Playoff berths still up for grabs
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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 race in the Western Conference shapes up:
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.