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NHL Schedule Analysis: NHL's March Madness

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"

It's that time of the year the muscles are working overload on pure adrenaline. No I'm not talking about March Madness. Though I do enjoy the DallasNews.com's play on bracketology, I'm yapping about the last two weeks in the NHL's regular season. With 12 teams playing four games this week, nine of them have yet to seal their fate for spring Hockey. As of Saturday, March 26th, 12 NHL teams (six per conference) are fighting for eight playoff spots.

All year long, the Western Conference has looked like a Monday afternoon traffic jam. Here we are, final two weeks of the season and six points separates six teams. Eight of the 12 NHL teams playing four times this week are from the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Kings - 92 points

The Kings are looking to eclipse the century mark in points for the second consecutive season. As if enduring the loss of veteran-winger Justin Williams (shoulder) isn't hard enough, the Kings have also lost the services of All-Star center Anze Kopitar. Due to be out six weeks, Kopitar (leads Kings with 25 goals, 73 points) broke his ankle in the second period of the Kings 4-1 win over the Avalanche. After their game in Edmonton, Los Angeles' six remaining opponents this season are pushing for a playoff seeding. Young centers like Oscar Muller and Trevor Lewis (a goal and an assist against Colorado) will see an increase in ice time. Head coach Terry Murray is certainly hoping Willie Mitchell (two goals in last two games), will fill the goal-scoring void left in the wake of Kopitar's injury. Ranked second in NHL penalty-kill percentage, Los Angeles is a combined 8-1-1 against @EDM, VAN, vs. DAL

Nashville Predators - 92 points

In control of clinching their best playoff seed since the 2006-07 season, no they're not flashy, but Nashville (ranked third in PK%) has consistently had a solid season. The only problem for the Preds is the same problem they've had all year. Where's the offense? The future is bright as 23-year-old LW Blake Geoffrion - four goals in his last five games - is producing in his first full month. Center Cal O'Reilly (leg) is practicing again and LW Steve Sullivan (groin) is reportedly nearing a return to practice. Until then, while Music City seemingly has its hands full against Vancouver and Detroit, Preds fans are hoping their Fin goalie Pekka Rinne (8-2-2 this month) won't mind. Nashville is a combined 9-2 against vs. VAN, @COL, vs. DET

Anaheim Ducks - 89 points

A win (2-1) in Chi-town was an enormous momentum changer in the Western Conference. But the Ducks are not exactly running away from the pack. After hosting the Avs, Anaheim has their work cut out for them. Road games in Calgary and San Jose should certainly gauge Anaheim's fate for the rest of the season. By then a face-to-face match-up with Dallas at home may be without drama. Where's the defense? Will Teemu Selanne (70 points) run out of gas? These were the questions I thought Anaheim would be facing in March. Instead, Jonas Hiller's first game in five weeks is their complex. Battling a nasty case of vertigo, Hiller gave up three goals on nine shots in just over 11 minutes. It may seem crazy, as solid as Ray Emery has been, my money is on Dan Ellis getting the edge in starts. Of course the very hot-handed Ryan Getzlaf has helped by providing a goal and 10 assists over his last four games. Ducks RW Corey Perry (83 points) is officially the beast of the 2010-11 campaign. Perry has managed 17 points in a month three times this season. In a season salted by Sidney Crosby's 25-game-point-streak, immediately followed by the crash landing of his health, Perry has provided punch. Let's face it, the Ducks are the Western Conference equivalent to the New Jersey Devils, every year they find a competitive spirit and play. Anaheim is a combined 12-3 against COL, @CAL, SJ, vs. DAL

Chicago Blackhawks - 88 points

Going into the week, Chicago has a strong hold on its playoff chances. However, the Hawks are fresh off a 2-1 loss to Anaheim and face arguably the toughest schedule in the NHL this week. Since their 5-0 loss to Dallas, Chicago has tightened up their ship. With Patrick Sharp (knee) still out of the lineup, the Blackhawks have summoned the skills of rookie C Marcus Kruger, who had 35 points in 52 games with Swedish Elite team Djurgardens. The league's best power-play team (26.7), Chicago is a combined 5-3-1 against @DET, BOS, CLB vs. TB

Calgary Flames - 87 points

Of the six teams in the thick of things, Calgary has the most favorable schedule this week. After hosting Anaheim (0-0-3 season series), Calgary visits two NHL clubs currently licking their wounds. Differing largely from their 8-2-3 February, the Flames are an uninspired 6-5-2 in March. Former first-rounder (25th in 2008) C Greg Nemisz was a minus-2 in his NHL debut last week. The NHL's third ranked (24.6) power-play team, Calgary is a combined 7-1-3 against vs. ANH @ STL, COL

Dallas Stars - 86 points

Currently seeded 10th in the conference, Dallas, who at one-point in the season was a top conference seed, seems to be running out of gas. A tough loss to Nashville this past Saturday just about took whatever wind was left in their sails. Good news is RW Loui Eriksson (65 points) returned to the lineup last week and is back to his point-per-game ways. Regardless, the Stars playoff chances are bouncing off like tumbleweed into the rink fog. With the ownership situation very much in the air, dare I gasp a sub-plot? Has North Texas seen its last NHL playoff game? Not if Mark Cuban has anything to say about it. Do-or-die is upon D/FW as all four opponents this week are Pacific divisional rivals. Dallas is a combined 8-8-4 against @PHO, SJ, LA, ANH

The Eastern Conference top four, just like its Western counterpart, has seemingly run away from the rest of the crowd. Just four spots remain in question and several of the teams vying for those spots will play in head-to-head match-ups this week.

Tampa Bay Lightning - 91 points

What can you say about the Lightning, a team barely idling down the stretch? Tampa Bay is 3-6-4 in the month of March and managed a mere split of their home-and-home series with Carolina. After going 12-6-1 in the first two months of 2011, Dwayne Roloson (2-4-3 in March) has a pedestrian .907 save percentage this month. But more likely to blame is the inefficient power-play. Headed into Saturday night's match-up with Carolina, the Lightning had given up four short-handed goals in the last five games. Also noteworthy, LW Steve Downie (ankle) registered 14 PIM in a combined 23 minutes this past weekend against Carolina. LW Simon Gagne has exploded for four goals over his last two games. Tampa Bay is a combined 3-4-1 against vs. OTT, PIT @MIN, CHI

Montreal Canadiens - 87 points

If any team currently holding a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is likely to fall by the wayside, it's the Canadiens. You can bet the farm, every other team making plans for the post-season is counting their blessings. No team leaves the hallowed halls of the Bell Centre with an easy playoff series win. The real test for Montreal will be how they respond to the embarrassing 7-0 defeat at the 'bloodied' hands of rival Boston. Check out Carey Price's game log this month as he's been an every other start kind of guy. Despite his 4.39 GAA and 2-6 record over the last eight games, Price (31 of 33) wasn't that bad in the 2-0 loss to Washington. After starting the month on a five-game winning streak, the Canadiens have won just three of their nine games since. Set aside the 8-1 shellacking of Minnesota, the Canadiens have been outscored 28-9 in their other eight games since March 10th. Montreal is a combined 5-3-1 against vs. ATL @CAR, NJ

New York Rangers - 87 points

Broadway's ice hockey club has stumbled for the better part of 2011 and even parts of March. But since their two losses to open the last full month of the season, the Rangers (8-1-1) and more accurately, Henrik Lundqvist (3 SO's this month), have taken control of their destiny. King Henrik has earned a star (three #1's) in seven of his 11 starts this month. If that doesn't spell MVP, I don't know what does. If the Rangers are to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, it won't be easy. After facing fellow playoff bubbler Buffalo, the Rangers head back south to take on their other interstate rival, the New York Islanders. All of this is a prelude to their huge momentum changing Sunday afternoon match up with Philadelphia. Same bat time, same bat channel as the Flyers look for a little revenge, having lost just four weeks ago to the hand of these very same Rangers 7-0. New York is a combined 6-6 against @BUF, NYI, PHI

Buffalo Sabres - 85 points

The Sabres (8-3-2 in March) gripped tighter with a 2-0 shutout of the now dead in the water Devils. After a late-December injury to C Derek Roy and an ownership situation near receiving slot-time on TMZ, Buffalo was eliminated by many critics including myself. Reportedly D Jordan Leopold (hand) is going to be out for at least the rest of the regular season. But sophomore D Tyler Myers (10 g, 25 assists) has found his way again as has LW Thomas Vanek (54 points) and LW Tyler Ennis (47 points). Ryan Miller is literally saving his best for last, having posted two shutouts in the last three games. However, if Buffalo can't get through this very competitive four-game conference schedule, it will all have been for naught. Buffalo is a combined 6-6-2 against @TOR, vs. NYR @WAS, CAR

Carolina Hurricanes - 80 points

How can you not root for this small market engine that could? After the 4-3 win (Mar. 25) over Jekyll & Hyde Tampa Bay, you have to know that flight home to Raleigh was nice. But then the 'Canes lost the back-end of that series at home 4-2. However, once they get past hockey's hottest team (Washington), they'll face the puttering Canadiens and rebuilding Islanders. Then of course the surprisingly important home face-off April 3 with Buffalo. It's going to be a long week for Eric Staal (5 points in last four games) and company. Carolina is a combined 5-8-1 against @WAS vs. MON @NYI vs. BUF

Toronto Maple Leafs - 78 points

Going 4-2 in the past two weeks is certainly a good sign for a team still anchoring the outside bubble of conference playoff-life. The odd part is one of those two losses is a 4-0 shutout to the lackluster Florida Panthers. More puzzling is Dion Phaneuf and his 14 points in 18 games since the trade of Tomas Kaberle to Boston. James Reimer (1.50 GAA during his four-game winning streak) has to pretty much stand on his head from here on out and it starts with three divisional games this week. Here's something that should unlock some jaws as well. Toronto has three players (Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski) in the league's top 24 goal-scorers. Toronto is a combined 7-6-2 against vs. BUF @BOS, OTT

Low Percentage Shots

Atlanta Thrashers - 74 points

They can gain at the most 16 points (proj. 90) for the rest of season. Holding a 2-1 series lead with all three of their opponents this week, the Thrashers are hoping RW Blake Wheeler (three goals, five assists over the last eight games) can continue his tallying ways. Atlanta is a combined 6-3 against @MON, PHI, BOS

Columbus Blue Jackets - 77 points

The Blue Jackets can gain at most 16 points (proj. 93) for the rest of the season. Going into their game against the Canucks on March 27, the season is on the line. IF, they can manage two points against the NHL's best, they still have a shot at a second playoff berth in the last three seasons. The one variation that could changes things is a boost from the NHL league worst (30th) power-play unit. Columbus is a combined 5-4-2 against vs. FLA @ WAS vs. CHI, STL

Goalie Plans

ANH, BUF, CAR, CHI, COL, CLB, DAL, DET, MIN, MON, N.J., NYI, NYR, PHI, STL, T.B. - will all play on back-to-back nights, while S.J., PHO are playing twice this week so make your plans accordingly.

Notes

Have some games left to play at the center position? San Jose C, Torrey Mitchell (plus-6) has eight points in his last games. St. Louis prospect C, T.J. Hensick (plus-3) has a goal and an assist in his last two games with the big club. Another Blues forward RW Matt D'Agostini, has 11 points in his last nine games. The Devils season may be over, but no one tell that to LW, Zach Parise (knee), who is gearing up to possibly begin his season Wednesday's against the Islanders.

Nationally Televised Schedule in EST * Network Exclusive | ** Local Blackouts Apply

VERSUS March 28 -- Chicago at Detroit, 7:30*
VERSUS March 29 -- Chicago at Boston, 7:30*
VERSUS March 30 -- NY Rangers at Buffalo, 7:00**
VERSUS March 31 -- Columbus at Washington, 7:00**
NBC April 3 -- NY Rangers at Philadelphia 12:30*

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