It’s about that time – 20-24 games left to play and the pressure is on. Sure the Rangers lead the East by 7 points and have won 7 of 10 games this month. Detroit’s inevitable juggernaut hasn’t lost at home since the Clinton Administration. But if Chicago’s 9 game slide and subsequent 4-game wining streak prove anything, it’s that you’re definitely sure you’re not sure.
Here’s a look at teams on the brink of post-season dreams:
The gap between 7th and 8th places is widening at Ottawa puts on the moves with 4 wins in a row. It could be a 4, 5 or even 8-way death match for the final playoff spot.
Toronto – The Leafs put together a nice 5-0-1 run, then promptly dropped 6 of their last 7 (1 in OT). Kessel’s still hot and Lupul’s having a great season (career-high 39A + within 5 of his goal-high mark). They’re currently 8th, which is how many years it’s been since Toronto made the playoffs. They need to rebound like J Lo. with a jailbait boyfriend, and quick – their last 18 games are against Conference foes.
Winnipeg – In the last 4 games they’ve scored 17 goals. That’s as many as in the 10 games prior. Not bad considering their leading scorer, Evander Kane (definitely a Ravenclaw) has just 23 goals. Can their goals-per-game possibly stay so high? Their geographically means 5 out-of-conference games left, costing them time while other teams play 4-point games. Opportunities for points vs. the East will quickly become necessities.
Washington – For the love of Haagen-Dazs, what is going on? They haven’t just lost 3 straight. That implies they tried, which is not true of Monday’s Carolina game. Troy Brouwer called it an “embarrassing effort” [link]. Last night’s 5-2 loss to Ottawa was marginally salvaged by Semin and Green, plus Perreault’s face. It literally scored when no one else could. But… drum roll please… the Caps are only 2 points out of a) a messy tie for first in the Southeast and/or b) a messy tie for 8th in the East. So it’s not over until they let it be over by playing this badly ever again.
Tampa Bay – Not sure here. The Bolts have won their last 3, each by 1 goal. Stamkos is a machine (42G, 28A). But Yzerman’s has been standing at the trade table yelling “Hit me!” – Kubina for draft picks, Downie for Quincey then Quincey for a 1st Round pick [link]. What about this season? With Lecavalier out indefinitely (broken right hand) – well, we’d never count Steven & Squishy out when it comes to a fight. If they get hot at the right time… Pens and Caps fans shudder at the memory of being steamrolled in last year’s early rounds.
Buffalo – The law of averages says that average play will not win playoff berths. The Sabres 5-of-10 performance in Feb (inc. 2 SO losses) has only kept them on the radar while other teams fall apart. Pominville’s been as strong as in any of his last 4 years, but Thomas Vanek’s totals career totals are all over the place [link]. He’ll struggle to match any highs since his rookie season, and beyond those two the goal production drops like a rock. I don’t like their chances unless other, deeper teams continue to under-perform.
Down, but not out: NY Islanders, Montreal, Carolina – Just 1 or 2 points behind Buffalo, any of these teams could throw a wrench into a struggling team’s plan. The Isles and Habs will have to pull it together – they’ve each lost 6 of 11. The Canes could finally be gelling after a rough season – they’ve won 7 of 12 and EStaal has 10 points in 5 games. Too late? Maybe not – teams are flailing and there’s blood in the water.
What do you think? Who makes the stretch count and who falls apart? Tomorrow, a Western Conference rundown.