Today, From the Pressbox:
With one week left in the regular season we note that eight of the 16 playoff teams have been decided. Some heated races remain in both Conferences for the remaining playoff spots. We will focus on those "bubble" teams this week, because we have two months to talk about the playoff qualifiers and can wait until next year to speak of the "also-rans."
What's been decided?
Pittsburgh clinches top seed
Boston, Montreal and Toronto are in, with the Bruins holding a slim edge in the race for the #2 seed, which will go to the Northeast Division champions.
After that four spots are up for grabs. The Southeast Division title and the #3 seed is the biggest outstanding prize and the Washington Capitals have parlayed a 9-1 record in their past 10 games into a three-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets, who have only been 5-4-1 in that same time frame.
The Caps have ridden the cape of their resident Superman, Alexander Ovechkin, who has vaulted in the NHL's goal-scoring lead with 30 tallies, pacing this once-again-potent offensive attack. Kudos must be given to rookie coach Adam Oates who has allowed this club to permanently shelve the defense-first philosophy of their previous bench bosses. Ovechkin and his high scoring mates are by no means abandoning defensive responsibilities, but they are not afraid to be one of the few teams that is willing to trade scoring chances on a nightly basis.
As we've noted, they boast a pretty good one-two punch at the center position, with Nicklas Backstrom (2nd) and Mike Ribeiro (3rd), both of whom have managed to stay healthy and rank among the top playmaking pivots in the NHL with 39 and 34 assists respectively. Good health has been hard to sustain for Mike Green over the last few years, but this season, despite missing 13 games, he has rediscovered his offensive game, with 10 goals (2nd among all defensemen) and once again quarterbacking the league's most potent power play.
Among the key developments in the scoring productivity is the continuing evolution of Troy Brouwer, a big, physical right winger who has chipped in 19 goals and 32 points while fitting into the top scoring line.
The Caps could go a long way toward settling the Southeast race with a home ice win on Tuesday over those Jets. After that tilt they host a pair of tough foes in Ottawa and Boston.
The Jets improved their lot with their win in Buffalo on Monday and need to parlay that with a win over the Caps in that big Tuesday game. Their edge in remaining schedule is topped by a final home game against a Montreal team that has stumbled badly in the last two weeks.
Winnipeg has one of the best captains in hockey in the person of Andrew Ladd, (46 points in 45 games) who has figuratively put this team on his shoulders, showing tremendous grit and determination to keep his teammates fired up about putting their best efforts forward on a nightly basis. This team does not have the same pedigree of offensive as the Caps, but veterans like Kyle Wellwood and Nik Antropov are starting to make a greater impact now that the team is in the race toward the post-season. They have also received important contributions in leadership and scoring from Evander Kane (32 points), Blake Wheeler (39 points) and hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (25 points).
Ottawa is expected to be the fourth team from the Northeast Division to earn a playoff spot, needing only a combination of three points lost by Winnipeg or gained from their final three games. They continue to rise above the league's longest injury list and just got starting goalie Craig Anderson back to active duty (1.64 gaa and .944 save percentage both among league leaders).
In addition to the Penguins, the Islanders have forged their way into a likely post-season berth from the Atlantic Division, largely on the strength of their current 8-0-2 streak where they have fallen into lockstep behind their captain, John Tavares (26 goals) who has challenged Ovechkin as the most dominant player in the second half of this abbreviated season. The Isles are another of the league's feel-good stories, among the potential new faces in these upcoming playoffs, at a time where the franchise is about to move to new digs in nearby Brooklyn, possibly as early as next season. Things are finally looking up again for this once-proud franchise.
The other team with playoff aspirations in the East, rather surprising that they have only managed to be on the fringe of contention given their pre-season profile, is the New York Rangers. They, too, seem to have been galvanized by the on-ice leadership of their signature player, Rick Nash, who has scored 12 points in April, leading his mates to a 8-2-1 record as the schedule has wound down.
The Rangers currently have a three-point edge on the Jets for eighth place in the Easy and have what appears to be a soft schedule of games against non-playoff teams, visiting Florida and Carolina before hosting the Devils. If they don't make it, bet on Coach John Tortorella likely to find himself in the role of broadcast analyst next year.
Who's already in?
Chicago has locked up the top seed
Anaheim needs one point to clinch the second seed, a win or an L A giving them the Pacific Division title.
Vancouver needs a point to clinch the #3 seed and the Northwest Division
The Kings are in, hoping to hold onto their fourth seed slot, good for home ice in round 1.
After that, San Jose and St Louis are both within easy reach of the postseason, needing one more win to clinch a spot.
Both teams were among my favorites to dominate this Conference and only recently have they both begun to show that level of dominance as the Sharks are 6-3-1, while the Blues are 7-3 in their last 10 games played.
Though they will both likely fill our bottom-half playoff seeds in the West, they will pose great problems for the higher-ranking seeds they will face in the opening round because they similarly stocked with great depth throughout their rosters. Who would choose to play playoff veterans, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle? How about the four-line forward depth and young mobility of the Blues defense, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester?
After these six teams, another group of five clubs remain hopeful of a playoff invitation.
Minnesota was looking quite confident until a recent season-ending injury to Dany Heatley, which has been part of their recent 3-6-1 slide. Much of the early season hype around free agent additions Zach Parise (team-leading 36 points) and Ryan Suter (stabilizing the defense and adding 32 points of his own) has evaporated around the club in the last couple of weeks, yet they do have a three point edge with three games left to play. I just don't like the direction they have been heading in, lately.
Conversely, the Columbus Blue Jackets, while currently tied with the Wild for the last two spots in the West, have been on an impressive 7-3 roll to move into contention. Their upward trajectory has been based on an improved team concept. A group of forwards, best described as pesky, second and third line types, such as Vinny Prospal (29 points), Mark Letestu (26), Mike Foligno (19) and R.J. Umberger (18 points) have filled in the top two forward lines around a happier star player in the recently acquired Marian Gaborik (26 points). This group is ably supported Sergei Bobrovsky, who was plucked from the Flyers backup goalie role and has emerged as one of the league's top performers in goal (2.06 gaa and .936 save percentage in 36 appearances). The Jackets have to rate as a huge surprise in the playoff race and have a three-point edge on the three remaining contenders, too. The trouble is that they only have two games left, but they are against non-contenders Dallas and Nashville.
It has been 21 years since we have had to consider a post-season without the Detroit Red Wings, but they are currently on the outside, looking in from the ninth spot in the West. A four-game final week of the schedule got off to a fine start, as they earned an important home win, 4-0, on Monday, over the Coyotes to draw close to the borderline. They will probably need at least four points from home dates against Los Angeles and Nashville and a road finale in Dallas.
Though we've highlighted the losses (to retirement) of a couple of key leaders here, in Nick Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, there is still too much quality and experience to count the Wings out yet - as long as Henrik Zetterberg (38 points) and Pavel Datsyuk (41 points) are hanging around.
We've also spoken of how the Stars have divested themselves of some quality veterans on offense, but they have managed to stay within striking distance, needing to sweep a road game in San Jose, before a couple of key games against the afore-mentioned Blue Jackets and Red Wings.
Finally, the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that has made more highlights for off-ice news than on the ice, need to sweep their three remaining games (after losing a critical game on Monday night), hosting San Jose and Columbus and at Anaheim, for the toughest remaining schedule of the Western contenders.
I pick the Wings and the Wild to emerge with these final two rungs in the Western Conference playoff ladder.
Come back to this space next week to see how things turned out and, subsequently will shape up, for the opening of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (@statsman22).