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Heat of playoff race has some teams melting

by Dan Rosen
New Jersey's Brent Sutter is ripping into his team, demanding they adhere to the system. Edmonton's Craig MacTavish is calling for sticks to be checked for their legality based on his naked-eye point of view. The Blackhawks are trying to brawl their way to home-ice advantage.

Yup, it's that time of the year, when the souls of hockey teams and hockey players across the NHL are being tested as the standings change daily.

Some of the playoff contenders are passing the test, while others can't seem to find the mojo they once possessed. With 11 days remaining in the regular season, you have to wonder if there is enough time to get it back.

"We're running out of time to be making mistakes like we did out there," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said after Sunday's 4-0 loss to Vancouver, a game that featured a couple of third-period frustration fights from the Hawks. "We all have to take responsibility."

Being responsible was the basis behind Devils coach Brent Sutter's 30-minute pre-practice team meeting Tuesday, one day after the Devils dropped their fifth straight game by getting outworked at Madison Square Garden.

There wasn't a give and take in this meeting.

Sutter spoke. The Devils listened.

"I've been pretty positive through this, trusting the group that they're going to get through it," Sutter said, according to The (Bergen) Record. "But now it's time. The foot is down. I mean, it's time. Enough is enough."

The Devils, who also went through a late swoon last season and wound up out of the playoffs in five games, play at Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Their 11-point lead on the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic Division has been whittled down to six, and the Flyers hold a game in hand.

Instead of chasing the first-place Bruins in the Eastern Conference, New Jersey now is chasing the second-place Capitals while trying to fend off the Flyers, Penguins and Hurricanes, all of whom have their games in order right now.

"I've been through situations like this before as a player," Sutter said. "I've been through situations like this before as a coach and there's nothing easy about it. There's no easy way. You've got to really put your head to the grindstone here and get down to it."

Edmonton, in seventh place in the Western Conference last week, fell to 11th, three points out of a playoff spot, after Tuesday's 5-3 loss to Anaheim. The Oilers still have five games left, but one local columnist already called them "deceased" and wrote that MacTavish is on his way out, too.

In trying to save his team -- and maybe his job -- MacTavish resorted to desperate measures late in Tuesday's game when he called for a stick check on Teemu Selanne. The Oilers had scored two late goals and MacTavish was hoping to score his team a power play.

Instead, referee Kerry Fraser ruled Selanne's stick was legal, putting the Oilers shorthanded with 2:11 remaining. The Ducks, who already had two power-play goals in the game, scored another into an empty net with 36 seconds remaining in the game to move themselves into seventh place.

The Ducks have won seven of eight while the Oilers have lost five of six.

"Visually it looked to be not even close," MacTavish told reporters when discussing the stick check. "I was that sure. I made the call. Obviously it was a terrible mistake. It's a terrible feeling to sabotage what looked like what was going to be a hell of a comeback."

The story of Chicago's amazing comeback from the standings depths has been one of the ongoing highlights of this season. Now, though, the young Hawks seem to be learning how truly difficult it is to become a viable contender in this League.

It's the right of passage young teams usually go through in this League.

Chicago seemingly was cemented in fourth place in the West until March, when it went 6-7-2 and entered April in fifth place, one point behind Calgary. The Hawks have scored only one goal in their last 120 minutes and their goaltending hasn't been good lately.

The Blackhawks, who have a game in hand on Calgary, gave up an average of 3.47 goals per game in March. It's a full goal more than they allowed on average in their first 60 games.

"The way the game is, it's freaky now," ex-Hawks coach Denis Savard told on Wednesday. "Teams can go on a five-, six-, seven-, eight-game winning streak and then a four-game losing streak. Even last year, we lost eight in a row at one point but maybe we should have won five of them. You face hot goaltending. That's what the Hawks have had for the first three-quarters of the year and it hasn't been there for the last 10 or 15 games. They're why they're kind of sliding here."

Calgary also is sliding. The Flames went 6-9-0 in March and fell to second in the Northwest Division, but Mike Keenan doesn't think for one second his players are gripping their sticks too tightly or are counting the days until the postseason.

"I've been pretty positive through this, trusting the group that they're going to get through it. But now it's time. The foot is down. I mean, it's time. Enough is enough."
-- New Jersey coach Brent Sutter

He emphasizes how good they were, at least defensively, in the last two games -- a 3-2 win against the Wild and a 2-1 loss to the Sharks.

"If you look at the last two games we just played, they were played exceptionally well in terms of structure," Keenan told the Calgary Herald. "We gave up 15 and 17 shots against. If you can have your team structured that tight, any team in the NHL would be really happy about that type of defensive framework."

With only six games left, the Flames better put the puck in the net as well if they want to win the Northwest Division. They have scored only three goals in their last four games.

"We could wake up in June and be the Stanley Cup champions," Flames forward Mike Cammalleri told the Herald. "And none of these conversations will matter."

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