Playoffs? The paths for Canes, Jackets
Stock Up, Stock Down
Central Division: With its big win over Minnesota on Sunday, St. Louis pulled to within one point of the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Now, it would take some doing, but it's possible all five teams in the formerly weak Central Division could qualify for the playoffs (Nashville was one point ahead of the Blues to begin the week). According to our friends at Elias Sports Bureau, the last time all five teams from one division made the playoffs was back in the mists of time, 1980-81, when all five members of the old Adams Division (Buffalo, Boston, Minnesota, Quebec and Toronto) made it.
Minnesota Wild: Yes, the Wild are just one point out of eighth place, but they currently sit 11th in the Western Conference and look like a team dead in the water. After failing to address their tepid scoring at the trade deadline (they rank 26th in goals scored per game), the Wild have managed to lose four straight, including Sunday's 5-3 heartbreaker against St. Louis.
-- Scott Burnside
1. Were you worried when you heard Georges Laraque didn't like the general managers' efforts to weed out the scourge of the staged fight?
Worried? I haven't slept a wink since Laraque told TSN's Darren Dreger he thought the GMs' recommendations -- that those involved in staged fights be handed an extra 10-minute misconduct -- were a joke. Apparently, Laraque doesn't want to be separated from his favorite towel and water bottle on the Habs' bench as opposed to riding the pine in the penalty box for the extra 10 when he is given the rare permission to step on the ice and hunt down some other behemoth.
Yes, sir, Laraque really has toughened up the Habs since signing with them in the offseason or not. Hard to do when you're playing in only 28 games and averaging 7:35 a night in ice time. Just wondering -- how do you give a player like this a no-trade clause? Is there one move GM Bob Gainey would do differently if given the chance? We're guessing no.
As for a joke, was there anything more laughable than Laraque's buffoonish attempts to engage Boston's Milan Lucic in a fight earlier this season after Lucic had pounded Mike Komisarek in an earlier fight? Laraque kept sidling up to the tough, talented Lucic, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, trying to goad him into dropping the gloves so Laraque could justify his existence. Lucic, under strict orders from Boston coach Claude Julien, declined, and thus Laraque perfectly illustrated how little the game needs him or acts just like him.
In an interview last week, Laraque asked rhetorically, "Why even bother to show up for training camp?" An excellent question, indeed.
2. Think Buffalo still has a shot at the postseason with Ryan Miller appearing to be nowhere near returning to action?
Veteran netminder Patrick Lalime has played well in Miller's absence, although Saturday night provided one of those "what if" moments that might haunt the Sabres throughout the offseason. Leading 3-1 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo thanks to a three-goal second period, the Sabres allowed a short-handed goal by the resurgent Thrashers but still led 3-2 with time ticking away.
However, a shot by Ron Hainsey squeezed through Lalime, and Todd White was able to fight off a check and poke home the tying goal as the puck sat along the goal line with fewer than four seconds left in regulation. The Thrashers then went on to win in a shootout, with the deciding marker provided by Brett Sterling, fresh from the Thrashers' AHL farm team and in the lineup for the ailing Ilya Kovalchuk.
Yes, the Sabres, who play seven of their final 13 games on the road, got one point. But it's the one they let get away that is the kind of failure that often costs teams a spot in the playoffs. It also begs the question of whether this team has filled the leadership gap created by the departure of dressing room leaders over recent years, like Jay McKee, Mike Grier, J.P. Dumont, Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell.
3. How about those plucky Carolina Hurricanes?With the exception of their Stanley Cup run in 2005-06, when they were the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes always seem to be in a life-or-death struggle to make the playoffs. It was so under coach Paul Maurice's first stint with the club, it continued during the time he was gone and it is so again now that he's back behind the bench with Ron Francis.
Maurice told ESPN.com that having a history of having to scratch and claw to get into the playoffs is a useful tool at this point in the season, when every night the standings look a little different and every moment seems to take on gigantic proportions.
"After a while, you're able to block out all those emotions," Maurice told us this week. "We talk about that on an almost daily basis."
Carolina has overcome its usual slew of injuries and is playing its finest hockey of the season, picking up points in 11 of its past 15 games. The Canes began this week in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. True, they've lost three in a row, but they still managed to secure points in two of those losses, including an exciting shootout loss Saturday to Washington, a game in which they twice trailed by two goals.
Maurice credits much of the team's turnaround to veteran leaders like Rod Brind'Amour (who endured a miserable first half of the season), Eric Staal and Ray Whitney, who now are producing at a prodigious clip. If the Hurricanes make the playoffs for the first time since their Cup-winning season, there will be a definite retro look to the team. Maurice and Francis are behind the bench, and the team reacquired Matt Cullen from New York in July 2007 and Erik Cole at this year's trade deadline. Maurice recalled a similar move in December 2001, when GM Jim Rutherford returned veteran Sean Hill to the Carolina lineup and the Canes went to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals. Hmmm.
4. What is most surprising about the Columbus Blue Jackets' pursuit of their first playoff berth?Well, one of the most interesting components of the Blue Jackets' surprising play in the second half is a move that received almost no attention. When the Thrashers unloaded veteran forward Jason Williams in mid-January, it was part salary dump and part getting rid of a guy who didn't seem to fit. Well, the undrafted 28-year-old has fit like a glove in Columbus. He has eight goals and 11 assists since becoming a Blue Jacket and has chipped in on a power play that has languished at the very bottom of the NHL for the entire season.
"He's been caught up in the atmosphere, that sense of urgency," coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com on Monday. "I think he's responded properly to being in that atmosphere. He's working hard. He's playing the game honestly."
Only star forward Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius have more points since Williams was acquired for a defensive prospect and a sixth-round draft pick. If the Blue Jackets are going to make their first playoff appearance, it will be because of contributions from a lineup that still lacks a bona-fide No. 1 center. The Blue Jackets, coming off a 4-0 loss to Detroit on Sunday, have lost just five times in regulation in their past 18 contests and began the week sixth in the Western Conference. If they qualify for the postseason, they can thank players like Williams for doing their part.
5. Didn't you say somewhere recently you thought the Calgary Flames might pose a challenge to either Detroit or San Jose in the playoffs?Uh, you must have confused me with someone else. Given the way the Flames finished out this recent road trip (leaking like an old rowboat), we don't like their chances of getting out of the first round. Of course, playoff series aren't won or lost in mid-March, but the Flames' play of late (especially a ghastly performance Saturday in an 8-6 loss to the Maple Leafs) suggests that putting Calgary into the contender class might have been premature.
The Flames have lost four of five and five of eight. Worse, they have allowed 27 goals in their past five games. Yes, Olli Jokinen is lighting it up since coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline (three multigoal games since the deal, including a hat trick Saturday), and yes, the Flames have a whopper lead in the Northwest Division. But this is a team that looks like it believes it can simply score its way out of any mess. That kind of mentality generally means a playoff exit by late April.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.