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Playoff Countdown: Stretch-run storylines

by Dan Rosen

The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Wednesday, the League is down to 88 games remaining on the schedule, with nine to be played Thursday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the 11-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are so close now that you can want to reach out, grab them, pull them in and have them start today.

Patience people, patience. There are still 11 days left in the 2013-14 regular season, still so much to be decided, so much to follow.

How will the wild-card races finish? Who will win the Pacific Division? Will the Toronto Maple Leafs get up off the mat? Can the Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season? Will the Boston Bruins win the Presidents' Trophy? Will the Chicago Blackhawks find a groove in spite of some significant injuries? Is Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury ready?

Here is all that and more in our look at 11 storylines to follow during the final 11 days of the regular season (the storylines are ranked in no particular order of significance):

1. Wild-(card) West

The Minnesota Wild are in good position as the first wild-card team in the Western Conference with 89 points, but four of their remaining six games are against some of the best teams in the NHL (Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and the St. Louis Blues).

The Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars are locked in a tight battle for the second wild-card spot. They could take it to April 13, the final day of the regular season, when they play each other in Phoenix. Imagine the drama if that game winds up determining which team goes to the postseason.

The Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators are still alive, but barely have a pulse in the race and likely won't be able to make up enough ground in the time remaining. The Canucks and Jets have only five games left; Nashville has six games to play.

2. Drama in the East

The Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have holds on the wild-card spots now, but after snapping their eight-game losing streak Tuesday, the Maple Leafs are one point behind the Blue Jackets for the second wild-card position. Columbus plays seven games in the next 10 days while the Maple Leafs still have home games against Boston and Winnipeg before closing the season with three straight on the road.

The Washington Capitals are one point behind the Maple Leafs, but they didn't do themselves any favors Tuesday when they played their worst game of the season in a 5-0 loss at home to Dallas.

The New Jersey Devils have stayed close to the race, but Tuesday they failed to pick up a point they absolutely had to have. The Devils lost another shootout, their 11th in a row this season, and this time it was against the Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in the NHL this season.

The Ottawa Senators played their way back into the race, but suffered a devastating blow Wednesday in a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders. The Carolina Hurricanes also are alive, but it'll take a miracle for them to pass all the teams ahead of them.

3. Eyes on Toronto

Jonathan Bernier
Jonathan Bernier
Goalie - TOR
RECORD: 26-19-7
GAA: 2.69 | SVP: 0.923
They're mentioned above in the wild-card discussion, but the Maple Leafs are a storyline unto themselves because of the microscope they're under in hockey's biggest market.

Toronto wouldn't be as big a storyline now if not for a disastrous eight-game losing streak it finally snapped Tuesday in a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames. The Maple Leafs were second in the Atlantic Division before their losing streak began; now they're chasing a wild-card spot.

For the Leafs to close strong, they'll obviously need goalie Jonathan Bernier to be the biggest difference maker. But, playoff-tested guys like forwards Dave Bolland and David Clarkson have to have a positive impact. It's been tough sledding for Bolland and Clarkson this season for a myriad of reasons (suspensions, injuries and simply not living up to contractual expectations), but they have five games to put it all behind them.

In the win against Calgary, Bolland and Clarkson scored the go-ahead and game-winning goals, respectively. Neither played big minutes (11:42 for Bolland, 10:40 for Clarkson), but they were mostly effective minutes. Toronto needs more of the same or this season will go down as yet another disappointment in a 47-year stretch of them.

4. Shooting for 23

The Red Wings picked up a huge win Wednesday when they beat the Bruins 3-2 at Joe Louis Arena. They've won three in a row to give themselves a four-point cushion in the wild-card race. They are close to clinching a playoff berth for a 23rd straight season despite not having their top two players, captain Henrik Zetterberg and center Pavel Datsyuk, in the lineup for approximately half the season.

If the Red Wings avoid a late-season meltdown, Mike Babcock is sure to receive consideration for the Jack Adams Award. He might be putting together his finest coaching season in his NHL career considering this was already going to be a transition year for the Red Wings before all the injuries.

In addition to Zetterberg and Datsyuk, long-term injuries throughout the season to Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss, Darren Helm and Jonathan Ericsson have required Detroit to regularly use eight players who won the Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins last spring.

Gustav Nyquist has been a revelation in the second half of the season. He scored another goal Wednesday, giving him a team-high 28 goals in 51 games, including 12 in the past 10. He'll easily surpass 30 if he keeps up this pace.

It'll be interesting to see how Datsyuk's knee holds up when he returns, which could be as soon as Friday against Buffalo. It's also possible Zetterberg (back) returns during the playoffs, provided the Red Wings get there.

5. Being Presidential

The Bruins haven't won the Presidents' Trophy since 1989-90. The Blues won it a decade later, but haven't since. The Anaheim Ducks have never been the Presidents' Trophy winners.

One of the three should win the trophy this season.

Boston has one more point (110-109) and seven more regulation/overtime victories (49-42) than the second-place Blues. St. Louis has a game in hand on the Bruins and Ducks, who have 108 points.

The San Jose Sharks are still in the mix as well, but they're five points behind the Bruins and have only five games remaining.

6. California Dreaming

The Los Angeles Kings know they're going to open the playoffs on the road somewhere in their home state.

The smart bet now has the Kings flying north to take on the Sharks, who trail the Ducks by three points for first place in the Pacific Division. However, the Sharks, with five games left, could still go on a tear to overtake Anaheim. If that happens, the Kings will start the playoffs about 30 miles down the freeway at Honda Center.

Los Angeles is probably hoping for San Jose. It is 3-0-1 against Sharks, but 1-3-0 against the Ducks. The Kings play at San Jose on Thursday and are home against Anaheim on April 12.

7. Home ice up for grabs

Unless something drastic happens, it looks like three of the eight first-round matchups are set: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers; Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning; Chicago Blackhawks vs. Colorado Avalanche.

The question is, where will those series begin?

The Rangers, second in the Metropolitan Division, have a three-point lead over the third-place Flyers, but Philadelphia has two games in hand. The Rangers have 39 regulation/overtime wins to 36 for the Flyers. They will not face each other again during the regular season.

The Lightning and Canadiens each have 93 points, but Tampa Bay has the lead because of its one game in hand. However, the Canadiens have two more ROWs than the Lightning (37-35).

The Avalanche, second in the Central Division, have a three-point lead and a game in hand against the third-place Blackhawks. Both teams are dealing with significant injuries (Matt Duchene for Colorado; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for Chicago), but Colorado has a clear edge here to have the home-ice advantage in the first round, especially when factoring in ROW (44-37 in favor of Colorado).

8. MacKinnon's expanded role

Nathan MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon
Center - COL
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 35 | PTS: 58
SOG: 213 | +/-: 20
Colorado rookie Nathan MacKinnon has passed every test this season, showing signs that he will live up to his potential as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. However, MacKinnon's next challenge will also be his most difficult.

MacKinnon, who leads all rookies with 58 points, has to take on an even bigger role with Duchene likely out for the first round of the playoffs with a knee injury. Duchene is Colorado's leading scorer with 70 points and its most important forward because of the two-way game he plays.

The early returns are positive; MacKinnon had assists on captain Gabriel Landeskog's game-tying and game-winning goals in Colorado's come-from-behind 3-2 overtime victory against Columbus on Tuesday.

The goals came after coach Patrick Roy changed his lines and put MacKinnon at right wing on a unit with Landeskog and center Paul Stastny. MacKinnon had been in Duchene's spot as the center between Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn.

Wherever Roy decides to play MacKinnon he will have to continue to be a factor, as he has been for most of the season, except now he'll have to do it without having Duchene as a cushion.

9. Banged-up Blackhawks

Toews will miss the final six games of the regular-season with an upper-body injury, but Chicago coach Joel Quenneville says he'll be "100 percent" for the playoffs. Similarly, Kane will likely miss the rest of the regular season with a leg injury, but the Blackhawks are banking that he'll be ready to go when the playoffs begin.

Outside of trying to get home-ice advantage, which is a stretch anyway, Chicago doesn't have much to play for in these last six games so it has the luxury of keeping Toews and Kane on the shelf until the playoffs begin. If the team's doctors are correct, Chicago will be getting a rested and healthy duo of superstars back in time to defend the Stanley Cup.

However, the Blackhawks have to figure out how to play at a high level without Toews and Kane. They don't necessarily need to win, but no team wants to be reeling as it enters the playoffs either. Chicago hasn't been good lately, with four regulation losses and 16 goals allowed in its past five games.

The Blackhawks need to tighten up in front of Corey Crawford. They need Patrick Sharp to start scoring (three goals since the Olympic break). They need Brandon Saad to pick up his offense (no points, minus-7 in his past seven games). Duncan Keith has gone cold too (two points, minus-7 in past six games).

10. Fleury's workload and his psyche

Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury
Goalie - PIT
RECORD: 36-18-4
GAA: 2.36 | SVP: 0.916
The playoffs are near, which means Fleury will finally get a chance to prove to his detractors he can be an elite goalie again. He's had another strong regular season for the Penguins with 36 wins, a .916 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average. But that won't matter in 11 days because, as always, Fleury will be defined by what he does in the playoffs.

It will be interesting to see how Penguins coach Dan Bylsma uses him in the last six games considering Fleury has already started 60 times and the Penguins need him fresh and confident going into the postseason.

Fleury's confidence is as important as anything for the Penguins. We've seen what happens when it erodes.

Since 2010, Fleury is 14-16 with a .880 save percentage and 3.18 GAA in the postseason. He has been particularly bad in the past two postseasons with four wins, a .857 save percentage and 4.11 GAA in 11 appearances.

Expect Jeff Zatkoff to get at least two starts before the end of the regular season because the Penguins have two more sets of back-to-backs. It would make sense for Zatkoff to start either against Colorado or Minnesota this coming weekend, and then in the regular-season finale against Ottawa.

11. Crosby and the Art Ross runaway

With 100 points, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has a 16-point lead in the Art Ross Trophy race. Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf is second with 84 points.

Crosby will win the Art Ross Trophy going away; the only question now is by how much?

The last time anybody won the scoring race by as many as 16 points was in 1998-99, when Jaromir Jagr, then with the Penguins, topped Teemu Selanne by 20. Jagr had 127 points that season, a number not reached since.

Crosby has eight points, on four goals and four assists, in 11 games this season against Pittsburgh's six remaining opponents (Winnipeg, Minnesota, Colorado, Detroit, Philadelphia and Ottawa).


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