Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Habs clinch, Sabres inch closer, Canes take on Wings, Wild Wild West Preview

This wild race is winding down. Last night, one of the four teams wrapped up a playoff spot with the Canadiens posting a 2-1 overtime win over the defending champs at The Bell Centre. Controversial rookie defenseman P.K. Subban's power play goal won it for the Habs, allowing them to make the playoffs a second straight season. The lowscoring Original Six club can thank Carey Price, who was outstanding finishing with 42 saves, including a few close calls late in regulation on tricky deflections. It was his goaltending that saved Montreal's bacon and certainly is worthy of a Vezina and Hart candidacy. Though he'll probably get left out of the MVP discussion with frontrunner Daniel Sedin, Corey Perry and Henrik Sedin all in the mix along with darkhorse Jarome Iginla if the Flames somehow sneak in.

While the Habs took care of business to clinch, the Sabres inched closer to a second straight postseason of their own, doubling up the Lightning at home 4-2 on the strength of Thomas Vanek's sixth career hat trick. Following Ryan Malone's early goal for the Bolts, Buffalo responded with three straight including a pair from Vanek that allowed him to reach 30 for the fourth time in his career. Tim Connolly followed with his 13th, which stood up as the winner thanks to Swede rookie Jhonas Enroth, who again was sharp minus Ryan Miller- finishing with 23 saves. Enroth's strong play has allowed the Sabres to win three of four (3-0-1). Who would've thought that a once perceived weakness could be the ticket to meaningful Spring hockey? Credit Lindy Ruff and the organization for entrusting the '06 second round pick with the backup job over vet Patrick Lalime, who drove our Buffalo resident batty. The Lightning didn't even get a look late thanks to stellar D from Ruff's club, who were so good that Guy Boucher's team couldn't even get Dwayne Roloson to the bench. With less than 15 seconds left, Vanek picked Martin St. Louis' pocket and fired into a vacated net as Roloson watched hopelessly, completing the trick. Buffalo is one point away from the playoffs. A Carolina OT or shootout loss would allow them to clinch tonight.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, they face a must win tonight at home versus the Red Wings. So much for the schedule makers doing them any favors. On that note, can anyone explain why such a crucial contest involves the other conference. Echoing Brian's sentiments with his team finishing in Columbus, what the heck? The final week, you should play only your conference. Preferably rivalry games like the Devils visiting the Rangers Saturday. In any event, the Canes trail the Rangers by four with three left. Their extra game is tonight at 7 ET in Raleigh. The tiebreak has the Blueshirts leading Carolina 34-33 in regulation/OT wins. A win puts the pressure back on the Blueshirts, who learned Team MVP Ryan Callahan broke his leg after blocking a Zdeno Chara shot the other night. If the Canes pick up only a point, a Ranger victory tomorrow versus the Thrashers would allow them to wrap it up. Carolina's gotten great play from Erik Cole, Eric Staal, Calder hopeful Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward. The game is meaningful for Detroit only if they want to pass San Jose for the West's second seed. They've already won the Central over Nashville.

As a hockey purist, it'd be more interesting if the Canes won, putting the pressure back on us. As a Ranger fan, I'd certainly welcome a Red Wing win but am not expecting it. If we're going to make it minus our emotional leader, I'd rather earn it. As I've said before, let's win out.

The Western race is much more exciting with only the three division winners in while the Preds, Coyotes, Kings, Ducks, Hawks, Stars and even the Flames scramble for the remaining five spots. In order to have any shot, Calgary must win their remaining two against Alberta rival Edmonton later and at arch enemy Vancouver on Hockey Night In Canada. Assuming the Flames do what must be done, that game should have meaning. But the Flames need plenty of help with Anaheim, Chicago and Dallas all having three left. The Flames cannot catch Nashville (97), Phoenix (96) or LA (96). There are four games of interest for West observers. Chicago hosts the Blues looking to bounce back from a tough OT loss in Montreal, which had Joel Queeneville fuming about the 10 minors his team received. Facing an old Norris rival who'd like nothing better than to play spoiler, is no picnic. Then there's the aforementioned Alberta clash between the Flames and Oilers at The Saddledome. This rivalry is one of the best and is worth watching after Detroit-Carolina. Then you have another intense rivalry California style between the Ducks and Sharks at The Pond. San Jose is still fuming from their first round ouster two years ago as the top seed. Need I say more? And finally, the Yotes and Kings break the tie in the standings at Staples Center. The best aspect is it's all rivalry games. Here's when each plays:

Stl @ Chi 8 ET
Edm @ Cgy 9:30 ET
SJ @ Ana 10 ET
Phx @ LA 10:30 ET

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