Five storylines to follow in the remaining weeks of the 2011-12 NHL season

With the NHL trade deadline now several days behind us, the focus again shifts back to the race for the playoffs over the final five of the season. With the standings so tight on both sides of the NHL, teams are either looking to hold their position as a playoff contender while others are fighting nightly for those highly coveted two points to put themselves into the postseason. Regardless where a team stands, a rough patch in the waning weeks of the season could lead to an extended summer vacation. With that in mind, here are five story lines to watch as we gear up for the final stretch of the regular season.

Crosby Watch 2012:

Seems like déjà vu, eh? Last year around this time, fans were eagerly awaiting news about Crosby, who had suffered concussions in early January that kept him sidelined for the remainder of the 2010-11 season and the first few months of the 2011-12 season. After an enthusiastic return, Crosby was again sidelined after only eight games with concussion-like symptoms again. So, fans again find themselves awaiting news on Crosby, who continues his on-ice workouts but has not been cleared for contact yet. Ideally, the Penguins would love to get Crosby back on the ice for a week or two of games to prepare him for the playoffs. But nobody can say for certain when he will be symptom free and ready to return to the ice, so the waiting game continues…

Art Ross & Rocket Richard Trophy Races:

Steven Stamkos leads the league with 45 goals, including eight in his last 10 games. Evgeni Malkin comes in second with 37 goals on the season while Phil Kessel is a distant third with 32, leaving primarily a two-player race for the Rocket Richard Trophy this year. Stamkos will also try for his second career 50-goal season while Malkin will shoot for his first.

However, when it comes to the Art Ross scoring race, Malkin leads the pack with a total of 79 points, but he has company with Stamkos right on his heels with 78 points and Claude Giroux and Jason Spezza close behind at 75 points and 72 points respectively. Will Malkin capture the scoring crown for the second time in his career or will Stamkos, Giroux or Spezza manage to eclipse Malkin in the remaining weeks of the regular season?

Trouble in Toronto:

Going 1-9-1 over their last 11games, the Leafs fell out of playoff contention and made a drastic move by firing head coach Ron Wilson and replaced him with former Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle (pictured). Wilson coached for the Leafs for nearly four seasons, finishing in last place in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10, and only had one winning season as head coach. With a little over a month left in the season, the Leafs likely need to play better than .500 hockey from here on out in order to make it to the postseason. Can Carlyle help turn around this struggling franchise?

Battle of the Southeast:

The Southeast Division, comprised of the Capitals, Lightning, Jets, Hurricanes and Panthers, could create one of the most exciting playoff races during the last leg of the season. The Panthers currently lead the division, giving them the third overall seed on the East thanks to preference seeding for divisional winners in the NHL. The Jets, currently second in the Southeast, are barely clinging to the 8th seed in the East with 70 points – one better than the Capitals. Florida, Winnipeg and Washington are all within three points of one another, with Tampa Bay another three behind them. It’s not a far stretch to believe that the winner of this division will be the only team in the division to make the playoffs, especially if Toronto can turn their season around and make a late push. Either that, or a second team from the Southeast will take the 8th seed, but with Winnipeg, Washington and Tampa Bay all fighting for that spot, this year’s finish in the Southeast could produce some exciting hockey.

How the West Was Won:

The Rangers have basically run away with the lead in the East, but in the West things are a little different with no clear-cut favorite to win the conference. The Vancouver Canucks currently lead the Western Conference with 90 points, but the Detroit Red Wings are right on their tail with 89 points and the St. Louis Blues aren’t far behind with 87. Nashville has the next highest point total with 81, basically meaning the Western Conference will be a three-team race right up to the end of the season. Can Vancouver keep the lead or will the Blues or Red Wings overtake them?

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