Playoffs are merely two weeks away with about seven games remaining on the regular season schedule for most franchises. Still, a lot can happen in seven games. As the season winds down and teams gear up for playoffs, here are seven story lines that you might not want to miss as an NHL fan:
7.) Can the Avs Hang On? The Colorado Avalanche are one of two teams that defied preseason expectations this year and found themselves in the top half of the Western Conference for a good portion of the season despite being picked to finish near-dead last. However, over the last month or so as teams jockey for playoff positioning, the Avs have found themselves the odd team out after being leapfrogged by the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings in the standings. Can the Avs hang on to the eighth seed in the West with Calgary hot on their tail? With a young core full of stars in the making, the Avalanche have a lot to build on regardless of how this season plays out.
6.) Where Will the Leafs End Up? The Leafs got themselves a great player when they traded for Phil Kessel in the offseason. Kessel has 30 goals and 54 points in 65 games for the Maple Leafs this year. However, in order to acquire the sniper from Boston, the Leafs had to trade away several draft picks – including a first-round pick in this summer’s draft. Right now, that draft picks looks to be a number two overall pick for the Bruins. That could mean nabbing either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, the two highly-touted prospects expected to be taken as the first two overall players in the draft this year. Both players are having incredible seasons with over 100 points in the OHL. But, at 69 points, the Leafs are only three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and New York Islanders. With a playoff spot out of the picture, the Leafs are focusing on a strong finish to ensure a lower pick for the Bruins. Who will get the better end of the Kessel deal? We’ll see in two weeks.
5.) Outside Looking In: West – The Calgary Flames are the only real threat in the Western Conference outside of the playoff picture but looking to make a strong push at the end. With 85 points on the season, the Flames are four points behind the eighth seeded Colorado Avalanche. The St. Louis Blues are a long shot for a playoff spot with 83 points. Calgary has a tough schedule remaining, but they were able to take down the top-seeded Washington Capitals last weekend to keep their playoff hopes alive. Anything can happen in the NHL at playoff time.
4.) Outside Looking In: East – The playoff picture is much tighter in the East for the bubble teams. Only four points separate the tenth-seeded New York Rangers (78 points) from the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers (82 points), which makes the remaining seven games that much more important for the teams fighting for the last few playoff spots in the West. The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens each have 82 points and sit in the seventh and eighth seeds respectively while the Atlanta Thrashers occupy the ninth seed with 80 points. However, the Canadiens have lost three in a row while the Atlanta Thrashers are playing some good hockey in the ninth seed and could pass the Canadiens with a few more strong performances. These teams are all fighting for their playoff lives, and it may come down to the last day of the season to see who’s in and who’s out in the East.
3.) Does Chicago Have a #1 Netminder? The Chicago Blackhawks, a perennial favorite to go to the Stanley Cup Finals, shelled out big bucks a few years back for goaltender Cristobal Huet. Needless to say, he hasn’t lived up to expectations. In 46 starts for the Blackhawks this season, Huet has a 2.50 goals against average and a .895 save percentage. While going head-to-head with backup goalie Antti Niemi in recent weeks, Huet seems to be doing everything in his power to give up the starting job going into playoffs. Niemi has better numbers than Huet with a .909 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average, but has only won three of his eight starts in March. However, two of those starts were shutouts. Regardless, neither goalie has embraced the starting job like a playoff goalie needs to. Will a starting goalie emerge in the seven remaining games for the Hawks before playoffs start?
2.) The Detroit Red Wings Sweepstakes – Detroit has won six games in a row and has garnered at least one point in each of their last ten. They are streaking up the standings and up the power rankings and are easily the hottest team in the NHL right now with all of their players healthy. The Wings are becoming that low-ranked team with a lot of potential that you don’t want to meet in the first round of the playoffs. One blogger went as far as to say that San Jose was purposely throwing games in order to avoid meeting the Red Wings in the first round. That might not be a bad strategy seeing that the Wings have had San Jose’s number all season. Can the Wins continue their impressive pace and finish the season strong in the standings? More importantly, can they keep up that impressive pace once playoffs begin in April?
1.) The Rocket Richard Race – Sidney Crosby leads the race with 47 goals, but Alexander Ovechkin and Steve Stamkos are right on his heels with 46 goals a piece. Ovechkin has won the trophy the past two years, but this could be Crosby’s year to shine as a goal-scoring machine. Stamkos came out of nowhere during a huge sophomore surge to stay on pace with Crosby and Ovechkin and could easily take home the trophy as well. All three players have cooled off in recent weeks, making the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in a season anyone’s to step up and grab at this point.