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West playoff race among top homestretch storylines

by Dave Lozo
All season long, the Western Conference standings have been packed tighter than the crepes rolled by the Cubans who were actually Dominicans on that episode of Seinfeld.

As of Friday morning, eight points separated third and 11th in the standings. It's essentially nine teams fighting for six spots, with the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings all but locks for postseason berths.

So who will capture those remaining playoff spots and who will fall short?

Two teams that appear to be in the deepest trouble are the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars.

All-Star goaltender Jonas Hiller has played just one game since Feb. 1 due to dizziness and fatigue, and the Ducks have headed south. They went 3-5-0 with backup Curtis McElhinney, who was traded Thursday to Tampa Bay in exchange for goaltender Dan Ellis after allowing 19 goals in his last four games.

Ray Emery, who hasn't played an NHL game in more than a year, had three good starts for Syracuse of the AHL before being called up by the Ducks on Wednesday. If Hiller doesn't get over his vertigo-like symptoms, Emery and Ellis will be relied upon down the stretch in Anaheim.

The Stars were a feel-good story all season, surprising many while sitting atop the Pacific Division. But a 3-11-1 stretch has them suddenly fighting for their playoff lives.

Trading forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski doesn't mean a white flag has been raised, but it says the team needed a shock to the system. Goligoski's future is bright, but there's no getting around the fact the Stars made a 2-for-1 deal that doesn't necessarily make them better now.

The rest of the West is loaded with questions: Can the Calgary Flames continue their hot streak? Will the Wild survive without captain Mikko Koivu (broken finger) over the next few weeks? Will the Chicago Blackhawks remember they're defending Stanley Cup champions and make a push? Do the Los Angeles Kings have enough offense to stay in the top eight?

The West should provide playoff drama right up until the final days of the season.

Crosby's situation -- As decimated as the Penguins are by injuries, there's no way they are missing the playoffs. The Pens have a 16-point cushion on the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres, so it would to take a collapse of epic proportions for Dan Bylsma to be scheduling a tee time in mid-April.

But without Sidney Crosby, who is has been out since early January with a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin, who is out for the season with a knee injury, just what type of team will the Penguins have when the postseason arrives?

GM Ray Shero made his team better by acquiring Neal and Niskanen for Goligoski, there's no denying that. He even added 38-year-old sniper Alex Kovalev for a couple of draft picks. But with Malkin done for the season and Crosby's status as cloudy as can be, does making slight improvements even matter if the Pens don't have their two best players?

If Crosby is 100 percent healthy and can get back into the lineup during the Pens' final 20 games, they will be a surefire contender to come out of the Eastern Conference even without Malkin. But if Crosby has to sit out the remainder of the season, the Pens aren't the same type of threat.

Buyers or sellers? -- The trade deadline is Feb. 28, which means teams are running short on time to bolster their lineups for the remainder of this season or sell off some high-priced commodities in exchange for future talent.

It's obvious what teams at the top of the standings are looking to do, but what about those teams barely hanging on to playoff spots and those on the cusp of breaking through?

The Buffalo Sabres have scuffled all season after winning the Northeast Division a year ago. They have a new owner in Terry Pegula who wants his team to be buyers at the deadline. But is that just big talk from someone who wants to make a good impression on his fan base, or will the Sabres do whatever it takes to get back into the playoffs?

What about the Atlanta Thrashers? They've been slowly fading for months now, but are one hot streak away from getting back into the playoffs. Will they stand pat after picking up Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart from Boston or make another tweak or two?

The Western Conference is a place where a five-game winning streak can move a team up six spots in the standings, but a five-game losing streak can have the opposite effect. What will the Kings, Flames, Coyotes, Sharks, Wild, Ducks and Blackhawks do as the deadline nears?

A lot of general managers will face hard decisions in the coming days that will either make or break their teams for the rest of this season.

With the first pick … -- While most fans are dreaming of the playoffs and cheering for
matchups that benefit their teams, others are hoping their teams can get the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

The Edmonton Oilers (48 points) and the Ottawa Senators (49 points) are leading (trailing?) the charge (retreat?) for that first selection. The Islanders (53 points) and the Devils (56 points) are the next two closest teams, but both have been playing solid-to-amazing hockey recently.

Based on their remaining schedule, the Oilers look to be the front-runners (backpedalers?) to have the No. 1 pick for a second straight season. Of their 21 remaining games, 11 are the road and 14 are against teams in playoff spots right now.

The Oilers have a five-game road trip that includes games in Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia and a home-and-home series with the League-leading Canucks in early April.

Meanwhile, nine of the Senators' final 22 games are against non-playoff teams. They have 12 games on the road but lack the grueling cross-country trip the Oilers have.

It's not the race fans of the Oilers and Senators want, but it's one they'll be watching as the season the winds down.

A good, old long shot -- Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis is fourth in the NHL in points with 72, six fewer than League leader Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks.

St. Louis has played one fewer game than Sedin, so it's possible he could make a late-season push and capture the Art Ross Trophy. If that happens, St. Louis, who will be about two months shy of his 36th birthday, would become the oldest player in the League history to win the trophy.

Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe had just turned 35 when he won it in 1963 with 86 points. When Wayne Gretzky won it for the 10th and final time of his career in 1994 with the Los Angeles Kings, he was 33.

Of course, everyone will be watching to see if Tampa's Steven Stamkos will reach the 50-goal mark for the second straight season, but the ageless St. Louis sitting within range of his second Art Ross Trophy in a young man's NHL makes for a compelling story.

Hart attacks -- It's a little-known fact that a goal in October counts exactly the same as one scored in March, but voters always weigh the final chunk of the season more heavily than the earlier portion when it comes to picking an MVP.

That means we're entering the time of the year when those in contention for the Hart Trophy will begin to separate themselves.

If Stamkos gets to 50 goals and the Lightning are a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference, is the award his? Will voters be swayed if Stamkos and St. Louis finish in the top-four in the scoring race?

The same can be said for Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver. Both are among the League leaders in points, but is one simply the product of the other? Doesn't Daniel make Henrik better and vice versa?

How about a goaltender for MVP? If anyone deserves it, Boston's Tim Thomas does. His numbers compare favorably to those of Dominik Hasek when he won the Hart Trophy in 1997 and 1998 with the Buffalo Sabres. But Thomas has faltered of late, and a so-so final 20-plus games may hurt him in the eyes of voters.

The last seven winners of the Hart Trophy have been forwards, so it will take a special closing performance by Thomas to capture it.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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