pack during a 3-4-0 road trip in early March that highlighted its defensive problems. They went 6-9-0 in March to drop out of the division lead for the first time since mid-January. The Flames have the star power (Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf and newcomer Olli Jokinen), but consistency has been an issue. Still, one more victory will assure the Flames of at least a playoff berth.

Calgary plays four of its last six on the road, including a showdown with the Canucks at Vancouver on April 7. They end with a home-and-home against Edmonton.

Columbus (88 points) can almost taste its first playoff berth since entering the NHL in 2000. Rookie goaltender Steve Mason has more shutouts (10) than any first-year netminder since Tony Esposito. Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in 1999 while coaching Dallas, has his team using a tight-checking style of play that should make them a tough out in the first round of the playoffs -- something they're five points away from.

The Jackets have five games remaining, all against playoff contenders, including a home-and-home series with Chicago.

Anaheim (84 points) has been on a roll, winning seven of its last eight to climb into the top eight in the West. It looks as if coach Randy Carlyle has decided to go with Jonas Hiller instead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal, and the Ducks' big guns -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger -- have been producing offensively.

Anaheim has a game at Vancouver on Thursday before a home-and-home set with San Jose this weekend. The Ducks then get four days off before hosting Dallas on Friday and visiting Phoenix on Saturday.

Nashville (84 points) must be doing it with mirrors. The Predators don't have a lot of talent, but do a lot with what they have. In another season, rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne would be the talk of the NHL; this season, he's been overshadowed by Columbus' Steve Mason. The Preds hope Jason Arnott and David Legwand will be back soon after losing one of their best forwards, Martin Erat, to a broken leg in Sunday's win at Detroit.

Nashville has two games with Chicago sandwiched round a home game with Columbus before ending the season with visits to Detroit and Minnesota.

St. Louis (83 points after Wednesday's 3-1 loss at Chicago) has battled its way from last in the West near midseason into contention for a playoff berth despite a M*A*S*H unit's worth of injuries. The biggest reason for the surge has been the play of Chris Mason, who's led them to a 13-5-2 record in their last 20 games, despite the loss in Chicago -- which ended a five-game winning streak.

The Blues have five of their last six games, including the next three, on the road. The one good part of their schedule is that the last three road games are against teams that are out or almost out of the playoff race.

Minnesota (81 points) will have to get hot to make the playoffs -- something the up-and-down Wild haven't been able to do down the stretch. Marian Gaborik has contributed five goals since his return from hip surgery, but the Wild haven't won back-to-back games since late February and went 6-6-4 in March, including a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss at home to Vancouver on Wednesday in a game they lost after holding the Canucks without a shot in the third period. They'll probably need to win out to have a chance.

Three of Minnesota's final five games are at home, but four of the five are against teams that are in the top eight in the West.

Edmonton (81 points) picked a bad time to go into a slump. Tuesday's 5-3 home loss to Anaheim was the Oilers' fifth in six games -- and they needed a 51-save performance by Dwayne Roloson at Anaheim last Friday to get that one. At 39, Roloson has become the oldest goaltender ever to play 60 games in a season, and he figures to play every game as long as the Oilers have a chance. Despite a plethora of young talent, the Oilers have struggled to score, and that lack of offense could be what dooms them; like the Wild, they'll likely have to win out to have any hope of making the top eight.

The Oilers don't leave Alberta for the rest of the season. They have four more home games before finishing the season at Calgary in the back end of a home-and-home. Four of the five games are against top-five teams in the West.

Dallas (78 points) would need to win all five of their remaining games and have a lot of things go right to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02. It won't be easy, especially because the last three are on the road.

Los Angeles (73 points) is mathematically still alive but would have to win all six games and have an incredibly complicated series of events take place to get in.











 

 

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