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NHL Schedule Analysis: Winnowing Down

Brian Rutherford

Brian Rutherford

A freelance writer of all things but mostly sports, music and politics, Brian Rutherford was raised on Long Island, NY and currently resides in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. His favorite teams are the New York Rangers, Texas Rangers, New York Giants and New York Knicks. "So the difference I think, boils down to this: you can either impose yourself on reality and then write about it, or you can impose yourself on reality by writing it." -Hunter S. Thompson "The Proud Highway"

And then there were 15... One down and 15 playoff spots to go, the calm before the storm is upon us. We all saw it coming, the bubble is large, but the drama should be reduced soon as at least one elimination should occur in the following crowd. Yes, this week, we should see the dissipation of several NHL team's playoff hopes.

Eastern Conference

Carolina Hurricanes will start the week against the Ottawa Senators. This is a game that Carolina should and must win. Next up? A home-and-home series with Southeast Division rivals, Tampa Bay. Though the Lightning hold a slight edge in shots fired and goals against, this series is knotted up at 1-1-1. The 'Canes catalyst, Eric Staal (2 points in last six games) is plain cold after producing goose eggs in a nine-shot effort against Toronto last week. Carolina's offense altogether has registered just 15 goals in nine games this month. A combined 0-7-1 against their two opponents (WAS, MON) next week, will the 'Canes build momentum or end up dead in the water? Carolina is 3-2-1 this season against - vs. OTT, @TB, vs. TB

Atlanta Thrashers - Four points out of the eight and final playoff spot, imagine if the Thrashers (10th place) could spin an offseason expected to be riddled with talk of relocation into a Stanley Cup parade. No, they don't have the talent or discipline to go all the way, but this team has spunk and an ability to upset over-confident hockey clubs. "They'll never see you coming". Two (NYI, OTT) of their three games should be "gimme-wins" for any REAL playoff contender. Question is; how will they handle the one team (Vancouver) who HAS clinched a spot. Andrew Ladd (53 points) is having a career year, and will need to step up in the final weeks if Atlanta is to make the elite eight of their conference. Atlanta is a combined 3-3 this season against @NYI, vs. VAN, OTT

New Jersey Devils are in the midst of a brutal four-game road trip. Every team the Devils play this week is viciously vying for a playoff berth. The match up with Columbus this past Sunday should set the tone for the week and the rest of the Devils season. Following Sunday, Martin Brodeur, who is 13-3 in his last 16 starts, will lead his team into Boston, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. More importantly, can he [Brodeur] handle PIT and BUF on back-to-back nights or will head coach Jacques Lemaire turn to Johan Hedberg. Journeyman Hedberg, who hasn't played since February 25th, is 8-1-1 in his last 10 starts. New Jersey is a combined 3-3-1 this season against @BOS, PIT, BUF

New York Rangers power-play (7-19) is waking up just in the nick of time, and two mediocre competitors are headed to MSG this week. For all the talk about Marian Gaborik's ghost, the former third-round pick of the Wild has 14 points in his last 16 games. One of the biggest reasons the Rangers are even still in this is Ryan Callahan and his 11 points this month. New York is a combined 5-4 this season against vs. FLA, OTT @ BOS

Western Conference

The Dallas Stars are only scheduled for two games this week but both are pivotal. A short schedule is exactly what Dallas needs as two of their spark plugs (Loui Eriksson, Adam Burish) are enduring injuries. The biggest question mark is when and if Kari Lehtonen's lack of injury and misfortune will rear its ugly head. Though he hasn't been outstanding, a 4-2-2 record this month has the Stars in the thick of things. North Texas really just needs production from a dark horse. Perhaps 21-year-old winger Tomas Vincour can provide. The Czechoslovakian helped the Stars to a 5-0 dismantling of the defending cup champion Blackhawks last week. Vincour managed his first NHL assist and first four penalty minutes. I'm not sure how likely Vincour is to envigor, but unexpected points are what the Stars are going to need until Brad Richards shakes off the rust. Dallas is a combined 3-3-1 this season against - vs. ANH, @ NSH.

The Chicago Blackhawks are another team fighting the adversity of injuries (Dave Bolland, Brian Campbell), and an embarrassing loss (5-0) to the aforementioned Stars. The Blackhawks should also benefit from a two game schedule this week. Corey Crawford, who has allowed three or more goals in seven of his eight starts this month, could definitely use the time to regain his focus. Chicago is a combined 2-2 this season against - vs. FLA, ANH.

The Calgary Flames are trying to forget they have lost to Phoenix twice in the last two weeks. Coming off visiting the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary heads to Tinseltown to take on the Kings Monday. The Kings (17 team points in their last 12 games) are currently holding onto fifth place. Two points, and three seeds behind L.A., the Flames are highly dependent upon Jarome Iginla. Iginla appears to have figured out what a few former NHLer's counted on, to save your best kick for the end of the year. Just recently Iginla tied Denis Savard and Alex Mogilny for 49th on the NHL's all-time goal-scorer's list. Iginla boasts a career best (90 goals) in the NHL season's last full-month. With a .157 career shooting percentage against men in black and silver, 28 of Iginla's 473 career goals have come against Hollywood hockey. Calgary is a combined 5-3-2 this season against @L.A. S.J. EDM.

The Nashville Predators have an important four game homestand over the next eight days. So far this month, the Preds have lost four games (8-12 GF/GA) to Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose and Los Angeles. In their four wins against Vancouver, Minnesota, Boston and Colorado they have two shutouts and outscored their opponents (15-5) quite handily. Though pointless (five shots) in his last two games, Blake Geoffrion (2 goals, 1 assist in nine games) is beginning to give Nashville the offensive push that prompted the organization to draft (2006) him in the second record. What they're really counting on is Pekka Rinne's (2-0, 69-71) numbers against Anaheim to continue. Two of the Preds three opponents this week are fellow bubblers of the playoff race. Nashville is a combined 4-4-1 this season against vs. EDM, ANH, DAL.

The Anaheim Ducks are playing three games this week. There may be a competition developing between Dan Ellis and Ray Emery, especially with three games in four days this week. Emery (39 of 40 in 77 minutes) was fantastic in his last start, while Ellis (5-2 since joining the Ducks) has been the backbone for a Ducks team missing Jonas Hiller, who is currently battling vertigo. The Ducks are grinding through March (5-2) in order to keep themselves above the bottom pack of the conference. Anaheim is a combined 5-4-1 this season against @DAL, NSH, CHI.

Back to back

Thirteen teams are playing on back-to-back nights, so if you own a goalie on the following team, make your plans accordingly.

ANH, ATL, BOS, BUF, CAR, FLA, NJ, OTT, PHI, PIT, SJ, TB, WAS

Four game schedule

With 12 teams playing four games next week, only five teams will have three or fewer nights off this week. Set your lineup with care as head coaches will begin to rest talent for the post-season.

BOS, FLA, OTT, PHI, PIT

Nationally Televised Action in EST **local blackouts apply

VERSUS March 21 -- Pittsburgh at Detroit, 7:30
VERSUS March 22 -- Washington at Philadelphia, 7:30
VERSUS March 23 -- Vancouver at Detroit, 7:30