It's that time of the year in the National Hockey League, when the focus shifts away from the impressive teams to the mediocre ones. The Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks may represent the league's elite right now, but they're so pre-Olympic break.
The races to playoff contention are heating up, so it seems fitting that we turn our attention to the Calgary Flames out West first.
If you would have told Flames fans at the start of the year that their team would be battling for position with the Detroit Red Wings come April, they likely would have been giddy with excitement. But they've got only reason to be anything but. Following an important victory last night over the Wings, the Flames currently find themselves in the eighth spot, one point ahead of Detroit. The Flames have the offense out front, the makings of a competent defense behind them, and a superstar talent in goal in Miikka Kiprusoff, but for whatever reason the team just isn't clicking. Expect the Flames to hold on barely to a playoff spot and eventually move up on into seventh spot.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings have learnt firsthand that you only go as far as your depth takes you. Having let go Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, and Mikael Samuelsson in the offseason, the organization that once could roll three number-one lines is finding out the hard way that taking your role players for granted only ends up exposing the holes in talent of your top-end stars. Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg have each fallen off their regular point-per-game averages and Chris Osgood has given way for Jimmy Howard to emerge as the team's number-one goaltender. The results: Less than inspiring. Howard has played well, but without the stars in front of him performing like they once did as recently as last year, the team won't go far in the playoffs.
Still, does anyone really think the Wings won't end up making it and then knock off the heavily favoured San Jose Sharks in the first round? It will end up being the same old story for both teams: Osgood ends up resurrecting his career one last time (at least in the first round), while the Sharks fall flat on their snouts for the umpteenth time in the playoffs. Bank on it, the Wings will clinch the eighth spot, leaving the Nashville Predators out of the playoffs this year.
The Predators always seem a find a way to compete even though their lineup at times looks like that of an American Hockey League club. Granted, they've got defenseman Shea Weber and forward Jason Arnott, but Martin Erat is the one leading the team in scoring… Martin Frickin' Erat! Each year, it's the same thing for the Preds… they stumble out of the gate early in the season as they should, and, as if if they each decide to start playing over their heads at the exact same time, they find themselves in the playoff race each single regular season. Last year, they just barely missed out. This year will end in disappointment as well… I mean, it's Martin Erat for crying out loud! Who lets Martin Erat lead their team in scoring???
Out East, it's much more crowded, with the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers each in the hunt for the last three playoff spots.
Look for the Bruins, currently in eighth spot, to fall out of the race eventually thanks to the recent head injury to Marc Savard. Unfortunately, they just don't have the same team as they did last year to be able to compensate for ill-timed injuries up front. Fortunately, however, they're due to lay claim to at least one lottery pick (thanks to the deal that sent Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs) and maybe another if they fall fast enough.
I would suspect that the Rangers have the inside track for the Bruins' playoff spot, even if superstar forward Marian Gaborik's notorious groin problem has started to reappear in recent games. In his two games back since missing his team's first two following the Olympics, he's been held pointless. Without him firing on all cylinders, the Rangers have little hope of making it. Their next leading scorer after Gaborik's 35 goals and 69 points? Vaclav Prospal with 48 points! That represents too big a drop-off for the Rangers to be considered playoff contenders without "Maid in China" Marian. Still, with Gaborik healthy, they will undoubtedly make it, especially following the acquisition of forward Olli Jokinen that will help take some offensive pressure off.
If they don't make it, look for the Panthers to be darkhorses following the return of forward David Booth from a concussion a few games ago. Right now, they're in twelfth spot, but could get a few wins here and there through sheer underestimation on the part of their opposition down the stretch. They can get a few others by just being better than their 27-28-10 record would indicate. While they aren't as good or as deep as the Panthers of last year, who just missed the playoffs, were, there are some extenuating circumstances this season: the competition isn't nearly as tough this time around.
The Flyers are meanwhile too good on paper to be left out of the post-season, even if they have underperformed dramatically this year. They just won't make it past the first round with Michael Leighton as their number-one goaltender. They will also fall from their current sixth spot into seventh over the course of their remaining 17 games.
So, that leaves one last spot, the sixth in the Eastern Conference. All due respect to the Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning, they just aren't good enough to make it. The Lightning lack goaltending and the Thrashers lack Ilya Kovalchuk. That leaves the Canadiens as the default choice.
The Habs have been able to achieve a whole lot without their leading goal scorer Mike Cammalleri over the past 12 games, going 8-4 over that stretch. He's also due back in a few weeks. In addition, goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been able to more than make up for Carey Price's current shortcomings as a starter, and, with the exception of power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron (who was only signed to make up for the loss of the now-healthy Andrei Markov), the team's defensive corps is finally healthy.
I may be biased (as a Habs fan), but I truly believe this is the year… that they won't miss the playoffs. It's not much, but it's something. Here's to that aforementioned mediocrity that makes hockey so gosh darn exciting in March and early April, hockey fans!