Last month will go down to the wire
One month for GMs to prove they made the right moves, added the right pieces or resisted the wrong temptations. One month for coaches to coax an extra point or two out of weary lineups, to get just a little more out of underachievers or push elite players to another level. One month for veterans to shake off nagging injuries and hit their playoff strides. One month for young players to prove they belong, prove they are legitimate NHLers.
When play begins this weekend, that's how much time will remain in the 2005-06 regular season. So little time, so much that remains unknown.
As Dallas GM Doug Armstrong said this week: "It's going to be great theater."
The Battle at the Top: Presidents' Trophy
Just three times in the last nine seasons has the overall leader at the end of the regular season gone on to win the Stanley Cup (Detroit 2002, Colorado 2001, Dallas 1999), but the potential to enjoy home-ice advantage through the playoffs is a powerful incentive for the league's elite.
Carolina holds a slight edge on conference rival Ottawa and the top team in the West, Detroit. But watch out for unheralded Dallas, which is just four points back of Detroit, and Buffalo, a team that simply won't quit. Buffalo was just one point behind Ottawa and three back of Carolina with 17 games left on its schedule.
Still, with seven games left against divisional patsies Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago, the Red Wings have the easiest path to the top of the NHL standings and should win their third Presidents' Trophy in the last decade.
The battle at the top
Here is where it gets interesting. The Hurricanes continue to roll along in spite of the loss of winger Erik Cole for the balance of the regular season. People waiting for netminder Martin Gerber to crack have long since disappeared, and the addition of Doug Weight and Mark Recchi makes Carolina a Cup favorite. But the Senators remain hot on Carolina's heels even without netminder Dominik Hasek, who is just now beginning to skate without equipment after pulling an abductor muscle at the Olympics. The Sens play eight of 12 at home to close out the season, but Carolina has five dates with lowly Washington between March 25 and April 7.
Buffalo is a dark horse. The Sabres have two dates with Ottawa, plus a season-ending clash with Carolina that could be crucial. But we say here the Sabres' schedule is too tough for them to beat both Ottawa and Carolina and the Canes will hang on by a thread to win their first regular-season conference crown.
With Nashville falling off the pace in the last month or so, the race for home ice in the West is a two-team affair between Dallas and Detroit. The Stars, thanks in large part to sparkling work in the shootout (they are 9-0), quietly have crept into the hunt for league honors and should keep things interesting right down to the wire. Dallas, which trails Detroit by four points with 16 to play, visits the Red Wings on the second-to-last day of the regular season, and it's possible that game could mark the owner of home ice for a potential Western Conference finals showdown. The Stars finish with five of seven on the road, and even though Dallas has the second-best road record in the conference (behind Detroit), reining in the Wings likely will to be too difficult a task.
The third seed
Because the three division winners in each conference earn home-ice advantage regardless of whether other teams have more points, winning a division is crucial to playoff seeding. For instance, Buffalo and Ottawa are in the Northeast Division. One team will win the division and finish with either the first or second seed in the conference, while the team that finishes second in the division will fall to fourth place regardless because the Atlantic Division winner will take third.
More on the Atlantic Division, the division no one wants to win. Wracked by injuries and inconsistent special-teams play, the Flyers had given way to the surprising Rangers for the division lead. But the Rangers came off the Olympic break looking like the Rangers of old, losing six in a row, a slide that allowed the Flyers to crawl within two points for the lead. The Rangers and Flyers play each other three times between March 22 and April 15, and although the Flyers play six of nine on the road to close out the regular season, this race may well be decided by that April 15 contest.
How important is winning the division? The loser will go on the road to face either Buffalo or Ottawa in the first round, and the winner will host one of a group of teams below them that will be happy simply to be in the playoffs.
A similar dynamic exists in the West, where Detroit and Dallas are running away with their divisions and will assume the top two seeds. The third seed will go to the team that emerges from the four-team Arkansas cage match that is the Northwest Division.
The great thing about this race (unless you're one of these teams) is that Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver all have a shot at the division lead but it's also likely at least one or two of these teams will miss the playoffs altogether. That's how tight things are.
Just six points separate the four teams. The edge has to go to Calgary: The Flames have more games to play and play seven of their last 11 games at the Saddledome, where they have the best home record in the conference. Colorado is hoping interim starter Peter Budaj can continue his strong play and keep the Avalanche in the hunt, but Edmonton and Vancouver have struggled since the Olympic break. Thanks to the wonders of the NHL scheduling department, the Oilers and Canucks will play each other three times in a five-day stretch next week.
The best of the rest
The web of intrigue at the bottom of the East is no less tangled than that of the West. Before the Olympic break, both Tampa Bay and New Jersey looked to have ensconced themselves comfortably in the sixth and seventh spots, but both have struggled and there are now six teams trying to squeeze into the final three berths.
Although Martin Brodeur has hit a rough patch similar to one he endured early in the season, the Devils bolstered their defensive corps at the trade deadline and should hang onto a postseason spot. The defending Stanley Cup champions are a different story. Heading into the final month of the season, the Bolts are on a 2-6 skid, giving up at least four goals in seven of those games. Confidence in netminders John Grahame and Sean Burke is nonexistent, and the team's power play continues to languish at 26th overall in the league.
It is likely the Lightning will be overtaken in the standings by Montreal, which has played fewer games and has enjoyed all-world goaltending from Cristobal Huet and managed to acquire a more than adequate backup in David Aebischer at the deadline. The trade of former Hart and Vezina winner Jose Theodore also removes the potential distraction of having the popular Quebecker sitting on the end of the Habs' bench every night.
If Montreal and New Jersey are in and the Bolts are out, the team most likely to snare the last spot will be the Atlanta Thrashers. The team is offensively explosive and defensively erratic, so its hopes of a first playoff date ride squarely on the shoulders of rookie netminder Kari Lehtonen, who is making good on lofty preseason expectations. It's possible Lehtonen will play every Thrashers game from Jan. 21 to the end of the season. The Thrashers have three dates left with Tampa, the outcome of which might decide a playoff berth. If Lehtonen stays healthy, the Thrashers are in.
The Leafs, left for dead in the days before the trade deadline, continue to hang around. They begin the last month of the season playing seven of eight on the road and with veteran Ed Belfour out of action with recurring back problems.
With a month left in the 2003-04 regular season, the eight Eastern Conference playoff spots were virtually assured and, apart from some shifting at the top of the conference, the postseason lineup did not change. In the West, there was a mad scramble for the eighth and final playoff berth.
This season? Just 10 points separated sixth and 11th in the East, while 11 points separated fifth and 11th in the West.
Let's assume Detroit, Dallas, Calgary and Nashville continue to occupy the first four spots. What roils below is a frenzied pack of seven teams with a legitimate spot at filling the final spots. Colorado should hold on to one of those spots, likely the fifth seed, but the problem for the Avalanche, Oilers, Kings and Canucks -- who currently hold the final four spots -- is that Anaheim and San Jose both have 2-4 games in hand on each of them and have only a handful of points to make up in the standings. That makes it entirely possible the Ducks and Sharks could force two of those teams out of the playoffs.
Although the Ducks divested themselves of veterans Sandis Ozolinsh and Keith Carney at the trade deadline, Jeff Friesen will help the offense and there is little pressure on a team rich in young talent. What might separate the Ducks from a playoff berth is a grueling five-game road trip April 8-15 (they finish at home against Calgary on April 17). The Ducks rank 22nd on the road.
The expectations have been higher for San Jose, but the Sharks are finally hitting their stride and are riding a 7-2-1 streak. San Jose has three and four games in hand on the four teams currently holding down the last four playoff spots, and it finishes with three games at home, including a tilt with the inconsistent Kings, a game that could push L.A. out of the playoffs. Led by Joe Thornton, the Sharks look to be a playoff team.
The Canucks look to be the most vulnerable, given the prolonged slumps of the team's top players: Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison. The trio, formerly the most productive of NHL lines, has been supplanted by the line of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Anson Carter, and Henrik Sedin has passed Naslund for the team lead in points. Throw in poor defensive play, lingering injuries and uneven goaltending, and the Canucks may well be the odd man out of the playoff picture.
Far away from the wildly exciting playoff races is another interesting battle, the battle for the first overall pick in the late June draft in Vancouver. The bottom five teams in the standings will be part of a weighted lottery to determine which has the first overall pick, which likely will be used to select U.S. forward Phil Kessel or countryman Erik Johnson, a standout defenseman.
It appears the Penguins will have the best shot at the first overall pick for the second straight year, given their seven-point lead for the league's last-place spot. That's quite an honor for one of the most dysfunctional, poorly run organizations in the league. The Penguins are followed by Chicago (ditto on the organizational front), Washington and St. Louis, who are all tied for 29th overall. Columbus would be the fifth team in the lottery.
Based on commitment to winning, it would be fair and just if Columbus or St. Louis earned the first pick, given those teams' strong play in the face of a meaningless second half. Washington, a team that features Alexander Ovechkin and 19 other players with sticks, is always tough to play against and also would be deserving of the first pick.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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