Commentary

One month to go, hockey fans

Updated: March 12, 2009, 6:06 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Circle the date. The party will be here soon enough.

The NHL's regular season wraps up exactly one month from today. The playoffs begin three days later.

"Everyone on our team will be really excited, maybe even more than last year," Detroit Red Wings winger Daniel Cleary told ESPN.com. "Because we have something to prove. The Cup is still ours and we feel that it doesn't belong to anybody else."

Sixteen teams have a shot at Lord Stanley's prize starting April 15. This week, ESPN.com spoke to the 10 teams we believe have the best shot at winning it all. In order of current standings:

Western Conference

1. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks roared out of the gates this season and only recently finally showed signs of vulnerability. It might be because they can see the playoffs around the corner and want to get there now.

For this is a team that will be judged solely on what it does come playoff time after a few years of coming up short. And the Sharks know it.

Joe Thornton
Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty ImagesJoe Thornton wants to avoid another early exit (San Jose has been ousted in the second round the past three postseasons).

"Right from the day I was hired, it wasn't about, 'Can you get the team playing in the regular season?'" Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "It was about the playoffs, and everybody had those questions. One of the things we wanted to do as a group was focus on the present.

"We're getting a lot of questions right now, or least I am, about the playoffs. We still have [17] games left. That's almost a fifth of the season. A small portion of our struggles is due to that fact. I don't want us to get too ahead of ourselves and start thinking playoffs with this many games left."

There are no obvious weaknesses on this team as the playoffs approach. The Sharks are among the league leaders in goals for, goals against, power play and penalty killing. That's a lethal combination that almost always leads to success. But for this team, it's between the ears. Come playoff time, the Sharks have to show they can finally win.

So it's hard not to look ahead if you're San Jose. The players on this team want so badly to shed the ghosts of playoffs past.

"We're looking forward to it," star center Joe Thornton said. "We still have some work to do here to try and hopefully win our conference. But we're going to be excited to get the postseason under way."

2. Detroit Red Wings: The Cup hangover is the real deal. Carolina missed the playoffs the season after winning it all in 2006, while the 2007 champs in Anaheim faded out in the first round last season. The Wings, in comparison, have done much better, battling the Sharks for the conference lead.

But it hasn't been pretty at times for the inconsistent Wings, who can be forgiven for counting the days before the real hockey starts up again.

"The season can wear on you, especially in the dog days of February and March," Cleary said. "It's nice to see the finish line. But we've got work to be done. We haven't played great this season, but we're right there for first overall and that's our goal."

The Wings have a forward group that can score at will, a power play that ranks No. 1 in the NHL and perhaps the game's best coach, Mike Babcock, behind the bench. But what they don't have right now, as the clock is ticking toward the start of the playoffs, is that same keep-away, possession game that killed the opposition last spring. Instead, the back end has been leaky. The Wings sat 20th in goals against and 27th on the penalty kill as of Thursday.

"Defensively, we haven't been good at all, I don't think," Cleary said. "I think we've been very poor. We've found a way offensively and thank God our power play has been lethal and has won us a lot of games."

But losing 8-0 to Nashville and 8-2 to Columbus one week apart is not acceptable.

"That's pretty concerning," Cleary said. "We played OK against Phoenix on Tuesday night, but to be honest with you, we've got a ways to go defensively before we have a chance. That's just how we feel."

Veteran goalie Chris Osgood still hasn't found his A-game with a month to go before the playoffs. But Cleary said the team believes in him.

"There's no one that's been kicked in the face more than this guy and come out smelling like roses," Cleary said. "You look at his demeanor and confidence, one thing I've learned is to never question Chris Osgood. He'll be the first to tell you this hasn't been his greatest season, but I just think when it comes down to it, he'll be there for us. I love his character and his calmness in tight situations."

The Wings believe they will be ready come playoff time.

"We've got a good team," Cleary said. "And with the addition of [Marian] Hossa, he's going to bring a lot of fire; that's going to be contagious. And we've got good leadership in here and the ability to know what it takes. That's going to help us a lot."

3. Calgary Flames: Mike Cammalleri is frothing at the mouth. OK, we made that up. But the Calgary Flames winger is set to play his first career playoff game in this his sixth NHL season.

He's jacked.

"For me, it's really exciting," Cammalleri said. "I went five years without playoffs. When I first got traded here, I was excited about the group, and as the season has gone on, I've gotten even more excited. I really like this team. I think we've got a lot of intangibles that are going to make us a very competitive team come playoff time. The sky's the limit for this team and I couldn't be more excited about the stretch run."

We recently shared a pop or two with other NHL media types. It's amazing how many of them believed Calgary could very well be the Western representative in the Cup finals. They liked the trade-deadline additions of Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold, and believed Mike Keenan's crew was battle-tested and ready. Mind you, they haven't looked that great since the March 4 deadline, losing three of four.

The Flames are among the league leaders in goals per game and have one of the best penalty-killing units in the NHL, but they're in the middle of the pack on the power play, and that's an area they would like to improve before the playoffs.

"It's definitely something we'd like to pick up a bit," said Cammalleri, who leads the NHL with 17 power-play goals. "Our penalty kill has been exceptional, for the most part, this year. Those guys are going out there blocking shots and doing things that are hard to do. They're doing their job on that side of the special teams. Us power-play guys feel the responsibility to put the puck in the net. Power-play goals can be so important coming down the stretch. Come playoff time, a power-play goal can win you a game or a series."

Jonathan Toews
Jim Prisching/Icon SMIJonathan Toews is helping lead the Hawks to their first postseason appearance since 2002.

4. Chicago Blackhawks: Is there an arena in the NHL that will rock more than the United Center when the puck drops for the start of the playoffs?

"The fans are excited that we're getting close, but we don't want to take anything for granted at this point," said young Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. "There's still some hockey left to play."

Toews, at first, is hesitant to talk about the playoffs; he doesn't want to look past the next game and doesn't want to jinx anything. But with a little prodding, he admitted how excited his team is to get there.

"If we do accomplish our goal and make the playoffs, everyone knows that we have a young, skilled team and there's no limit on how far we can go, I think," Toews said. "The sky's the limit; we can decide our fate."

On paper, what's not to like? The team is top-five in goals for and goals against, has a top-10 power play and a middle-of-the-road PK. The real question with this team is the lack of experience and how these young bucks are going to react when the puck drops in mid-April. Toews could see the question coming from a mile away.

"Maybe that's one of the things that people are skeptical about," Toews said. "They might criticize us for our lack of experience, but we've got guys in our room that have won championships before and know that this is the time of year when you step up your game and work for each other.

"That's what we've done all year. We've got better and better. It's no time to rest now; we just have to keep doing it."

Dark-horse pick: Vancouver Canucks: Two months ago, some people legitimately wondered whether these guys would even make the playoffs. Now, there are some who believe they're going to be the great upset team of the West come playoff time.

That's because the Canucks have gone 12-3-1 since Feb. 1, charging up the standings and seemingly making the fifth seed theirs for good.

"We're really confident with our group," superstar goalie Roberto Luongo told us. "We think we have a great group of guys that can do some damage in the playoffs. We're playing well right now and we're really building ourselves as a good hockey team."

Just don't call them a dark horse. The Canucks believe they can hang with the top four seeds above them.

"Maybe people on the outside view us as a dark horse, but in our locker room, we know we can compete and give these guys a run for their money," Luongo said. "We feel comfortable and confident enough that we can beat them. Once the playoffs come around, it's a whole new ballgame and anything can happen."

Vancouver's special teams need to be sharper heading into the postseason. The Canucks rank near the bottom of the league on the penalty kill and are middle of the pack on the power play. Mind you, a lot of those negative stats were caused when the team struggled so heavily in the middle of the season.

"There was a lot happening in December and January," Luongo said. "Obviously, not only my injury, but other injuries on the team, plus the Mats [Sundin] signing -- a lot of stuff going on. Once everybody got back and everyone was feeling comfortable and playing together as a team, we really started to pick it up and realized that we can beat anybody in this league."

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Bruins: Like fellow top seeds San Jose and Detroit, the Bruins have stumbled a bit lately, playing like the regular season was one month too long.

"We've had a good season up until this point," said Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman. "We're struggling a bit right now, but I think we're all excited and ready to get the playoffs going."

The Bruins are among the top scoring teams in the league and are first overall in goals against. That's usually a good combination. Remaining stingy is a key trait come playoff time.

"As the playoffs approach, it gets harder and harder to score goals," said Wideman, who is a plus-33 and has posted 44 points in 67 games this season for the Bruins. "We've done a good job all year holding teams to a couple of goals here and there. Our goalies have had a great year and our forwards help us out a lot. Our system is really a five-man defensive approach, which takes a lot of pressure off the defensemen's shoulders."

The question mark with this team is less about X's and O's and more about whether they're going to feel that target on their backs as the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2002 (when Boston lost to eighth-seeded Montreal).

Can they handle it?

"Going into the playoffs as one of the top seeds, everyone expects you to make a deep run and that's a lot of pressure," Wideman said. "Hopefully, we've been No. 1 for long enough this year that we've learned to deal with the pressure and find a way to work through it."

[+] EnlargeZach Parise
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesZach Parise has 79 points in 66 games for the Devils this season.
2. New Jersey Devils: Right now, there isn't a better team in the East. Maybe not a better team in the NHL. The Devils are 19-4-0 since Jan. 13, a two-month stretch that has solidified them as Cup contenders.

Throw in the return of future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur and the underrated trade pickup of defenseman Niclas Havelid, and you've got a recipe for possibly a long playoff run.

"We've played well for sure," said veteran Devils forward Brian Rolston. "Scotty Clemmensen played fantastic for us. He's definitely a National Hockey League goalie. But when you get a guy of Marty's caliber back, for some reason, it's just that much more calming on the rest of the team. It's nice to have him back."

The Devils are among the stingiest teams as always and they're also top-10 in goals for. The special teams aren't that great: surprisingly 12th on the PP and 15th on the PK. But it's a team that has consistently been in the win column for two months. They haven't suffered back-to-back losses since Jan. 6-8.

"For the most part, we're running on all cylinders right now," Rolston said. "We have a good mix. We have a lot of depth up front. Our No. 1 line [Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Jamie Langenbrunner) is one of the best in hockey right now. I truly believe that. Those guys have carried a big load of the offense, but we also have other guys who can produce. It's a good time for this organization and I think we're all feeling confident going into the playoffs. The playoffs are tough, but we feel we have a good team."

We don't believe the Devils are quite as deep on defense as some other contenders, although Havelid was a solid addition and Paul Martin remains vastly underrated. The bottom line is, this is a team with very few holes and a great coach in Brent Sutter leading the charge.

3. Washington Capitals: This may not be the best team in the East, but we can guarantee you, it's the most entertaining team in the NHL.

And for that reason alone, we should all be cheering for Bruce Boudreau's run-and-gun Caps to make it to the Stanley Cup finals.

"You look at our talent guys, with Ovie and Alex [Semin] and Nicky [Backstrom] and [Viktor] Kozlov and [Sergei] Fedorov, there's a lot of talent up front," Caps forward Brooks Laich told us. "And you add Mike Green on the back end and that gives you just a whole new element.

"I've always said that our team plays the same way, whether we're up 4-1 or down 4-1, because we've had success playing our system and we haven't seen any reason to change. It comes from Bruce; he's a very offensive guy."

Last season, the Caps were just happy to get into the dance. Now, they want to steal the spotlight. After years of patient rebuilding by GM George McPhee, the Caps are ready to knock at the door.

"For us, it's a very exciting time," Laich said. "Especially for a guy like me, one of the original guys here. The first couple of years, we took our lumps, but we were always told that one day we would wake up and have a very good hockey team. Last year, we started to realize our potential a little bit, and obviously this year, we've taken it to a new level.

"We're curious, we want to see how good we are and we're excited for the playoff run."

We're nitpicking, we know, but we'd like to see a bit of a defensive tightening before the playoffs. The Capitals are in the middle of the pack in goals against and in the bottom third of the league on the PK.

"Last year, I think in the last 20 games of the year heading into the playoffs, I think we were the No. 1 defensive team in the league," Laich said. "That's something we're trying to copy right now. We're trying to tighten up our defensive play. Because when we do play better defensively, making our checks and not giving up any gaps, that translates into offense. Our transition game is where we catch teams a little flat-footed. With our speed and skill, we create a lot of offense off that."

Capitals fans flooded the ESPN.com message board after the trade deadline came and went and McPhee didn't add goaltending help. That's not showing a lot of confidence in Jose Theodore.

"I hear it around here too, and a lot of the criticism towards Jose I think is very unjust," Laich said. "Jose's played fantastic for us since the All-Star break; he's really turned it on. He's adjusted, I think, to life in Washington and whatnot. We have no problems in net; we feel confident in front of him. His record in the playoffs is good. The one thing people don't understand is just how hungry he is. He wants to win; he wants to be the man. And I think we're starting to see that. He's doing it at the right time."

4. Philadelphia Flyers: The pundits differ greatly on this team. Some believe the Flyers are the real deal, others think they're first-round fodder. Put us in the first camp.

"We like our team," Flyers coach John Stevens told us. "I like the fact that we've had our team all year and didn't make any major changes [at the deadline]. We redesigned our defense from last year, and as the year has gone on, they've played really well and we're set up pretty well right now with some size, some puck-movers and some good defenders there.

"We've got a really balanced forward group -- six 20-goal scorers and now we're adding Daniel Briere back to our lineup. We've got enough grit, we believe, that matches up pretty good with teams in the East. Our goaltending is really starting to round into form and Marty is starting to get into the form he was in late last year."

Stevens saved the goaltending for last. That's the area that has so many Flyers fans and media concerned. And yet, while the Flyers are middle of the pack in goals against, they're still ahead of the likes of Detroit, Montreal and Calgary. But in Philly, no one is ever happy with the goaltending, so Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki have heard it all season long.

"You know what? I think in Philadelphia, the goalie thing has always been a big issue," Stevens said. "That might be why we hear more about it.

"We've got solid play from both of our guys. I think people were forever hoping that I would name one guy and he would play 80 percent of the games," Stevens added. "As a coach, we just do what's best to win games as we move through the year. Marty quieted a lot of critics last year with the way he played near the end of the season and into the playoffs."

A young Philadelphia team surprised many of us when it reached the conference finals as a sixth seed. Can the Flyers do it again?

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Penguins are looking to stay in the playoff hunt behind the heroics of MVP front-runner Evgeni Malkin.

"We're a team that had expectations of getting better from last year and I think we've done that," Stevens said. "I think [Jeff] Carter and [Mike] Richards are better players now than they were last year. You look at our young players, people forget we're the sixth or seventh youngest team in the league. A lot of our contributions come from our younger players. But we're much more mature this year. And there's no question we're going to try and improve on what we did last year."

Dark-horse pick: Pittsburgh Penguins: Who knows if the Penguins will even be in the playoffs a month from now, but judging from their play of late, watch out if they are.

They've got "upset special" written all over them. The additions of wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, the return of No. 1 defenseman Sergei Gonchar and new coach Dan Bylsma have the Penguins flying at the right time of year.

The Pens, who are 9-1-1 heading into Thursday's action, could indeed be this season's dark horse in the East.

"I definitely see that," Guerin told us Wednesday. "The Penguins haven't been first or second all year, but they're a young team with experience of going deep into the playoffs. This is a team with a lot of firepower. It's also a team that has got some health back in the lineup.

"The experience part I think will definitely help us with what this team went through it last year. But we have to understand that it just doesn't automatically happen that you get back to the finals. We're going to have to go through the same grind that they went through last year in order to get there, and hopefully we can."

The East is not the West. The reality is, the Eastern Conference is more wide-open for the taking. If the Pens get in, they've got a realistic shot of going deep again.

"Once you get in, anything can happen," Guerin said.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.