Friday, March 23, 2012

Down the home stretch

With just nine or fewer games left for everyone in the NHL, now is truly the final push towards the playoffs. Ironically, right now there's more drama across the river as the Rangers try desperately to hang on to the #1 seed and avoid a likely first-round date with the Flyers (even if the Rangers own their Philly rivals lately). While things could change, right now the Devils look more and more solidified in the #6 seed by the day, given that they're five points plus a tiebreaker behind a streaking Flyers team for fifth, and conversely they're five points ahead of Ottawa for seventh - and Ottawa's division leader Boston isn't even ahead of us on points so really 'both' would have to pass us for Ottawa to do so.

However, for most of the season the smart money said the #6 seed would be the most desired playoff position given that a potentially weak Southeast winner would occupy the #3 seed. Recent developments have proven that theory incorrect, as the Panthers' hot streak coupled with Boston's malaise has threatened to shake up the playoff picture with the Panthers just two points and a tiebreaker behind the Stanley Cup Champs for the #2 seed. Not to mention Boston's in the middle of a West Coast trip while Florida's upcoming schedule reads like a who's who of the draft lottery (Edmonton and the Isles at home, followed by road trips to Minnesota, Montreal and Columbus).

Granted, I hate the idea of 'picking' an opponent, but avoiding one is another story. No sane Devils fan would want to play the Bruins in the first round, recent struggles or not. Yes, things are so screwy in Beantown right now that Devil and Isle reject Brian Rolston has actually been one of their better players lately. However, the champs are still a deep and strong team that beat us all four times this season and in the event we do play them in the playoffs will have sufficient motivation to beat us after Claude Julien's still-sketchy firing by Lou Lamoriello a few offseasons back.

This isn't to say the Panthers would be an easy matchup, not by a long stretch although admittedly I'd be slightly more confident in beating them with starter Jose Theodore in net than ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen, who's basically owned us since leaving here as a FA three years ago following his Cinderella season in the red and white. Both teams will have motivation in that matchup, with coach Pete DeBoer having been fired by the Panthers last offseason and having to watch with I'm sure a bit of envy as they did a total roster remake over the summer. Florida's holdovers also want to prove a point to DeBoer, especially guys like big defenseman Jason Garrison, a breakout player this year under new coach Kevin Dineen.

While the Devils use their last nine games to fine-tune for the playoffs and wait to see who they play, it's going to be a mad scramble for most of the league. John Tortorella's Rangers still hold a tenuous one-point lead over a white-hot Penguins team with both teams having nine games left, but for how long? A huge win against Detroit held off the Penguin freight train for a couple more days but with time running out, the teams' penultimate game on April 5 in Pittsburgh looms with monumental importance.

Philly looks to be the likely 'consolation' prize for the Atlantic loser, with the Flyers four points behind the Penguins and five behind the Rangers with only eight games left for them. Right now the Caps and Sabres are in a heated battle for the last playoff spot with Ottawa barely above them, as close to division leader Boston as they are to falling out of the playoffs entirely. Even Winnipeg (with a game in hand on everyone in front, though they're five points back of the Caps) and Carolina are making last-gasp pushes to get back in the mix.

Out West, I admit looking at the standings a couple weeks back I was stunned to see the Blues have the best record in the league and are in the lead for the President's Trophy, especially given the Red Wings' unbelievable home winning streak a while back. But there they are, led by Ken Hitchcock, a mortal lock for the Jack Adams this year after taking over a team with no post-lockout success at all and leading them to the top spot in the league. All this despite playing in a killer division with three other legitimate playoff teams (Nashville, Detroit and Chicago - the latter two recent Cup winners). Just four points behind them is Vancouver, a lock for either of the top two seeds after coasting to yet another Northwest title.

However, the real story out West is in the Pacific division, where four teams are within two points of each other in a dogfight for their playoff lives as the Kings, Coyotes, Stars and Sharks are doing battle with the Northwest's Avs and Flames for just three playoff spots (the #3 seed to the Pacific winner and the #7-8 seeds to the other two best teams). While the Kings' offensive woes seem to have been helped by the trade for the Blue Jackets' Jeff Carter, they're still underperforming expectations as people hoped they would be ready to take the next step after two consecutive playoff appearances. At least they're doing better than their California rivals - the Ducks, who were doomed by a nightmarish first half similar to our last year, and the Sharks, who are still in the hunt but their window may have finally slammed shut after two straight Conference Final sweeps.

While some didn't have the Stars or Avs being in the mix this year, the Stars did fall just short last year and are looking to avoid a similar fate this time around and the Avs made the playoffs two years ago but had to rebound off a dissapointing year last season. Personally I didn't have Phoenix as a contender this year after the defection of Ilya Bryzgalov to Philly but Mike Smith has stepped in to fill the goaltender void and Dave Tippett's club continues to defy the critics - though they face a tough challenge down the stretch with captain Shane Doan serving out a three-game suspension. On the outskirts are Calgary, with the current eighth seeded Stars being ahead of them by two points with a game in hand as coach Brent Sutter seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for the third (and likely last) straight time since going 'home'.

Whatever happens, it surely won't be boring with just fifteen days left until the end of the regular season. I'll be at the Devils-Toronto game tonight hoping the Devils can find their goalscoring after a recent drought of five goals scored in their last five games - of which we were fortunate to win two of them (while scoring a combined one goal in those games). Maybe we can finally pick up our scoring against a Leafs team that's packed it in as evidenced by their 8-0 loss against the Bruins and 5-2 loss to the Islanders in the last week. Or maybe some other no-name goalie will steal the show against us.

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