We are seeing some great races develop in both conferences as the playoffs approach. It's an exciting time that makes hockey great.
Over the next month, we'll see some great play down the stretch. Let's start with a few teams that already are hitting their stride.
The San Jose Sharks, and Jonathan Cheechoo especially, are a great story. Cheechoo is on pace to reach the 50-goal plateau -- he never has been in this stratosphere before. We have to give a lot of the credit for this to Joe Thornton, who passed Jaromir Jagr for the overall scoring lead earlier in the week. Since the Thornton trade, Cheechoo has become the hottest scorer in the NHL.
Thornton is an elite passer, and Cheechoo knows his job is to get the puck in the net. Cheechoo works his butt off to get into those holes and shoot. Look at any of the great goal scorers in NHL history, they have to have a player who is giving them a puck. Wayne Gretzky had Jari Kurri, Brett Hull had Adam Oates, and Cheechoo has Thornton.
The Sharks have gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and are playing their best hockey of the season, but will it be too late? The team is trying to make a run for a playoff spot in the West (it is five points out).
Another team fighting for a playoff spot, in the East, is the Islanders. New York has won five of its last six games, including a convincing 6-1 win over the Devils. The Isles are five points out of the last spot.
Since the trade deadline, the Islanders have new life. They gave away from some baggage, and younger players like Jeff Tambellini are stepping up. They are not out yet. I don't know whether they'll make the playoffs; to get some help, they need three teams to drop out. One of the reasons for their success is Rick DiPietro. He is a streaky goaltender. One sign of a mature player is consistency, and he has a chance to show everyone that the maturity might be kicking in. DiPietro's performance is giving him and his team more confidence, and it doesn't hurt that the Isles are playing better defense in front of him.
One of the teams in danger of dropping out in front of the Islanders might be the New York Rangers. They've lost six in a row, and Jagr is beat-up and tired. It might be time for coach Tom Renney to give Jagr a few games off because the Czech star is not the same player he was before the Olympic break.
Here's the thing, though: The Rangers are not playing bad hockey right now; they are playing well. But what they are missing is that key play or save at the right time, that big play or save that boosts a team's confidence. That missing piece is a sign of a tired team.
I think the Rangers need to keep the same overall game plan because Renney has his team believing that hard work pays off. And there's the old saying in hockey: The harder you work, the luckier you get. The Rangers just need a little luck.
Edmonton hasn't been too lucky since the trade deadline. This was a team everyone liked at the deadline after it brought in Dwayne Roloson and Sergei Samsonov. But the Oilers have only one win in their last five games, letting many teams back into the Western Conference playoff race.
Some might say Roloson was nervous in his first few games. Look, I've been traded, and it's certainly a shock. But it's those first few games with a new team where you want to show off, to spin off that adrenaline. Look what Thornton did when he first went to San Jose. Trades are just part of the job in hockey.
A team that is paying the price for not making any trade deadline moves is Tampa Bay. That was a mistake. It sent the wrong message to the team, a message that said, "Hey, everything is OK." Everything is not OK. The Lightning haven't played well, and now they've put themselves into a race for the playoffs when it didn't have to be that way. The big guns of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards have been relatively silent, and the Bolts have just two wins in their last eight games.
The Vancouver Canucks went out at the deadline and made major roster changes. Things were looking good, but they've lost five straight games. Now, they've made it an even bigger race in the West. No one could have projected this on March 9.
The top line of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison? I wouldn't call it the top line anymore. The Canucks have gotten everything offensively from the Sedin twins and Anson Carter, and goaltending has not been a problem.
I think if the Canucks can, they'll deal Bertuzzi this summer. He needs a change. Bertuzzi is not the player he once was. I think he is one of the most talented players in the world. When he is not on his game, it hurts Naslund and Morrison.
Marc Crawford needs to split up Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison and give the Canucks three scoring lines instead of one. You have to try something. What comes first: winning or confidence? Right now, the Canucks have neither.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.