Will there be any playoff races this spring?
That is typically one of the best parts of the hockey season, when meaningful make-or-break games are played throughout the month of March. Who could forget when third-string goalie Wade Dubielewicz backstopped the New York Islanders into the 2007 playoffs with a shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils on the final day of the regular season to edge the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last spot.
A repeat of that suspense would seem unlikely at this point.
As of Monday morning, there was a 5-point spread in the Western Conference and an even greater 6-point gap in the East. Granted, there are still about 30 games remaining for each team, but it would take an impressive run — or a colossal collapse — to change the East playoff picture. The West could get interesting, considering 4 teams are within striking distance of that second wild-card berth, but they have pretty substantial ground to make up in comparison to years past.
The Minnesota Wild are climbing back into contention, having won 7 of their past 10 games (7-2-1) since shoring up their goaltending with the acquisition of Devan Dubnyk.
The defending champion Los Angeles Kings defeated the East-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on the weekend and should be capable of a late-season push despite their recent struggles (3-5-2 over the last 10).
Don’t count out the Dallas Stars just yet, either. If Kari Lehtonen starts playing like he can — he stopped 34 of 36 shots in a 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers on Sunday — then Dallas might be another dark horse.
Even the Colorado Avalanche could make some noise — currently 6 points off the pace and 1 back of the aforementioned trio of teams — but they didn’t help their own cause by losing to both Minnesota and the wild-card-occupying Winnipeg Jets on the weekend.
Over in the East, the Florida Panthers earned another point from a shootout loss to the West-leading Nashville Predators on Sunday and they do have 2 games in hand on the wild-card Boston Bruins, who lost 3-1 to the Montreal Canadiens later that day. If the Panthers were to win their games in hand, they would close to within 2 points of the post-season cutoff, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched and Florida shouldn’t be written off.
The Philadelphia Flyers are next in that non-existent race, 9 points adrift with no games in hand. Nobody else is worth mentioning in the East, and it would be fairly shocking if the eight seeds don’t end up as they stand today with the Lightning, Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Bruins in playoff positions.
Those East teams all seem like solid bets to hold off any challengers. There may be some movement among those eight, but the outsiders probably won’t get a sniff.
The West has some potentially vulnerable teams — namely the three Canadian clubs in Winnipeg, the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames — but they have been silencing their critics all season long. The doubters will continue to doubt, and understandably so, but with every passing week, their chances are improving, while others are diminishing.
Calgary, especially, would seem catchable. Minnesota has two games in hand and Los Angeles one, and each of those teams have two more meetings with the Flames down the stretch. On the flip side, the Flames are 3-0 against the Kings, including two overtime wins, while their only game against the Wild to date was a 1-0 defeat on Jan. 29. Calgary has won four straight since that setback, getting great goaltending from Jonas Hiller and contributions by committee from the rest of the roster.
Vancouver isn’t a shoe-in, tied with Calgary for third place in the Pacific Division and the final wild-card but also with two games in hand. The Canucks have a daunting schedule over the next 10 days, with six games against strong competition in the Wild (twice), Chicago Blackhawks, Bruins, Flames and Rangers. Vancouver could easily be on the outside looking in by Feb. 20, but it seemed to restore some mojo in a 5-0 stomping of Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Winnipeg is in the same boat and has had to deal with the distraction of disgruntled forward Evander Kane. Now that he’s out of the way — scheduled to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery this week — the Jets will try to stay focused on the task at hand and secure some “easy” points against the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs over the next couple weeks. Winnipeg has played the most games in the entire league — tied with Tampa Bay at 55 — and will have its work cut out this week against Minnesota, Nashville and Detroit. But the Jets have picked up points in three straight, highlighted by a big 5-3 win over the Avalanche on Sunday. Kane be gone, the Jets could be dealing with another controversy between the pipes as rookie Michael Hutchinson and veteran Ondrej Pavelec continue to battle for playing time with equally mixed results.
I do think the West will heat up sooner than later and we’ll see an intense race towards the finish line. I can’t picture the playoffs without the Kings, and with the way Dubnyk is standing on his head, Minnesota might gain enough momentum to get in too.
I’ve been among those calling for the Flames to cool off all season, but they continue to defy the odds. It’s been a great ride for their fan base thus far and the bandwagon will certainly fill up if they reach the playoffs, but I still see them falling short in the end. The Jets are the other team that I believe will be overtaken eventually, perhaps through no fault of their own. Winnipeg will probably play .500 hockey (or slightly better) the rest of the way, but it won’t be good enough to stay ahead of the hard-charging Wild or almighty Kings.
In the East, what you see is what you get in my opinion. The Panthers have made great progress this season — bolstered by the additions of Roberto Luongo and Aaron Ekblad — but their time will have to wait at least another season. Washington might slip into a wild-card spot, getting surpassed by the Rangers, but the rest will remain essentially as is going forward.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.